Fashion

Australia’s biggest retailer has committed to supporting local fashion designers, as part of a reboot prompted by the global pandemic. But at the retail level, their actions are not matching their ideals. By Lucianne Tonti.

Keeping up with David Jones

Models in the Romance Was Born show at Australian Fashion Week in May.
Credit: Hanna Lassen / WireImage

In August last year, David Jones launched its Home of Australian Fashion campaign, announcing an intention to celebrate local designers.

But after a year disrupted by Covid-19, there are signs the beleaguered department store might have promised more than it can deliver. The campaign came during a period when David Jones reported a $33 million loss, sold its flagship store on Sydney’s Elizabeth Street, and accepted $39 million in JobKeeper subsidies.

The Home of Australian Fashion campaign was announced as part of the international fashion community’s response to Covid-19. In May 2020, the British Fashion Council joined forces with the Council of Fashion Designers of America to write a manifesto that encouraged “brands, designers and retailers, who are used to fashion’s fast, unforgiving pace, to slow down”. The manifesto came after Dries Van Noten, who is stocked by David Jones, fronted a coalition of designers, executives and retailers calling for a realignment of seasonal deliveries, action on sustainability and fewer sale periods. In June last year, Van Noten told Vogue that in-season markdowns were “like a knife in my heart”.

According to Bridget Veals, general manager of womenswear, footwear and accessories at David Jones: “David Jones committed early in the pandemic to a future with reduced discounting in our business and has successfully over the last 12 months reduced the length of our sales and aligned the timing to allow maximum full-price selling.”

But the David Jones Facebook page tells a different story. It lists more than a dozen sale announcements or promotions on fashion products since the beginning of 2021.

With more than 45 stores and an extensive offering of Australian designers, including industry stalwarts Scanlan Theodore, Carla Zampatti and Zimmermann, being stocked by David Jones can be crucial to the growth of young brands.

The department store can give designers a rare opportunity for visibility in the ever-competitive digital marketplace as well as a steady income from sizeable wholesale orders, which can solve cashflow issues that impede expansion. “Our role is to discover and showcase new and emerging talent and grow all brands in a sustainable way,” says Veals.

But their stated goals have not necessarily translated to the kind of support local labels hoped for.

Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales are the creative minds behind Sydney label Romance Was Born, which was stocked by David Jones from 2010 to 2020. Sales describes the relationship as “a rollercoaster ride”. It was a decade in which the department store experienced significant change, with a takeover by South African retail group Woolworths Holdings in 2014.

“At first, it was very supportive of young designers but, when we left, the culture changed to focus on more established brands and they weren’t investing anymore,” Plunkett says. “You kind of get pushed down the food chain. And then the international brands started coming in and you felt like the budgets just weren’t there.”

Giving preferential treatment to international designers is at odds with the central message of the campaign: to celebrate and support the local community of Australian designers and brands. The David Jones refunds policy allows returns on most items for up to 60 days, with exemptions for specific designers whose goods can only be returned within a 30-day period. The exemption list includes some of the biggest luxury fashion houses in the world, such as Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton. Only a handful of Australian designers have made it onto this list.

For smaller labels, the 60-day return policy can be a huge financial liability, as after 30 days it is unlikely they will be able to sell the item at full price. Veals says this exception for the big names is because David Jones makes an “exception to align with some global brands to respect their policy”.

Prime positioning on the floor, too, is often given to international luxury brands. Romance Was Born’s Plunkett says they were “constantly getting moved around the floor and adjacent to brands that didn’t feel like us or shoved into a corner behind something with no signage and the wrong labelling”.

Sales describes a time he visited the Elizabeth Street store: “I went there to talk about our positioning on the floor and there was a kebab wrapper underneath our stand. I had to wait an hour to talk to the floor manager and when she arrived the wrapper was still there.”

In 2009, Romance Was Born received the National Designer Award, a program designed to nurture and promote local talent. David Jones has been a partner in the award for the past five years.

Melbourne-based designer Christian Kimber won the award in 2019 but declined to fulfil the order that David Jones placed with his brand. Even so, he says winning the award was “a turning point for our business. It gave us a new level of credibility on an international scale and enabled us to develop our brand platform a lot faster than we otherwise would have been able to.”

Plunkett describes Kimber as “really smart” for refusing to let David Jones stock his label, and suggests designers looking to partner with David Jones make sure they “have the infrastructure to deal with them and understand the business and their contract, margins and returns”.

Often larger retailers will work with a policy known as sale or return, which means a designer must take back stock ordered by the retailer if it doesn’t sell and exchange it for new styles or owe the department store a credit. In the case of a business the size of David Jones, this could mean hundreds of units. Veals refused to confirm if David Jones works with these terms, citing commercial in confidence, but Sales says that, “towards the end we started to do a few things like swap[ping] some stock; it felt like it was a sinking ship”.

Sale or return is a symptom of overproduction, something experts consider one of the biggest barriers to a sustainable fashion industry. In the “Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2019 Update”, which evaluates the global fashion industry’s environmental and social performance, analysts warned that “fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry”.

Overproduction is the result of an industry-wide obsession with constant growth and goes hand in hand with oversupply, excess stock and a seemingly never-ending discount cycle. When new season stock is reduced so close to delivery, it undercuts the ability of designers to sell garments through their own retail stores or websites and affects smaller boutiques already operating with slim margins.

Harriet Sutherland is the buyer and business manager at the Brisbane boutique Camargue, which stocks several designers carried by David Jones, including Romance Was Born and Dries Van Noten. “The biggest thing that affects small retailers like Camargue is the sale cycle,” she says. “We used to only do our sales in July and January but when we started doing online – if you want to compete with bigger players in Australia – you have to adapt to the sales cycle. We’re still accepting new collections in May or April and people start going on sale in June and it doesn’t make sense.”

Despite the economic woes of Covid-19, Sutherland says Camargue has continued to thrive by building relationships with the local community through a continued focus on customer service. She says support has been overwhelming and they’ve tried to see the pandemic as an opportunity to build something special. “We’re not going to be travelling any time soon so you have to think, how can you make the most of where you are now? How can you support the local businesses around you to maintain culture and stay inspired?” she says.

Veals believes “the in-store experience remains at the heart of David Jones”. She describes the store as a place “where we are constantly innovating to offer unique and bespoke experiences”. Which is promising, especially considering industry experts predict customer experience will be the future of bricks-and-mortar retail and that Australia has been one of the few places to have successfully limited the spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic.

But the broader question remains: will Australian retailers such as David Jones be in a position to support smaller, local labels and lead the industry towards a more sustainable model of business, or will they continue to over-order and constantly discount collections?

The cycle is hard to break, Plunkett says: “It’s like they’ve created their own mindset for consumer shopping, they’re so used to coming back for that sale so quickly, why would you buy anything at full price?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 19, 2021 as "Keeping up with the Jones".

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Lucianne Tonti is a writer based in Melbourne.