Fashion forward: designed locally, worn globally

Alex West and Ashley Casey hope their MBA project will help to show Australian fashion designers to the world. Photo by Damien Pleming

Alex West and Ashley Casey hope their MBA project will help to show Australian fashion designers to the world. Photo by Damien Pleming

In summary: 
  • Australia’s fashion industry, like many others, has the dual challenges of disruption and fierce competition in a sophisticated global market.
  • The Australian Fashion Chamber worked with postgraduate students at UTS Business School to devise strategies to boost the profile of local designers.

Fashion is a $12 billion industry in Australia, employing 220,000 people. The local industry has been described by Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop – a very public champion of local designers – as one of the best in the world and a key to a new “creative economy” in Australia.

“We have a fashion industry of which any country ought be proud,” she told the launch of a new government-industry initiative to promote local designers internationally.

Some people still believe Australia’s economic strength lies only in mining, resources, energy and agriculture, she said, but creative talent underpins our economic growth. “There is nothing ‘soft’ about our fashion industry in terms of the power it adds to our economy.”

Australia combines “world-class fashion expertise, wonderful creative talent and high-quality resources”, and together these should give us a competitive edge, Australian Fashion Chamber (AFC) chair Edwina McCann told the same event at the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, home of UTS Business School.

But the fashion industry faces challenges. Observers point to the decline of the local manufacturing sector, the penetration of online and international fashion retailers here, and the profit-sapping effects of an “always on sale” retail culture.

“Fast fashion”– the rapid conversion of high-end catwalk trends into inexpensive, mass-market products – also undercuts designer businesses. And, of course, Australian designers face the challenge of being in the reverse season to the northern hemisphere.

“Fashion is a genuinely significant industry,” says AFC General Manager Courtney Miller, “but it’s also an industry that’s undergoing some structural disruption and needs to compete globally.”

While developing a strategy to address such challenges, the AFC enlisted the help of a group of postgraduate candidates at UTS Business School. In the MBA subject Entrepreneurial Integrated Practice (EIP), students are assigned real problems to tackle for real clients, working in teams on intensive, live consulting projects. [See breakout box]

The research question for the students consulting to the AFC was how best to differentiate Australian designers internationally. “The global fashion industry is so developed. The question was how to position Australia on a platform that would allow it to compete with these, historically, very developed industries,” says student Alex West, who was part of the AFC project team.

A view had been forming that Australia might do well marketing itself as the home of a particular style of fashion – just as haute couture is Parisienne, London has a reputation for ‘quirky’, Milan is menswear, and the US ‘owns’ sportswear.

That in turn raised questions about Australian Fashion Week, held in Sydney each April.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Fashion Chamber chair Edwina McCann with models. Photo by Damien Pleming Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Australian Fashion Chamber chair Edwina McCann with models. Photo by Damien Pleming

“One of the things our designers have to confront is that they have to compete internationally, not just in their own market,” says Miller of the AFC. “To be viable, and have an industry that thrives, they need to be able to step up internationally.”

The students’ input firmed up a plan where Australian designers would focus on what is known in the industry as resort or cruise wear – the clothes you’d take on holiday – with the timing of Fashion Week moved to suit the trade buyers’ calendar for this segment.

“It’s a question that’s been bouncing around in people’s minds for a while,” says Miller. “What the students did was bring it all together – the project built quite a strong case and gave us the international perspective we needed.”

Among other things, the students looked at where and how people are spending their fashion dollars, and where Australia fits alongside fashion capitals such as Paris as well as emerging competitors in Latin America and Asia.

The AFC envisages Mercedes-Benz Australian Fashion Week as the first fashion week in the world to do Resort each year, hopefully giving buyers for big names like Saks Fifth Avenue in New York a reason to travel half way around the world

“Chanel, Dior, those kinds of big brands will do individual shows that are resort, taking journalists to a beautiful location for an amazing show. But there is no actual Fashion Week where there are multiple designers doing Resort,” says Miller.

Leading designer Alexandra Smart, of Ginger+Smart, says: “Australian designers are talented at designing for resort collections, because we love colour, we love print, we love light. It’s a great opportunity for Australian designers to market to the rest of the world when we are not facing the challenge of reverse seasons [our summer being the northern winter, for instance].”

Of course, not every Australian designer has a focus on Resort, but buyers – and media – lured here by that specialty would be a captive audience for local brands generally.

An important part of the equation would be moving Fashion Week from April out to May, from 2017. “Moving it a little bit later means it will coincide with the global fashion calendar for when Resort is sold,” says Smart, who sat on an Advisory Panel that reviewed the work of the student consulting team. “The event then becomes a proper trade show – that is, one where commerce will be done.

“This is game changing for the industry, it’s game changing for businesses like ours, because it allows a ‘third’ season to be profitable,” she says.

The MBA students estimate it could be a $1 billion growth opportunity, if designers take up the cruise challenge and there is a 10 per cent yearly increase in the number of trade buyers coming to Australia each year.

West says, having worked on the project, it will be interesting to see how the industry evolves over the five to 10 years.

Casey says it was both challenging and exciting to work on such a project, “knowing that all the research and analysis and strategy was something that could be used. There was nothing that wasn’t ‘real’ about that.”

Perhaps the greatest insight from the project was that the perceived weaknesses of the Australian industry were also it strengths, she says.

“We have the disadvantage of our seasons not being in sync with the northern hemisphere, but that actually works as an advantage because we are the country known for the endless summer,” she says. “Not being one of the historic fashion capitals is a weakness but also our strength, because our proximity to emerging markets is a really valuable thing.

“All those weaknesses, they were what we were able to build on.”

ON THE CASE

Real clients with real challenges are the focus of subjects like Entrepreneurial Integrated Practice (EIP) and Integrated Business Consulting (IBC), in the MBA and Executive MBA programs respectively.

Rather than poring over case studies from textbooks, students take part in practical, “experiential” learning, says UTS Business School’s Associate Dean, Business Practice and External Engagement, Associate Professor James Hutchin.

Students are formed into small teams, supervised by a Project Executive who is either a Business School academic with industry experience or a senior business executive from industry. Parambir Sandhu, a Design and Innovation Consultant at PwC (who herself completed the IBC subject) was Project Executive on the Australian Fashion Council project, for example.

In addition, an Advisory Council made up of senior business people volunteer their time to review the work done by the students before it goes to the client. In the AFC project, the panel included designer Alexandra Smart of label Ginger+Smart.

“Many business schools have a focus on applied learning,” says Dr Paul Thambar, who works with the EIP students. “Our program is different as our focus is on a ‘live’ experience. The interaction with clients and industry project executives provides students with a practical learning experience that cannot be replicated by using a case study.”