This article is for the Professionals
Sign up to Inside Retail Professional now for only $5+GST for your first three months.
That's an 85% discount plus you’ll get FREE access to all Masterclasses during Retail Week. 5 retail industry leaders like you’ve never seen them before.Already a professional? Log in
Leila Naja Hibri: It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been the most challenging time of my career, and I’ve been in this industry for 15 years. I came into this role knowing it was going to be challenging, knowing that the industry has a lot to work on, and I wanted to do that. I was at a point in my career where I was ready for a purpose-led role. For years, I’ve been thinking about areas in the industry that I felt needed change, and this was a great opportunity to do that.
I started in February with great enthusiasm, and we went straight into an offsite with the team. I did spend a week with the previous CEO doing a handover and introducing me to key stakeholders and, in particular, relationships with government and industry officials.
I took the team for two or three days offsite and asked questions like “Why do we do what we do?” “What’s the purpose of the AFC?” “What’s your purpose; what’s my purpose?” and “What do we want to achieve?”
Our intention is huge: How do we create a human-centric industry that is innovative and that focuses on sustainable practice? We want to put people and the planet ahead of profit, or at least give them the same level of focus. We are small, we are agile, and there is such an appetite for doing good in this industry.
The people in this industry want to work in an industry that takes care of people and the planet. Of course, they want a successful business, too. I have worked in roles where I have to make money in order to affect change in the things that matter to me. You can’t do it if there’s no money: no-one will listen to you. Businesses have to make money, but there is a way to do it while considering other values than profit.
IR: Advocacy is a core focus for the AFC. Are there any particular issues you want to discuss with the government?
LNH: Since the 1990s, the local manufacturing scene has been disappearing. Ten years ago it was almost gone, for many reasons, including the labour costs, but also local laws. The TCF [Textile, Clothing, Footwear] Award was changed to protect workers, but it also stunted the industry and its ability to function efficiently.
When Covid hit, one of the first things we did was produce “survival” webinars. We were opening the papers, which they were saying, “The fashion industry is dead!” and there was a real panic. These webinars were all about cash management, HR management in terms of stand-downs and the economic impact of Covid and how to best work through it.
We also put out a survey and the Minister for Industry, The Hon Karen Andrews, invited us to a fashion industry roundtable. We’ve had many conversations since then, and they are working on a study for us to gather data on the industry because that’s lacking. We are also putting an action plan together to highlight the areas we need to work on. Taking these conversations to the next step of instigating change at a policy level is going to be a big deal.
IR: You put a lot of effort into encouraging consumers to shop local and what Australian-made means versus Australian-designed. Can you elaborate on that?
LNH: One of the first conversations I had with the minister was about pushing Australian-made brands. And I thought, “Great, but what do you mean by Australian-made?” Less than five per cent of all Australian brands are Australian-made. The industry’s gone. We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the skillset, we don’t have the machinery. It’s so hard to make [products] in Australia; it’s expensive.
Our aim at the AFC is to work on a plan to encourage bringing back manufacturing in a way that works for our economy. We can’t compete on labour, no matter what, even if we negotiate with unions. We can’t and don’t want to pay 30 cents an hour. So what do we do in this country, that is so developed and has so much potential, demand, people and talent? We bring innovation and technology. We look at VR and AR; we look at green, new ways of doing things; we challenge consumption and discounting. We look at how many collections [we should be doing] per year, big trends and things that people are scared to talk about.
When I say I want to get people to buy less stock, there’s a connotation that I want businesses to make less money and less profit. But that’s not it; it’s all about clarifying the value of your brand. When I worked for [hat and accessories designer] Helen Kaminski, we deliberately sold fewer units but made more profit. It’s about really looking at the operational costs of your organisation. When you’re always discounting, you’re killing your gross margin. You need to work smart and think about where you are spending your dollars.
A brand might decide they want to sell a million dollars’ worth of product, but they’re doing well if they get a 70 per cent sell-through between basics and fashion items. That would mean they need $1.3 million of product available to sell because you can’t sell everything.
The system is completely broken, and we need to rethink the way we do things.
IR: So is it about creating more basics and essentials that are interchangeable between seasons?
LNH: That’s one of the strategies, but it depends on the brand. Some brands are based on fashion trends, so what are they doing to incorporate some merchandise planning and innovation in their supply chain? What can they do to make-to-order? Look at Zara, for example. They revolutionised the fashion industry by being able to drop so much [product] so quickly, and they usually run out of it. With Zara, you buy from the shelf and then it’s gone.
In some very successful companies, their merchandise planning is archaic. They have spreadsheets! It’s still based on old-school retail models of making a certain amount of product but then putting it on sale 50 times a year to compete. It’s like a rollercoaster.
IR: How do you think the role of merchandise planners is going to change?
