Afterpay Australian Fashion Week wrapped up in Sydney last week, and even as Covid-19 cases spiked around the world, the annual event signaled a hopeful rebound from pandemic-related setbacks.
One year ago, it looked as if Australia's fashion industry had weathered the pandemic better than just about any other country's: In June 2021, Sydney became one of the first cities to hold an in-person fashion week since the virus first tore through the globe in 2020. But just a couple of weeks later, a Delta outbreak pushed New South Wales back into full lockdown; without warning, stores were forced to close for more than four months — a tough blow to designers reliant on local bricks and mortar, not to mention their employees.
"Our amazing teams in stores have had to deal with immediate closures, instability in the market, a slow return to physical retail and customer service challenges, when customers were sometimes as frustrated as our teams were," writes Sophie Holt, creative director of Oroton, in an email. Founded in 1938, Oroton is Australia's oldest luxury fashion company; it was in the midst of a critical brand overhaul when the pandemic hit.
As in the U.S. and other markets, Australian brands' stability during and "after" the pandemic has depended on their individual business models and ability to adapt quickly.
"We have many different channels and revenue streams, which is helpful," explains Edwina Forest, co-founder of Aje. Launched in 2008, the sustainably-minded womenswear brand operates nine stores in New South Wales alone. Fortunately, its international wholesale business was in a good place, and Aje was able to shift its resources and invest in its e-commerce (which now serves 77 countries) and ramp up other digital efforts — a pivot now familiar to fashion companies around the world. Like many others, Aje also launched a mid-pandemic activewear line, Aje Athletica, to serve customers who weren't necessarily looking for puff-sleeve dresses at the time.
"Our whole retail empire shut down, but we were still able to make a profit online," says Forrest. Co-founder Adrian Norris adds: "COVID was definitely a shock to the system for everyone. But I feel like a lot of people, especially in our industry, were lucky in that it forced them to think about the ways that they were talking to their customers and selling; some people and some brands, like ours, really flourished."
Bondi Born, an up-and-coming swimwear brand that's less established than Aje, also fared well. In its case, being small with fewer retail channels was a plus.
"Most of our retail retailers are online, like the Net-a-Porters and Moda [Operandi]s, and they continued to do well," shares co-founder Dale McCarthy. "We lost orders from department stores and resorts, but for both summers, Australians could travel. So we did extremely well within Australia."
Bondi Born's biggest setback was the disruption to its supply chain — an issue affecting brands across the globe, though Australia is uniquely challenged by its extreme physical distance from most other countries.
"Our swim fabrics are engineered in Italy. Normally, it takes six weeks from when we order to when they deliver; now it's six months," laments McCarthy. As a result, the brand was unable to restock its bestsellers during the last crucial holiday season. But it's moving on, having already ordered its Italian swim fabrics for next year. For new resortwear pieces, it began sourcing cupro, a plant-based silk alternative, from Japan.
"They don't seem to have the same supply chain issues," shares McCarthy, who notes that shipping costs have gotten "horrific" as well. "But we're not the only brand going through this."
While money may not be growing from any of the country's famously varied and abundant flora, it seems that pandemic support hasn't been as difficult to come by as it was in some other parts of the world. In response to lockdowns, the Australian government reliably provided subsidies to affected small businesses, to mitigate lost income and jobs. It also began making investments that target the fashion industry specifically, including allocating AU$500 million ($380 million USD) in 2021 to turn Sydney's Powerhouse Museum into a fashion and design hub; the venue hosted its first runway show during this year's fashion week.
Also in 2021, the government spent AU$1 million ($753,000 USD) to establish an official "Made in Australia" trademark intended to encourage local manufacturing, which has dwindled thanks to cheaper options overseas — despite the country's reputation for sustainable, ethical business practices.
A survey commissioned last year by the Australian Fashion Council (their CFDA) found that the country's fashion industry contributed $27.2 billion to the Australian economy and generated $7.2 billion in exports. In response, it seems as if the government has taken fashion more seriously as an opportunity for economic growth. Still, there are many facets of the industry left untouched by these (so far) largely public-facing initiatives.
