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Why More Australian Designers Are Showing at New York Fashion Week

Look at the calendar for New York Fashion Week this season, and you may notice that not only are there plenty of new names at Lincoln Center and Milk Studios, but that many of those new names hail, curiously enough, from Australia.

Look at the calendar for New York Fashion Week this season, and you may notice that not only are there plenty of new names at Lincoln Center and Milk Studios, but that many of those new names hail, curiously enough, from Australia.

Historically, Australian designers have built cult followings in Australia and then expanded internationally, sometimes to Asia but more often to London, says Samantha Aldenton, assistant editor of womenswear at trend forecasting WGSN (and herself an Australian). "It's a similar market to Australia," Aldenton says of London's popularity with Australian designers. "Londoners are kind of kooky with their style, willing to take a risk with what they wear."

But lately, many of those designers are heading to New York instead. Zimmermann, known for its sophisticated swim and resort wear, staged its first New York Fashion Week show in September, and is back for a second round at Lincoln Center on Monday morning. As is veteran label Sass & Bide, which is returning to New York for a second consecutive season after having shown in London for five years.

New York is attracting younger Australian talent too. Both Dion Lee, who is making an early mark with his futuristic sportswear and catchy prints, and Tome, with its soft, sculptural separates, will be showing for the first time this week at Milk Studios and Lincoln Center, respectively. And luxury-PR-turned-designer Rebecca Vallance (whose aesthetic we'd describe as an ultra-feminine cross between Diane von Furstenberg and Tory Burch) is making her New York debut at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week's West 58th Street venue.

Why They're Moving

Why the semi-sudden rush to New York? For most designers, it's simply part of a larger business strategy -- a way of putting some marketing muscle behind, say, a string of U.S. store openings, or to get more attention from U.S. buyers.

After doing small presentations in New York for several years, Zimmermann decided to upgrade to a runway show at Lincoln Center to support its growing store presence in the U.S. The label, which counts the U.S. as its largest market outside of Australia, now has one store in Los Angeles, one in New York's SoHo district and is opening a third in the Hamptons shortly, with plans to open more stores in New York in the near future.

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"It's a marketing investment," Zimmermann designer and co-founder Nicky Zimmerman, says. "Having our own store here warrants doing the show. It's really important for showing creatively what your brand is about, to make people understand your aesthetic. And it's also a selling tool. The garments we have in a show sell really well."

Similarly, Sass & Bide designer and co-founder Sarah-Jane Clarke says the label decided to begin showing again in New York at the same time it began scoping out locations for its own retail stores in the U.S. "It just felt right to open a boutique [in New York] and also show in the same market," Clarke says, noting that Sass & Bide decided to show in London for five years prior to returning to New York because UK buyers were, at the time, more supportive than buyers in the U.S. Now, the U.S. is a larger market for the company, which she attributes to strategic partners like PR firm Starworks Group (which also represents Zimmermann).

It's interesting that Zimmermann and Sass & Bide -- and Rebecca Vallance, whom we also spoke to -- are all seeing a proportionate uptick in U.S. sales at the same time. WGSN's Aldenton says that part of the reason Australian designers are pushing harder in New York is because the market back home has become more competitive. "With e-commerce taking off over the last few years with retailers like Shopbop and Asos, it's much easier for Australians to buy from less expensive [and a greater variety of] international designers. Australian talent is not as alluring as it once was before now that [international] designers who were once hard to find in Australia are now easy."

The availability of E3 visas -- a renewable, two-year visa available only to Australians as of 2006 -- is also making it easier for Australians to work in New York. Designer Rebecca Vallance thinks it has to do more broadly with the U.S. economy, which (in her view) is having a better recovery than Australia and Europe, making for a more favorable buying environment. Others say that U.S. buyers have simply become more enthusiastic about their individual aesthetics, and the aesthetic of Australian designers more generally.

Overcoming Seasonal Differences

All of the designers we spoke to said that creating clothes that will work both in Australia and in global markets is the biggest challenge of expanding internationally, since it's winter in Australia, for example, when it's summer in New York. Designers like Dion Lee and Zimmermann focus, therefore, on producing "trans-seasonal" collections.

"We sell dresses in Australia and in New York all year round," Zimmermann says, adding that the brand also merchandises its U.S. and Australia stores differently, and stocks seasonal items, like coats, at slightly different times. Aldenton points out that while Australian brands, especially those that show in New York, tend to produce trans-seasonal collections, many American and European designers are moving that way as their businesses become more global.

Will we see more Australian designers in New York Fashion Weeks to come? With more store openings in the works, a receptive U.S. buying audience and the success that's been had by the Australian designers showing the past few seasons in New York, we're betting on it.