LNH: I think they are going to be unbelievably important. What I’ve seen happen in the industry lately is buyer roles becoming merchandise planner roles to reduce costs and headcount, but also it’s a good synergy. It’s great to have a buyer that understands planning really well, but it has also created a lot of excess stock because buyers don’t have the time to do both jobs. So it’s a paradox. I don’t know the answer, but surely there’s someone out there who can solve this.
[Made-to-order fashion brand] Citizen Wolf has a wonderful model, but I don’t know if it is economical or scaleable. A new brand, Esse, has a model that is focusing on basics and enduring quality. It’s not about buying lots of things that you don’t need before dumping it on Vinnies.
That’s another project we are hoping to work on — product stewardship. We want to consider who should be responsible for waste management during the life cycle of fashion, all the way from raw materials to the finished product. Textile waste is a huge problem, locally and globally.
IR: Big players are getting on board with circular fashion, what’s your opinion on it?
LNH: I think it’s the only way forward. If we want to achieve the numbers from the Paris Agreement and go beyond zero carbon emissions, there is no other way. We have to get into the circular model. We need to plan now if we want to get there in 10 years. Every step of the process has to be part of the circular economy.
Courtney Holmes at [fashion label] ABCH is doing that, she’s designing carefully, but she is trying to find ways to recycle her textiles. We need bigger players, like ASOS, for example, to be investing so that we can find out what type of fabrics are recyclable and the impact on the environment. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation does some great work looking at denim and how circularity can be implemented.
Sometimes the fabrics, like polyester, can be recycled but not into apparel. You are still giving your waste away to another industry. I think circular fashion is doable, but it’s a long process. What we need to do ASAP is educate brands on designing and sourcing in a circular manner. You have to consider everything from buttons to the acrylic thread used to sew on the labels.
IR: I think lots of jobs will be created as brands develop their plans to be sustainable. What do you think that looks like?
LNH: I think we have to look at how we will get brands to upskill their designers. When you consider the medical industry, GPs have to develop and upskill all the time, so why don’t we do the same with designers? From a skills and careers pathway perspective, we need to redraw the map in this industry. There’s a place for advanced pattern making and machining, but we can incorporate innovation to cut down on waste.
IR: Is there anything in particular that you think we really should be made in Australia?
LNH: Wool is a no-brainer, and so is cotton. Cotton production uses a lot of water, but the CSIRO are working on some great sustainable initiatives, such as producing cotton that is pink so you don’t have to put it through the dying process.
Indigenous fashion is a huge one for us. I don’t think we’ve even touched the surface on the opportunities there. Creativity, storytelling and a focus on sustainability and slow fashion are inherent in many Indigenous brands in ways we just don’t see in non-Indigenous fashion.
IR: I think the conversation is changing around Indigenous brands.
LNH: Yes, a lot of it is due to the Black Lives Matter movement. I really believed that’s kicked our arses, even the AFC, for us to realise we really need to be focusing on this. The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and First Nations Fashion and Design are doing amazing things in this space. Sometimes we need a kick up the butt, but you have to be careful not to jump up as a non-Indigenous person and start offering internships and scholarships without asking the people what they want. It’s a sign of respect to ask the question first.
IR: You also have to be aware of people exploiting Indigenous designers and designs just because it’s suddenly trendy at the moment.
LNH: There are different types of exploitation. One is PR exploitation and advertising the fact that you are working with Indigenous people because it’s good for you at that moment, but the other is IP exploitation. When a group of people is under-represented and under-resourced, they can be exploited very easily.
IR: It actually just makes sense to promote Indigenous fashion globally as it’s a unique selling point.
LNH: Yes, and I think when we talk about Australian fashion, we need to incorporate Indigenous design in a big way. I don’t know exactly how to do that yet. It’s not just about buying an Indigenous artwork and plonking it on a dress.
I think we can actually learn a lot from Indigenous design. It’s actually an exchange. It’s about making Indigenous design part of Australian design in the same way that sustainability and circularity need to become part of it too.
The first action of the AFC will be to have a broad representation of the Indigenous culture. We need someone on the board who can actually speak to this and who can understand.
IR: What are your thoughts on the future of Fashion Week?
LNH: [Since Covid], I think we’ve seen a lot of creativity occur, and the industry really needed the disruption. Before, there was a lot of flying, schmoozing, and just too many collections. It would be great if it were centralised so that it didn’t have to be Paris, London and Milan but in just one location, more like the Olympics, once every year maybe. At the moment, it’s got a huge impact on the environment.
I think shows need to have good intent. It shouldn’t be just about buying and opulence and separating the haves and the have-nots. I think a lot of creativity comes from these shows, but I know we need a new format. We are trying to align fashion shows and seasons so that it’s a B2B and a B2C thing at the same time so that people can buy the collection they are seeing.
We don’t want to kill all the fun stuff; I don’t want to be a party pooper! I don’t think we should cancel fashion shows, but we’ve been doing the same thing for so long, it’s time to change.