David Briskin: I don’t think it’s all greenwashing. I think the industry has made some good positive steps and made a start, but there’s a long, long way to go. I’d love to see more brands taking it more seriously and really looking into all parts of sustainability, whether it’s ethical fashion, working conditions, environment, or giving back to the community. Sustainability covers a lot of areas and there’s a lot for brands to consider. We’ve made a start, but there’s a long way to go.
IR: When you started championing sustainability and ethical work practices, what was the feedback like from the industry at the time?
DB: It was always a very important aspect of what we did at Mimco. We manufactured locally and we did some manufacturing in Hong Kong and China, where we wanted to make sure the working conditions were excellent. That was important to us back then 25 years ago. With Sass and Bide, we began working with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a partnership with the UN and they were working with disadvantaged communities in Nairobi and Kenya. It was important for us then to work with some of these artisanal communities and give them the opportunities to work their way out of poverty. When I introduced Simone Cipriani, founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, to the Country Road Group and Mimco, they embraced it. I think there is genuine interest from brands to work with artisans.
IR: There’s been a lot of talk in the industry about needing to turn the industry around on its head since Covid hit. What’s your opinion of that?
DB: I’m not a believer in turning everything on its head. I’m still a big believer in retail and I think it’s important for brands to have a retail presence. Obviously there’s been a huge acceleration to online, so certainly businesses need to make sure they’re pushing into the online space, so there’s a change there from the distribution point of view.
Businesses have had to become flexible in the way they work. With lockdowns, you need to protect your business and reduce costs at a moment’s notice if you’re not selling. You need to be nimble and move quickly, that’s probably the biggest change compared to years ago, when business moved slowly. Now it’s a week to week proposition, overlaid with the supply issues we’ve had coming out of Asia. We’ve had freight and transportation issues, both in terms of frustration and cost. It’s a new week every week when something changes. The ability to move quickly is more important than ever.
IR: A couple of months ago, you joined Thread Together. What drove you to join the board and what kind of impact would you like to make?
DB: I absolutely believe in their mission, which is to deliver new , good quality clothing and footwear to people in need. And I believe in it from the point of view of not sending end-of-line product to landfill, which totally goes against everything that I believe in. Retailers are helping people and the environment and using up their product – to me, it’s perfectly circular and an excellent organisation.
The founder of Thread Together (ex-Seafolly founder Andie Halas), the board and I are hoping I can use my industry contacts to introduce them to various brands. I’ve had experience in not-for-profits (NFPs) though the Melbourne Fashion Festival which I’ve chaired as well as Make-a-Wish. I’ve been involved in it for 12 years or so, so hopefully that can help with what Thread Together is doing as well.
IR: What are the things that are key to making that kind of relationship between charities and retailers work?
DB: There has to be something in it for both parties. It needs to be a win-win, and in this case with retailers and designers working with Thread Together, Thread Together can achieve its aim by distributing its product to people in need. It’s a simple benefit there. Then you’ve got the need of the brands that need to do something with their excess product.
Then you’ve got the other aspect, which is Thread Together’s employee engagement programs. Thread Together runs programs for organisations to send their teams in to get involved, help with the vans or stores or distribution centres to pick and pack the product. They can physically make a difference, so their teams can feel the benefits of giving back in a direct way. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a true win-win in terms of partnership.
IR: A lot of savvy businesses now realise that consumers are looking for brands that support the community. How do brands make that happen in a genuine way?
DB: There are so many worthy causes when you look around the community in terms of NFPs, whether it’s helping sick kids or men and women in need. There are so many incredible medical, environmental and social causes [to support].
It’s really a matter for organisations to work out what they feel passionate about, what their teams feel passionate about and whether they can make an impact. Then research it and look at who’s doing work in those areas. Speak to the NFPs and see what resonates and where they can help – it’s not about just giving money and product, it’s about giving time and expertise. There’s an enormous amount that the industry can do to give back.
IR: What are the things that frustrate you most about the current fashion landscape and what needs to change?
DB: There’s an oversupply of product. We all make too much product in the market, there’s too much waste of what doesn’t get sold and is heavily discounted, which creates a discount cycle. It creates a problem for businesses trying to make money. We really are a detrimental impact on the environment.
The lack of local manufacturing in Australia frustrates me. The problem we’ve got is local manufacturing at scale in Australia and I think the government – both state and federal – need to look at supporting the local manufacturing industry more and what more can be done to establish it. We used to have a local fashion manufacturing industry many years ago. Yes, small producers can make locally at small quantities, but at scale, it’s difficult and very expensive.
I think fashion retail can be an incredible career path and training ground for people and I don’t think that’s recognised enough, whether it’s through the community or through colleges and universities. I’d like to see more done about that.
IR: What are you excited about right now that you think is interesting?
DB: I’m excited about getting all our stores open again and getting our countries vaccinated and back to normal life, whatever that’s going to look like.
I’m always excited about new, fresh, energetic brands and I’ve always got my eye on new brands to invest in and support.
I’m excited about the impact of technology on our industry. The world is a much smaller place now through technology and online and more overseas brands are available here than before and vice versa.
IR: You’ve been at the helm of some great Australian fashion brands in your career. What do you think they all have in common?
DB: I think all of those brands have got a unique point of difference when it comes to the product. There’s true design in all those brands, there’s a passion for the product. I think there’s a strong communication with the customer and an understanding of the customer – all those brands design with the customer in mind.
I think great product and an ability to reach the customer directly are important traits of those businesses, but they also have strong backends. [In retail], it’s about making sure your business is funded properly, making sure you’ve got the right systems and reporting in place, so that it’s a healthy business – it’s what I call the boring part, the stuff that I’ve been involved in for many years. You need to ensure that side of the business functions well to support the creatives at the front.
IR: Do you think it’s a common problem for designers entering the industry to not have a strong understanding of that side of the business?
DB: Yeah, I think it is. That’s what I mentioned earlier in terms of education. We need more focus on education, so designers coming through the system have a good understanding of business basics, cashflow, stock management, managing an open-to-buy, merchandise planning and basic accounting. They’re all really important things designers need.
IR: There are so many talented designers here, but not many have made that transition overseas.
DB: You can count on one hand the Australian brands that have really made it in the overseas market. I think one reality is that customers in Europe, the US and Asia aren’t really looking towards Australia for their fashion fix, they’re really focusing on northern hemisphere brands. We have to fight our way into those markets, which aren’t looking to us for fashion. There’s a huge amount of competition. If you’re trying to sell in the US, you’re fighting against those US brands, plus those ones in Europe and Asia. I know it’s a big wealthy market, but there’s just so much competition.
Traditionally, to get to Europe and the US, you’re jumping on planes all the time, it’s hard work to fight the battles over there. You need to be there in those markets to get good penetration. Traditionally, it’s been difficult to be over there and run a good business here in Australia. Then there are the timezones too. With the growth of online and the ability to market directly to overseas customers through digital, it should be easier than it has been in the past to reach those markets. But it’s still not easy.
A lot of those brands that have done well in the States, whether it’s Sass & Bide or Zimmerman, started with wholesale, doing trade fairs over there or getting agents and showing in showrooms and showing at market weeks. But I think it’s getting harder and harder to do. I think there are less wholesale customers out there, it’s more online and direct.
But on the positive side, Australia is a great, strong market and there are many brands that have built successful businesses here focusing on the local customer, whether it’s MJ Bale or Mimco. I always tell young brands that want to sell overseas, “That’s fine, you can do that, but don’t lose sight of the potential to grow your business in Australia.”