SPECIAL REPORT: Perth’s fashion sector is gradually making its mark by developing niche opportunities, despite growing international competition.
The state’s fashion industry has matured considerably since the first Perth Fashion Festival nearly two decades ago, with home-grown designers increasingly achieving national and international success.
The sector now has a broad mix of businesses, with some of Western Australia’s biggest success stories comprising niche, high-end, high-quality operators, while others have been successful designing locally and manufacturing elsewhere.
However, local fashion deals with many of the traditional challenges faced by other Australian manufacturing and creative industries.
Further along the supply chain, the internet is revolutionising the sales process, although there is still a place for traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, judging by the ever growing flow of big name brands into Perth.
She highlighted that a number of local brands had made it on to the global stage, with one example being Ae’lkemi, which was inducted into the Asian Couture Federation last year.
The president of that federation, Frank Cintamani, brought a contingent to the Perth festival last year in a bid to build a relationship with the WA industry.
This year, the international contingent includes David Downton, who was an illustrator for Vogue in the UK, and a representative from Singapore’s Harper’s Bazaar.
“I’ve always been certain that WA’s fashion firepower and future potential are huge,” she said.
To develop that appropriately, industry body Fashion Council WA was restructured in recent months, while the fashion festival is led by Ms Harvey-Hanrahan and Cape Lambert Resources executive chairman Tony Sage.
The council’s board has involvement from other key members of Perth’s business community, such as Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi, Morrison International director Richard Poulson, and Hawaiian director Kate O’Hara.
A second WA group that works to develop the industry is the Textile Clothing and Footwear Resource Centre of Western Australia, headquartered in Belmont.
That organisation is focused on developing business skills for creatives, according to manager Carol Hanlon.
She said TCF had been working to build links for local companies into Asia, including through involvement in trade missions, such as to Hong Kong earlier this year.
One Fell Swoop designers Nina Ergic and Dan Romanin, who together won designer of the year at the 2015 Western Australian Fashion Awards, said success in business required unrelenting hard work and had been a constant learning experience.
“As we do this for longer, we realise there are certain compromises creatively that have to be made in order for a business to sustain and grow further,” Ms Ergic said.
Mr Romanin said it was the nature of a true creative to be able to adapt.
“Whether it be to adapt commercially … or to a genre … they have to adapt otherwise they’re not creative, they’re just putting out what they want to put out,” he said.
Mr Romanin said the pair remained true to their aesthetic and style.
Ms Ergic said a big part of the business was bespoke, because that was where consumer demand was.
Due to its niche offering, she said, the company hadn’t found significant competition from online sales.
“Our price point and our clientele still really appreciate the bespoke garment, the made to measure, and they’re willing to pay and not compromise quality just for price,” Ms Ergic said.
She said there had been strong support in the company’s demographic, particularly in WA, although that was softening somewhat in the current economic climate.
Both are passionate about local content, with a very strong relationship with their contractors.
Other designers felt that manufacturing could be done best overseas.
One designer who spoke to Business News said her couture line, handmade in Perth, had struggled to compete on price with foreign-manufactured products.
Another up-and-coming designer, Poppy Lissiman, said it was a no-brainer for her to manufacture her handbags and sunglasses in China, although she had previously produced clothes in WA.
“I would have loved to have kept my production within Australia but it got to the point where it just wasn’t feasible at all,” Ms Lissiman told Business News.
“Prices every season would go up and manufacturers would turn designers away if their designs were too fiddly or they didn’t like the materials.
“For what I make nowadays there is no way I could produce this in WA, there isn’t the resources or the skills to produce it ... and if there was, I couldn’t sell it for what I do now.”
Ms Lissiman, who sells through an online store, said the US was close to her biggest market.
Logging in: Jacqui Young (left) and Jamie James have had rapid success with their online, curated selection for professionals. Photo: Attila Csaszar
The operation is online only, and intentionally so, Ms Young said, because the customer base was primarily made up of busy people.
The key to getting that right, she said, was building trust with customers, including through good delivery and returns policies.
“The shops that are only brick and mortar are having to look at that option (online) also,” Ms Young said
“I think online used to be their worst enemy, and they used to sort of fear it, but now they’re having to embrace it.”
One of her clients had started an online website and now operated a showroom in Cottesloe.
She said there would always be a demand, particularly for fashion, from people who wanted to try on what they buy.
A number of international brands have opened in Perth in the past year, and it is anticipated the flow will continue.
The trend was partly driven by the state’s economic success, population growth and growing mining industry, he said.
On the other side of the coin, the world is becoming increasingly globalised, making it easier for brands to consider taking beachheads in new markets.
“A lot of these larger brands do some fairly careful homework and research (prior to entering a new market),” Mr Gianotti said, adding that he felt there would be more to come.
He said retailers on Murray Street, particularly the old department stores, would be likely to find competition continuing to grow.
“(The new entrants are) going to make that environment extremely competitive for David Jones and Myer ... and probably out of their reach unless they change their trading model,” Mr Gianotti said.
“If department stores had addressed this, say, a couple of years ago, perhaps they wouldn’t have to be following the pack, they could’ve led the pack.”
CBRE senior manager retail leasing Craig Olde said a big part of the challenge for bringing big names, both national and international, to Perth was finding the space in a retail environment with much lower concentration of outlets.
“They need to be in the prime or super prime part of the city,” he said.
In Perth, unlike larger cities on the east coast, walking a block or two away from the Murray Street Mall, for example, places a consumer in a very different retail environment.
With the moderation of the state’s economic performance, Mr Olde said, it would become easier for new arrivals to find the required space.
One example was Culture Kings, which recently opened in Perth on Hay Street after considering a range of other sites.
The other challenge was the city’s distance from the east coast, the traditional entry point for newcomers.
“Often there’s a bit of an arm wrestle between Adelaide and Perth,” Mr Olde said.
“Perth is more attractive to them, but sometimes Adelaide is easier … sometimes the tyranny of distance works against us.
“The perception is that Perth is a bigger and stronger market.”
Mr Olde said he expected there would be more major entries into Perth.
“Some time in the next 10 years you’ll find a second (major luxury) precinct starts to evolve,” he said, suggesting that Elizabeth Quay might be the location.
“There’s an unending schedule of expansions and (shopping) centre growth … there’s no way that can’t change the landscape,” Mr Olde said.