Before the global pandemic, the industry started to encounter significant disruption. It had been under the microscope for years, but gradually, story after story outed fashion as the second-most polluting industry in the world. Pile on top statewide lockdowns causing small businesses with thin supply chains to suddenly disintegrate and physical retail shuttered. At the same time, conglomerates with established factories and suppliers also suffered severe blows to international distribution.
Australian fashion has been largely under publicised from an economic and innovation perspective until now, with only a few organisations and government departments championing the industry’s unique set of challenges. In the absence of comprehensive support, the challenges facing fashion businesses can seem even more insurmountable. The business of fashion must evolve, but who will be the guiding lights as this badly needed renaissance takes place?
With the industry in tatters, now is the time for Australia to reconstruct a highly creative industry. Being a small nation, we should look to leverage legacy infrastructure, sustainable solutions and a thriving culture of innovation. For the Australian fashion sector to continue leading as a creative industry, we need to make changes now and incorporate modern capabilities and resources.
Bringing about these massive changes will require a ground-up approach. The key will be in upskilling our existing workforce where industry and education are more closely linked, ensuring higher education reflects current and future work environments, and prompting the Australian fashion ecosystem and government to support the adoption of circular practices, advanced technologies and innovation.
Many universities and colleges are finding alternative ways to introduce relevant knowledge and insights as advancements emerge, providing additional pathways for people to earn qualifications and upskill in their chosen field.
There are certainly areas for improvement.
“Most course structures are still defined by 20th-century notions of what a fashion designer, fashion stylist, and fashion PR does,” says Dr Rachel Matthews, program leader for the bachelor of fashion and sustainability at Collarts School of Design.
Matthews believes “fashion education really needs to address the classification and segregation of different types of fashion training. If we look at most areas of the fashion industry now, there is a continual blurring of former separations and structures,” she says. “That’s why it’s critical to equip fashion thinkers with the knowledge of how to make garments in efficient and responsible ways, but also solve some of the other interrelated problems in fashion such as business and financial models, sales and marketing practices and end of life solutions for the products we produce.”
From the other perspective, industry organisations are prioritising education. Some brands and retailers are partnering with universities to co-create degrees and short courses aligned to their culture, product category and vision. In 2019, Lululemon offered all regional training and store managers the opportunity to study a business diploma through Swinburne University of Technology.
Similarly, Melbourne couture designer Delphine Genin, who specialises in high-end embroidery, pivoted early during Covid-19 and developed an online course for people to learn the delicate craft at home. It goes to show, you don’t need to be a large organisation to participate in the solution to upskill fashion’s workforce.
Australia has the capabilities to bring manufacturing back onshore and the demand from consumers to buy locally made products. However, only 29 per cent of Australian businesses sourced some materials locally. The industry needs to embed circular practices into the entire design and development process and support a local supply chain. In doing so, it could generate an economic return upwards of $1.2 million.
In the past five years, fashion degrees in Australia have incorporated circular economy practices into the curriculum, which means that from now on, Australia will have an emerging workforce that requires the resources and infrastructure to design sustainably and ethically. It’s no longer a ‘nice to have skillset’. It’s a necessity. If the industry hasn’t caught up to support designers, we’re doing something wrong.
Moving forward, we need to come together as an industry to establish a closed-loop system in fashion. One that is connected, transparent and supports all sizes of businesses.
In addition to rebuilding an all-Australian fashion ecosystem, our workforce, including retail, needs to understand diverse areas. These include aspects that are traditionally unfamiliar to fashion, such as digital transformation, entrepreneurship and multi-disciplined collaboration. Rather than suggesting people learn to code or create new businesses at the drop of a hat, take time to explore similar industries and innovative solutions in preparation for our own progressive steps forward.
Dr Hilde Heim, fashion lecturer at Queensland University of Technology and one of Australia’s leading fashion researchers, strongly believes small scale independent fashion designers must adopt emerging technologies. Focusing on blockchain technology, technologies for customised garment fit, and technology for circularity is of particular relevance to our local industry.
Australian fashion is largely profit-driven, stuck in a loop of over-consumption that, without significant efforts to change behaviours, we won’t move the needle or our standing in the world on climate action. Technology and innovation are accelerating with many solutions designed to aid a circular economy. Textile recycling, traceability and 3D design are available, and we need to be more accepting of change and incorporate these new innovations into the Australian way of fashion.
Perhaps it’s time to look differently at problems that are not new. After all, there’s no industry exempt from disruption. We must ensure our current and future workforce has access to relevant education, industry resources and cutting edge innovation. We need to instil confidence in local businesses to participate at a global standard is paramount. Ultimately, If we’re not adaptable enough as an industry, we won’t continue to grow and become a positive force on the world stage. The future of Australian fashion depends on it.
Saskia Fairfull is a fashion technology consultant, collaborative projects Lead for design and creative technology at Torrens University, and founder of the Independent Fashion Advisory Board, a global community of fashion business and technology professionals.