IIt’s unlikely the Royal Botanic Gardens, Cranbourne will ever see something quite like it again: a group of models, dressed in designer clothes, stroll through its beautifully designed Australian garden. Dressed in suits and robes, many walk barefoot through waterholes and gray concrete.
The models are there to shoot a digital show, a partnership between Australian Made and Melbourne Fashion Festival. Every garment featured in the film is made in Australia and licensed to bear the Australian Made logo: the familiar green triangle with its yellow kangaroo.
The runway is designed to elevate Australian designers to the global market and, when it launches on March 9, consumers in the UK and America will be able to shop there. But the sourcing of product for the film revealed the limits of Australia’s manufacturing capacity. For example, shoes – or lack thereof.
The film’s stylist, Emily Ward, describes it as difficult to find shoes that meet Australian-made requirements. “I kind of walked the line exploring some brands…and then we realized they weren’t actually made here, so we had to move on.”
She opted for two brands that manufacture their products locally, Nelson Made and Alias Mae. But even then, some styles did not meet Australian manufacturing requirements.
To use the Australian Made logo, an item must pass the “substantial transformation” test. According to Ben Lazzaro, general manager of the company, this means “here, you have to cut and sew”.
If you take the example of a shirt, he says, “as long as you cut this material here, sew and form a shirt here, you can legally make a ‘made in Australia’ claim”, even if the fabric has been imported.
The reason it was more difficult for Ward to find shoes is that often the leather for shoes is imported pre-cut. The shoes she sourced for the show were from designers, “making shoes by hand on a smaller scale, which are not on the mass market.”
“RM Williams used to be made locally in Australia,” she says, as are other more established brands. But “they are no longer 100% Australian made”, although last year the owners of RM Williams suggested they might come back to 100% local production.
The parade featured nine Australian labels, including Bianca Spender and Viktoria and Woods, two brands that have been manufacturing locally since their inception. Margie Woods, creative director of Viktoria and Woods, described the campaign as “a really important and positive step” for brands making the effort to manufacture here. “It’s much easier to go abroad.”
Woods describes the challenges of manufacturing in Australia as multi-faceted. She says the most common is the cost of labor; another is “a pretty big skills shortage here.” Finally, the lack of advanced machinery and technology means that certain categories like outerwear, denim, leather and intricate knitwear are particularly difficult to manufacture locally.
Woods recently invested $130,000 in a knitting machine to support one of its designers. She says the purchase, which is significant for an independent designer, “will allow us to produce an additional 4,000 garments in Australia per year”.
Mary Lou Ryan, co-founder of Bassike – another brand committed to local manufacturing – says Australia has fallen behind. “There hasn’t really been a) the government infrastructure and support and b)… Australian brand support to support the industry either.”
Ryan suggests that government funding for technology and automated machinery, returning skills through higher education and business programs and increased support for immigration could help Australia catch up.
Subsidies, skilled migration visas and technology investments are suggestions echoed by Woods, who says “that at the government level, something can be done…to keep local manufacturing alive.”
Australian brands, on the other hand, need to show commitment and continuity, says Ryan. If brands arrive and try for six months, “then find it too hard and go back abroad… things won’t move forward”.
Bianca Spender says designers need to be aware of the fragility of manufacturing companies. “Designers can devastate manufacturers,” she says. Things like late payments, asking for a lot of work on the season then nothing the next day and a lack of commitment “can leave them out of pocket very quickly”.
Lazzaro is aware of the manufacturing issues facing the fashion industry, but explains that it is not Australian Made’s role to get involved. “We are not a lobby or advocacy group,” he says, “we are a licensing and marketing group.”
The Australian Fashion Council (AFC) has taken a different approach. In 2020, they approached the then Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, and asked for support to increase demand for all Australian fashion, whether or not it was produced here. .
Leila Naja Hibri, Managing Director of AFC, says, “If we only look at manufacturing and manufacturing, you’re really regressing because we’re not thinking about soft skills. Australians are amazing when it comes to product design and development.
“We definitely want Australian products made here,” she says. But with much of the industry manufacturing overseas, she believes the path to healthy local manufacturing is through standing up for all Australian fashion companies.
The result of this lobbying was a $1 million grant from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources to create a certified Australian fashion brand that can be licensed by brands. The brand is due to launch at the end of March and has different criteria than Australian Made’s ‘substantial transformation’ requirement.
According to Naja Hibri, it will look at things like ownership, whether most of a brand’s workforce is in Australia and whether the brand pays taxes here.
Naja Hibri says only increasing demand for Australian fashion more broadly “will give brands the fiscal space to be able to grow”. At this point, they can “work on projects to train workers, hire the right people, and manufacture locally.”