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Does it have to be this hard for startup fashion brands to manufacture clothing in Australia?

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As a mentor and consultant to emerging fashion brands I field a wide range of questions, but there’s one in particular that is asked far more than any other: why is it so hard to manufacture clothing in Australia?

I’m thrilled that this question is being asked so much because it’s driven by consumers who are increasingly making choices based on conscious consumption and who want to buy products that are either Australian-made or, better still, designed AND made locally. That’s encouraging, right? Absolutely, but the fact that the question is being asked in the first place means there’s a problem.

So why is it so hard to manufacture fashion clothing in Australia? Well, from my many years of experience working in the rag trade I’ve identified three main problem factors that are in play:

  • A severe shortage of skilled workers such as pattern-makers. Most of the talent we have is employed by the big fashion brands in Australia leaving very few experts available to work with emerging brands, and this shortage is only going to get worse because pattern and sample making isn’t considered particularly sexy and as a consequence there aren't enough fashion students who want to turn pattern-making into a career. And that’s a real shame because I think they’re missing a massive opportunity for greatness. For example, just think of all the amazing artisanal handwork that is produced out of the couturiers of Chanel. Who wouldn’t want to claim credit for that?!
  • Wages is another big barrier to local production. Off-shore manufacturing offers the advantage of much cheaper labour costs and there’s really not much we can do to be competitive in that area.
  • The overheads associated with production make it expensive for manufacturers to offer small runs to emerging businesses, and they also run the risk of not receiving repeat orders. This results in the requirement for bigger minimum runs which in turn drives up the brand’s production costs, often to the point of being cost-prohibitive, and that’s when going off-shore becomes a very attractive option.

Of all these areas there’s one where there is the potential for change: production runs. And that’s vital because the ability to create small runs is crucial in the startup phase of a fashion business, enabling designers to test their ideas in the market without the risk of having to sell through huge production runs with their first collection, which in turn could burn through their cash flow and inhibit future collections.

Creating more production houses in Australia would also solve the proximity anxiety that many designers experience, as they would ideally prefer to be close to their operations. And while local production may mean lower margins it would at least reduce the risks involved in producing overseas and eliminate the barriers of language and time zones.

Ultimately the question the fashion industry needs to ask of itself is: if we don’t facilitate or support emerging labels to produce locally, what does the future of the Australian fashion industry look like?

Fortunately, there is some good news. At the end of last year I visited the International Sourcing Expo in Melbourne, and while it was unsurprisingly dominated by hundreds of overseas fabric suppliers, garment manufacturers from China, Hong-Kong and India, I was excited to find a stand full of Australian industry friends including Julia from the Sample Room, Dale from NMBQ (New Model Beauty Queen), and Kirri-Mae from the Council of Textile and Fashion. And their stand was by far the busiest, reinforcing how much locals desperately and passionately want to produce locally!

The Sample Room and New Model Beauty Queen are especially keen to work closely with startups and they have a great understanding of the capacity of a business in its early days. This is great because it means you don’t have to commit to 250 units of one garment! The Council of Textile and Fashion is a fantastic resource for sourcing local suppliers and they're working hard to come up with even more innovative ways to support emerging Australian designers. And if you’re ethically minded the ECA (Ethical Clothing Australia) website has a listing of Ethically Accredited manufacturers across the country.