By HARRIET ARMSTRONG:
Due to the rise and popularity of high-end clothing made in the eastern world with countries like China and Vietnam opening new factories almost daily, clothing made in a Western country is becoming increasingly uncommon. Harriet Armstrong investigates the perils, challenges and history behind clothing made and manufactured in Australia and despite the challenges, why these designers are here to stay.
In 1965 in a small studio in Sydney, a young woman in her early 20’s sits watching as her boss, a clothing manufacturer weaves together a pattern at his small studio in Sydney’s Surry Hills. As the man’s assistant, the young woman shows promising talent and an understanding of the manufacture of a garment beyond her young age. Fast-forward almost fifty years later and it is these groundbreaking and defining memories that shape the current legacy and labels of one of Australia’s longest standing designers, Carla Zampatti. Zampatti launched her eponymous label in 1965, producing a small limited edition of carefully constructed and Australian made garments to a small customer base. Zampatti remains a rare staple in the Australian fashion industry as one of the few designers still producing and manufacturing garments in the western world.
This fact is sadly becoming a rarity for clothing designers hailing from countries such as Australia. The increasing growth and impact of the production of clothing made in eastern countries such as China, Bangladesh and Thailand has greatly impacted the fashion environment of the western world. With cheaper labor costs, greater fabric and material choices, minimum wages and an abundance of hard working workers, it’s easy to see why so many designers are taking their business overseas and choosing to produce in typically eastern countries. However are these changes really for the better?
In the 1980’s over 200,00 people formed the backbone of the textile and garment industry in Australia. Now in more recent times that figure has been cut back to a mere 4,400 persons that make up the clothing, textile and footwear businesses that manufacture directly in Australia, according to the 2009 Australian Bureau of statistics figures. It is easy to see why these numbers are so small, in just a couple of years the fashion industry has seen the door close on several high profile Australian brands and designers. In the past year alone homegrown designers that previously manufactured their garments in Australia, such as Kirrily Johnston, Bettina Liano and Lisa Ho have all seen their namesake labels diminish before their eyes. The end of these labels has not only signified the narrowing of the marketplace for high end Australian produced labels but has meant job cuts, job loss and career changes for hundreds of their employee’s from retail workers to head designers.
One of those impacted by these changes is Xanthe Reynolds 24, who used to work in the head office of Lisa Ho doing retail co-ordination until last year when the company went under, meaning her job position was no longer needed. Xanthe now currently holds a position as a careers consultant for the Fashion Business Institute located in Glebe. Her experience and insight into the operations of a company that manufactured clothing in Australia has shaped how she handles her position now at FBI, when it comes to steering others onto the right path for a future in the fashion industry. “I was in a position to see the Lisa Ho brand from a behind the scenes perspective, the decline and ultimately the demise of the company from the current fashion scene. To produce quality clothing in Australia and to be able to make profits and source materials that compliment current trends is super tough. The manufacture of clothing in a western country particularly Australia is one of the most expensive in the world”.
It is these sorts of views that support the current manufacturing conditions of other prominent Australian designers such as Josh Goot, who has chosen to manufacture and produce all his clothing in Australia despite his status as a relatively new designer. Goot is known to want to have every stitch on his garments made, sewn and produced in Australia. He is dependent on up to 10 separate textile makers in locations strewn across Sydney. His shirting is done in Marrickville, jersey in Kingsford and skirts and silks made by a factory in Milperra. Logistically it could almost be considered a designers worst nightmare, especially when the production and labor costs in a country such as Bangladesh would be much more stress free and cost effective for the designer. So why is it that despite the ever-increasing popularity for clothing to be manufactured in eastern countries, do up and coming Australian designers continue to manufacture in Australia?
Bianca Spender, daughter of the first lady of Australian Fashion Carla Zampatti, can perhaps answer that question. The prominent designer who has gone on to create one of Australia’s oldest and most reputable labels when it comes to home grown production; with over twenty boutiques nationwide and a David Jones concession in nearly every state, Zampatti is a rare breed in the Australian fashion game. Daughter Bianca has inherited her mother’s fashionable eye and now has her own namesake brand that was established in 2007 under the guidance of her mother and Carla Zampatti PTY Limited.
Speaking of the success of her mothers brand and now her own and why they have chosen to remain true to their roots of being Australian made and produced, Spender says its simple. “ Our customers have become accustomed to a certain standard with both our labels. They know it will be a garment they will have hanging in their wardrobe for a number of years. They come to us for the investment of clothes that are good quality, timeless and stylish and that is why we have been able to stay afloat in such a tough market, especially these last few years”.
When asked if Spender sees these points as a reason why Zampatti especially, has been able to last through the many changes of the Australian fashion industry and why neither of the brands has ever chosen to take the manufacture of their clothes to an eastern country, she is pensive. “ Well look it’s definitely not an easy market for anyone at the moment, to employ a team to manufacture and produce clothing in Australia is really hard and challenging from a business perspective. However due to the history of both of our labels and the success we have seen from these decisions and the creative freedom we are able to enjoy, we wouldn’t have it any other way”.
At the bottom of Zampatti’s sprawling Kent Street office space in Sydney’s CBD, is the large underground production studio of the manufacturing team. It is here that the clothes are drawn up, designed and produced to be sold to the clientele of both Spender’s and her own labels. Someone that knows first hand the challenges of producing and manufacturing clothes in Australia is Zampatti’s leading production designer Kathryn Finney. Finney has been with the company for over two years and oversees the manufacture and production of both labels. She is wary of the challenges that face the Australian fashion industry especially when it comes to dealing with the increasing manufacture of clothing overseas but Finney still feels there is a place for clothing produced in the western world. “ A lot of companies, particularly in Australia do go offshore mainly due to price and increasing competition, however due to the history of our company we have been able to retain healthy, longstanding working relationships with our makers and fabric suppliers which have in turn allowed the brand to retain its price point and remain true to the standard its always upheld.”
It is these professional relationships that she feels have been the essence in allowing both the Zampatti and Spender brands to remain as leading Australian fashion forces. “ We do face challenges in that we need to be able to remain on good terms with our manufacturers and suppliers. It is challenging to find those who can handle the business and creative decisions made and are able to live up to the quality we expect. In keeping a good relationship with our markers we essentially keep them on board with our brands. We use fabrics that work for our garments not because it’s necessarily on trend. We want to stay true to our customers”.
As fickle as the fashion industry can be, and despite the seemingly never-ending supply of overseas manufacturers that continue to increase, there still remains hope for those wanting to establish a brand that is designed and produced in the western world. When asked if she were starting out as a designer today would she still choose to manufacture in Australia, Bianca Spender smiles “ Absolutely, I really feel Australian customers greatly value their clothes and where they have come from. Customers love to support the local scene, to be able to add to the story of upcoming designers who are trying to build a name for themselves, who want to nurture a distinct story and following that is uniquely theirs. The loyalty of an Australian customer is something that an overseas factory can never take away”. With that she heads back to the office that her mother has taken from a small studio in Surrey Hills to the powerhouse that it is today and into the future of fashion.