Building the reputation of Australian designers overseas poses tantalising challenges for the local industry’s prospective governing body. By Alyx Gorman.

The Australian Fashion Chamber’s global mission

Designs from the Australian Fashion Chamber’s assault on Paris included works by Romance Was Born.
Designs from the Australian Fashion Chamber’s assault on Paris included works by Romance Was Born.

In Paris, “Australian fashion” is a phrase with little meaning. There are hunches: it must be beachy, laid-back, swimwear focused. Designers who habitually sell in Paris such as Akira, Dion Lee and Kym Ellery offer hints at something more. But for plenty, the idea that an Australian fashion industry exists at all has never come to mind.

The Australian Fashion Chamber is on a mission to change that wisp of an impression. This month, they arrived in fashion’s global capital, on the final leg of fashion week, to spread the word. One word especially: sophistication. “Sophisticated and innovative” is the view of Australia the AFC hopes to imprint upon the global fashion market. Specifically, the Australian Fashion Chamber would like Australian fashion to be seen similarly to Cate Blanchett: versatile, more than talented enough to be taken seriously, but still commercially viable. 

The success of Australians in the film industry comes up often at the AFC. The chamber’s general manager Courtney Miller mentions Screen Australia when she talks about her goals for the organisation. “One of the questions I asked when I took on this job is, ‘Why doesn’t this exist already?’ ” she says of the fledgling non-profit. “Most industries have good industry bodies.”

Now in its second year, the AFC aims to become Australian fashion’s governing body. Rising above the factions of a small industry is not an easy task. Founded by Vogue Australia editor-in-chief Edwina McCann, the AFC strove for magazine neutrality with the appointment of Harper’s Bazaar Australia editor Kellie Hush to its board as deputy chairwoman, while both public and private tertiary institutions have board representation: RMIT’s deputy head of fashion and textiles Karen Webster, and Whitehouse Institute of Design’s managing director Leanne Whitehouse are both executive directors. 

“The AFC sees itself as a body that can be quite neutral, and help make the industry a little more strategic,” says Miller. 

In circumventing fashion politics, the AFC attracted the attention of federal politics. The organisation’s legitimacy was cemented on August 31, when McCann and Julie Bishop signed a memorandum of understanding between the AFC and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In a speech that touched upon points reiterated by Malcolm Turnbull in his first speech as prime minister two weeks later, Bishop said the success of the Australian fashion industry is vital to Australia’s positioning as a modern economy, where “creativity not coal” is seen as the country’s greatest resource. Along with the memorandum came a $50,000 grant to help support the AFC’s Australian Designers Abroad program. 

Which is how the AFC came to bring seven Australian labels – Bassike, Romance Was Born, Ginger & Smart, Strateas.Carlucci, Camilla and Marc, Christopher Esber and Michael Lo Sordo – to Paris, with the aim that they would sell not just their clothes, but the idea of Australian sophistication more broadly. “What’s good for the Australian fashion industry is good for Australia,” said Australian ambassador to France Stephen Brady in a welcome speech on October 2. 

There’s a strong precedent of country-specific showrooms run by neutral industry bodies at Paris Fashion Week. The most successful examples are those run by the British Fashion Council, whose patronage is credited for the rise of ultra-creative London designers such as Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which has propelled the careers of Proenza Schouler and Phillip Lim. 

It was perhaps fortuitous then that 3.1 Phillip Lim’s Paris showroom shared a courtyard with the AFC’s space, tucked behind a heavy wooden door and up a flight of stairs in Paris’s oldest planned square, Place des Vosges. 

Spread across four rooms, with parquetry floors and soaring ceilings in true Parisian style, the AFC’s chosen designers spent four days showing international buyers and journalists through their forthcoming collections. 

Ginger & Smart, whose business in Australia is extremely established with three boutiques and 60 wholesale stockists, surprised buyers with their polished aesthetic. Many of the buyers that came through were “pleasantly surprised to see that there are quite dressed pieces here”, says the label’s co-founder Genevieve Smart.

The collection they showed was in no way a departure from the Ginger & Smart Australians recognise. Inspired by “light and shadow”, it featured long, lean silhouettes suited to formal workplaces and cocktail hours, with custom-developed, textural fabrics as a highlight. “We wanted to present the best version of ourselves,” Smart suggested. 

It was once rare for Australian labels to use custom-made textiles. But, aside from their national identity, working with mills to produce brand-exclusive fabrics was one of the only things all of the labels in the AFC showroom had in common. Having one’s own fabrics is also one of the most essential components in forging a unique identity for a fashion brand. 

Christopher Esber’s collection also included outsized coloured buttons developed using ink injected into resin. “We wanted something that looked organic but manufactured. We started working on them before we did anything else,” he said. Esber’s sensibility can be quite esoteric, with clothes cut more to tell a story (outsized frills that roll like mountains, for instance) than to flatter the body. By asserting his dedication to craft through custom-developed lace inserts in complex ripple shapes, Esber made the case that those who consider “interesting” the ultimate in luxury should be looking his way.

Equally niche, but speaking to a very different woman, Romance Was Born – which shared a room with Esber – used Paris as a chance to debut their first foray into custom textiles, including knitwear. Their collection was created in collaboration with Melbourne artist Jess Johnson, and her interdimensional alien figures were everywhere, from tessellating naked bodies woven into a mesmerising brocade, to a catfish face in three dimensions, its whiskers protruding as strands of beading. Without knowledge of Johnson’s work the collection could simply be interpreted as a gloriously mad cacophony of colour and texture. “We’re trying not to confuse our customer,” Romance Was Born’s co-founder Luke Sales said. 

Aside from new textiles, Romance Was Born’s biggest innovation was in their approach to silhouette. Stripped of psychedelic motifs, the collection would remain a set of flattering, ’70s-inspired shapes, generous enough to look dashing on women well past their middle years. “Yesterday three different people told us our stuff would be very suited to the Middle East,” Sales told The Saturday Paper on the showroom’s second day. “That had never occurred to us.” 

After the showroom had wrapped up, Edwina McCann observed that for labels such as Ginger & Smart and Romance Was Born, which had never shown in Paris before, the exercise was as much about education as meeting press and potential stockists. “What you realise when you curate a number of designers in a shared space is that all of them will be in different stages … Romance Was Born was discovered by new buyers, whereas Michael Lo Sordo and Christopher Esber were able to write more orders and grow their business … In terms of an initial curation, and showing the diversity of our designers, that was a very important message.”

Overall, McCann was pleased with the mix of designers presented, although she says “next year the selection process will be even more rigorous”. 

Paris Fashion Week is not an event built on first impressions. “One of the biggest criticisms we’ve heard from buyers is that they’ll really choose to back an Australian label and buy it, and then the next season … [the designer doesn’t] come to Paris. So the buyer can’t see the collection.” 

This is the AFC’s next challenge – to show that Australian designers are not just sophisticated creatively, but in their approach to business. An ability to cultivate relationships with textile mills and custom make fabrics is part of that story. But consistent presence is even more important. Given the current political climate is far keener to support creativity with a commercial imperative than art for art’s sake, the pressure is even greater. If “Australian fashion” is to mean anything in Paris, then it has to be on display season after season.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2015 as "Style council".

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