Sarah Watanabe says Monster Alphabets is focused on producing garments for longer-term usage. Photo: Attila Csaszar.

Offshore, onshore success by design

Monday, 4 September, 2017 - 14:59

Local fashion designers and clothing manufacturers are showing they can find opportunities on the global stage, amid tough competition from international production and retail chains.

Perth-based designers that have won contracts with international stockists in the past year, include three with major players in the Chinese retail space.

In May, Business News revealed three local brands had garnered interest in China, after Fashion Council WA signed a partnership with China Fashion Week and took local designers to the event.

Among them was North Fremantle-based Empire Rose, founded by Kathryn Cizeika in 1998, which signed on with Chinese high-end boutique Avectoi.

Fremantle-based Morrison, co-founded by Kylie Radford and her husband, Richard Poulson, and Claremont-based Ae'lkemi, founded by Alvin Fernandez, also secured deals in China.

Meanwhile, a fourth local designer recently signed an agreement with Austria-based crystal producer Swarovski.

Guildford-based brand Izabela Felinski, founded by Izabela Felinska, secured a partnership agreement under which her embroidered jewellery is sold through Swarovski’s website and displayed at the company’s Sydney store.

Ms Felinska said the agreement made her one of a handful of Australian designers on the platform.

“I combined two different techniques, traditional embroidery and the (use of) crystals,” Ms Felinska told Business News.

“It’s kind of new on the market in Australia.

“I think this is why I attracted Swarovski; because they’re not used to it.”

Izabela Filinska has reached an agreement with Austria's iconic Swarovski brand.

That contract was more recently followed by a sales agreement with website The Iconic for Ms Felinska’s range.

She said an angel investor has contributed a small sum to the business, and a further investment round was under consideration.

Her business has sourced workers to manufacture the jewellery in India, and trained them in Ms Felinska’s preferred style of embroidery.

Several other Western Australian designers have also taken their production to the subcontinent, with Belmont-based fashion industry advisory body TCF Australia hosting regular trade missions to Jaipur in India.

TCF founder Carol Hanlon told Business News a small group of designers would be heading to India later this year on a trip funded by that nation’s government.

She said Jaipur’s artisans specialised in embroidery and embellishments, which were not skills widely available in WA.

“Relationships in supply chains are vitally important; designers and fashion businesses today need global supply chains, in particular for raw materials,” Ms Hanlon said.

“We link WA designers into supply chains in Indonesia, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and India.

“There is demand for locally made (products), but the designer still needs to access textiles, trims and labour sourced offshore.

“That needs transparent, accredited supply chains.”

She said TCF also ran missions to Hong Kong, connecting designers with potential distribution networks, and provided an online incubation service where fashion hopefuls could sharpen their business skills.

One successful WA designer has moved permanently overseas, with Sab Five Five founder Sabrina Wong now in Cambodia.

Ms Wong told Business News that was partly because she had friends there, and partly a business decision.

She said she had previously manufactured in Brunei.

“It’s easy to source fabric from here (Cambodia),” Ms Wong said.

“Manufacturing in Cambodia is way easier, because I had to import people into Brunei, there were no skilled workers there.

“(That meant) I had to pay more money for importation of labour.”

The brand’s flagship boutique in Claremont is now owned by a friend and operating under a new name, Shop Number Four, according to Ms Wong.

“I supply her clothes now, (although) her order has dropped, because I think the retail sector has turned down,” she said.

“My business is personal. I never felt the drop in sales. my (work) is tailored, custom made, I have a certain style.

“My customers like my style, they like the fabrics I choose, there is a niche market there.”

Emerging talent

Monster Alphabets founder Sarah Watanabe said her brand had attracted interest from department stores in Asia, with the business facing a decision whether to take the next big step or consolidate.

She said the brand had made a point of supporting local businesses, sourcing fabric locally, and manufacturing in small numbers.

Monster’s focus is something Ms Watanabe calls ‘slow fashion’, a counter to the recent trend of ‘fast fashion’ offered by retailers such as H&M and Zara.

Those global businesses seek to churn out multiple collections a year, with limited time between items appearing on the runway and in the shopping bags of consumers.

One such global player, Topshop, struggled in Australia, however, with the company’s stores, including in the Perth CBD, shut as the local arm went into administration.

A British-led rescue last month is expected to mean the reopening of five Topshop outlets across Australia.

Ms Watanabe said Monster’s model had support from consumers, although it was not necessarily as good for profitability.

“I try and work on the principle of garments that last more than one season,” she said.

“I think that has a positive effect on the environment as well, because we don’t process as much.

“My customers will look after the garment a bit better; the price point is a little bit higher, but they’re invested in it more.

“It has worked so far, and it’s definitely a principle that works against the bigger chains.”


Garment makers and manufacturers are also having success in local markets.

Osborne Park-based Desam makes uniforms for schools and the hospitality industry, and has just launched an evening wear range, owner Kerstin Otway told Business News.

Ms Otway said her business, which has eight full-time employees and a number of contractors, was aware of the competition from overseas manufacturing, but had worked on building its own niche with a high-end focus.

Schools provided a regular source of demand for Desam’s products, particularly given their tendency to ‘buy local’.

Local production also had advantages for schools, Ms Otway said, because orders were usually made in the hundreds, rather than the thousands.

“They appreciate the benefits of tying-up less financial resources and increasing their flexibility by having stock service, lower minimum order quantities, quicker turnaround of their order, high quality and better after sales service,” Ms Otway said.

One of Desam’s key competitors produces overseas, however, with Bayswater-based school uniform supplier Nell Gray using a highly automated factory in Vietnam.

Belmont-based clothing manufacturer Stewart & Heaton Clothing Company won a major domestic contract earlier this year when the state government selected it for a 10-year, $96.5 million uniform contract.

Co-owner Simon Stewart told Business News about 60 per cent of the company’s production was in Australia.

He said the latest contract was a full-service package for all clothing and apparel across a worker’s life cycle.

That approach meant clients hold less working capital and had a much simpler procurement process, which was the business’s edge against cheaper overseas players.

“The cost of Australian manufacturing has continued to escalate. We sell predominantly into the government sector and (they’ve) been subject to budgetary constraints,” Mr Stewart said.

“Garments in their simplest form are fabric and labour; labour is something that is transportable.

“We’re doing what we can to maximise local production but it's becoming increasingly difficult because the core critical mass manufacturing has essentially moved offshore.”

That led to problems in quality control and environmental compliance, he said, while local operations had focused on becoming specialised, dealing with lower quantities and with a higher speed to market.