While those with retail stores were grateful for pandemic-related subsidies (which were also given to restaurants and other businesses), the designers I spoke with couldn't share any other concrete ways in which their businesses had benefited from government support. That said, Destination New South Wales, a government tourism agency, is one of Australian Fashion Week's biggest underwriters, and has been for the last 12 years, according to Natalie Xenita, managing director for IMG Fashion Events and Properties, Asia Pacific, which organizes the event. As far as sponsors go, Afterpay's involvement, which began in 2021, has allowed for many of the event's recent improvements and updates.
"It's actually become a lot better since Afterpay started to be the sponsor," McCarthy observes. "They've invested a lot more money."
Those Afterpay funds, for instance, have allowed IMG to waive designer participation fees for the last two years. "It has been so important for us to still continue to waive those designer participation fees again this year because I think that the recovery of the industry from the pandemic is actually going to take a lot longer than we initially anticipated," notes Xenita.
Another new source of money: consumers. In addition to creating special programming, IMG and Afterpay sold tickets to select runway shows this year, sitting customers alongside media and buyers for the first time. Participating designers received 50% of those ticket sales; most, if not all of the allocated tickets were sold, according to Xenita.
While it didn't seem to hinder consumer interest in the event, another hot topic of discussion between shows was the Australian designers conspicuously absent from AAFW, including breakout stars like Christopher Esber, Ellery and Dion Lee, who helped put Australia on the map as a wellspring of emerging fashion talent.
"There weren't as many big designers on the schedule this year, and I think that's a bit sad," shares Aje's Norris, without naming names. "I think that we've got to support our industry. And we were very adamant that we were going to come back on schedule and show up. We knew that we were going to make beautiful stuff that was going to get attention, and that's what our industry needs. It doesn't need more people disappearing and not showing."
For a secondary market like Australia (an expensive 15-20 hour trip from Europe and the States) that doesn't receive the same level of international attention as the "big four" fashion weeks, having the right mix of established and emerging brands is important for igniting interest — especially after a pandemic that hindered international growth for many.
"That's a really careful recipe that we follow for the event, because having Aje, for example, and Romance Was Born — those big, established brands that have international notoriety — is so important to drive interest in the event that then gets the emerging designers noticed," explains Xenita. "I think the emerging designers are also a really important feature of the event because, from a media perspective, everyone wants to discover the next big thing."
There's just always a risk that the next big thing might decamp for a bigger, more easily accessible pond like New York or Paris. Of course, it's tough to fault a brand for pursuing whatever path they believe has the strongest ROI, especially when resources are limited.
Where this year's AAFW did make progress (and headlines) was inclusivity, with the debut of two new group shows: one for designers catering to plus sizes, and another for designers focused on adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. The obvious criticism here is that true inclusivity would be all designers incorporating designs for these underserved groups into their collections. To be fair, casting was noticeably diverse throughout the week — more than ever before, according to Xenita.
This was also the second year of AAFW's Indigenous Fashion Projects and First Nations Fashion and Design group shows, featuring designers belonging to groups whose presence in Australia predates British colonization. Throughout the week, several brands also incorporated brief tributes to these groups, who continue to face discrimination and suffer from the destructive effects of colonization.
Asked if these initiatives stemmed from broader conversations happening within Australia (similar to those in the states regarding systemic racism), Xenita says, "I think we definitely use the event as a catalyst for culture."
She sees these dedicated events as stepping stones towards more universal inclusivity, drawing parallels to Australia's longstanding Next Gen program, a group show that serves as a launchpad for new designers. Designers often go on to stage their own standalone runway shows after participating.
"I'd like to see our first standalone First Nations designer show next year," she says when I ask about IMG's goals for AAFW. "I'd love to see that also spread to the Adaptive Clothing Collective showcase, and have our first standalone adaptive fashion show; same for the Curve Edit. I think that would be a really great reflection on the consumer demand for those categories as well."
Perhaps it's this mix of commercial awareness, cultural substance and raw artistic talent that will ultimately come to define this very remote, very unique annual event as it fully rebounds from the pandemic and comes into its own.
Disclosure: IMG provided travel and accommodations for me to attend and cover Afterpay Australian Fashion Week.