20/08/2008 - 22:00

Design talent targets global fashion market

20/08/2008 - 22:00

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Perth fashion designer Aurelio Costarella has seen big changes during the past 20 years, with the sector overcoming its small town status to the point where it now attracts interstate and international interest.

Perth fashion designer Aurelio Costarella has seen big changes during the past 20 years, with the sector overcoming its small town status to the point where it now attracts interstate and international interest.

"When I started wholesaling in 1987, I couldn't even find a store in Perth that wanted to buy WA products, it was very challenging," Mr Costarella told WA Business News.

"I had to pack a suitcase full of clothes and go to Sydney; I didn't know anyone there and started shopping the product around until I found retailers willing to take a chance on it and agents willing to work with me."

His company, Costarella Design Ltd, will be one of five successful Perth fashion labels showcased at the 'Looking Out' exhibition, launched at the John Curtin Gallery this week.

The exhibition highlights the ability of local designers, including ericaamerica, ae'lkemi, Megan Salmon, and Material Boy, to make an international impact from Perth.

However, Costarella Design's growing success in the fashion industry is yet to translate into investor support.

Eighteen months after listing on the Australian Securities Exchange, its share price fell almost 90 per cent to $0.018.

Mr Costarella said the $2.2 million float aimed to take the company to the next level by financing the creation of new products to be rolled-out in the next few months.

The Costarella brand is about to launch a shoe range and is currently working on a fragrance and organic skincare products manufactured in France.

This month, the North Perth-based designer is making his first steps as an official invitee of the New York fashion week program.

"It's our third year showing in New York but this time we are on the official program. New York is a platform for the global market [and] while we choose to show there we attract a lot of international buyers that we wouldn't otherwise access in Australia," Mr Costarella said.

Highgate-based fashion label ericaamerica was one of the two Australian labels invited to the New York fashion week 'A la Mode' program two years ago, which aims to introduce five emerging designers from around the world to one of the world's fashion capitals.

The other Australian label invited that year was Rebecca Patersons' Breathless, another Perth-based label.

Most designers said being able to have a presence at international shows had been a career turning point, not only to distribute their products worldwide but also to improve their credibility back home.

ericaamerica, the brainchild of Lucas Bowers and Erica Wardle, won the Australian Fashion Week youth award program in 2001.

The label was featured at the Sydney Fashion Week, where it appeared among international buyers and media, and was subsequently invited to New York.

"Being able to establish an international market does help for several reasons, one because obviously there's that whole 'success over there before here' theory, and from a pure logistical point of view it shows people that you have the business ability to follow through if they place the orders," ericaamerica co-designer Lucas Bowers said.

While many Perth designers have relocated to the east coast over the years, the improvement in communication technologies and increasing grants programs to support the industry in WA have resulted in the most promising designers keeping Perth as their base.

"A lot of the designers who started in WA back in the 1980s left and established themselves in Sydney or Melbourne," Mr Costarella said.

"Today it's a very different story and the industry has certainly evolved; we're at a time where you can be based anywhere in the world. If you've got the right product you can make it work," he said.

Mr Bowers said that location no longer went against Perth-based designers.

"There was a time where it [location] would play against you, but it has changed," Mr Bowers told WA Business News.

"The reputation that the state has for producing good work is really starting to spread, it gets to the point that when you tell people at the Sydney Fashion Week that you're from Perth, you'll hear things like 'you're from Perth, what's going on over there at the moment? What do they put in the water?'"

Most designers said they had to adapt their work to the market to be commercially viable.

Singapore-born, Claremont-based Alvin Fernandez said his label, ae'lkemi, managed to get support from local retailers by having a more mainstream approach in his early creations.

"I started with a more realistic approach to the whole thing. I needed to put into place the bread and butter to facilitate going into haute couture," he said.

"But you're not selling out at the same time, just thinking with a more commercial head first by taking baby steps."

Mr Fernandez established his international base while showing at the 2004 Milan fashion week, financed by a $10,000 grant from the state government and $20,000 of his own money.

Such is his belief in the local market's potential that Mr Fernandez opened an ae'lkemi store in Claremont two weeks ago.

Although most WA fashion labels have managed to penetrate the international market thanks to the traditional fashion week events, players such as ericaamerica are looking at moving away from that model.

Mr Bowers said many in the industry were starting to question the influence of retail and the current marketing structure.

"A lot of fashion labels are re-examining how the system works because for a long time it was geared against trade shows, controlled by retail, and stopped being about the fashion," he said.

An online shop to be launched at the end of the year would allow ericaamerica to move away from the European-inspired system of releasing seasonal collections irrelevant to the Australian market, where the weather difference between summer and winter is not as extreme, Mr Bowers said.

The online shop will also allow ericaamerica to sell its products to Perth devotees, as the label currently doesn't have a retail presence in the city.

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