While some Australian fashion designers have built well-oiled social media machines to speak to global audiences – and seen great success – the road hasn’t been easy for others.
Tally the local labels that have gone under in recent years – Lover, LIFEwithBIRD, David Lawrence, Marcs and Rhodes & Beckett to name a few – and you could also argue that mounting pressure in the digital retail era is too much to bear for some designers. The very industry that elevated these labels also watches their downfalls – a reality often hidden by designers to save face.
But for every fallen label, there has been a new opening or metamorphosis in its place.
Melbourne-born, New York-based Josh Goot hit the 10-year mark in 2015, before announcing his label had entered into voluntary administration, which came as a surprise to consumers. On the outside, it appeared the label was thriving. But financial strains were chipping away below the surface. “The retail market has witnessed a prolonged downturn since the GFC in 2008 and we are proud that we have been able to sustain and grow the business throughout the challenging period, while manufacturing exclusively in Australia,” Goot announced at the time.
After walking away from the business and keeping a low profile, in 2017 Goot returned to the industry a savvier businessman. Wardrobe NYC marks the designer’s metamorphosis. It’s a label he founded in late 2017 with Vogue Australia fashion director Christine Centenera, solving modern dressing dilemmas with four- or eight-piece minimalist “wardrobes” sold as bundles. It’s a radical move in the age of fast fashion, executed after years of careful research – and proving mistakes can often pave the way to greater success. After the first capsule (titled “Tailored”) sold out, the pair released their “Sport” range, followed recently by “Street”. The label has been endorsed by well-dressed celebrities the world over, from model Ashley Graham and Kim Kardashian to Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine Cohen.
Bettina Liano is another example of a label that couldn’t stay afloat, despite having earned a cult following in the ’90s and early 2000s for her skinny-leg, low-rise denim. But it was this very success that eventually cost the label its life. According to Liano, the rapid expansion wasn’t tempered by the attention to detail that made the label a success at the beginning. Revenues fell and the business was attacked from all sides by fierce competition, forcing it into liquidation in 2011. The Sydney-based fashion conglomerate The Apparel Group (which also bought Willow and ousted designer Kit Willow) bought the business in 2013, which ultimately lead to Liano’s exit.
“I wasn’t expected to be cut out of the equation,” says Liano. “I would have settled for a small percentage [of ownership], or even a job.” With her trademarks not protected by law, The Apparel Group continues to trade under Liano’s name today, which distresses the Melbourne-based designer. “What I’ve had to endure is every creative person’s nightmare – there is someone running around with my name.”
But failure didn’t erode Liano’s confidence. Instead, it’s fuelled her to return this year with a new label, BYBL, which modernises her denim designs, keeping pace with contemporary trends. “I’ve worked really hard, creating a new opportunity to do what I really love,” she says.
Founded in Sydney in 1938 by Boyd Levy, Oroton has also recently met financial challenges. In November 2017 it collapsed – the result of years of slumping sales and an outdated approach to design. But this year it embarked on a remarkable rebound, entering a new chapter under the creative direction of Sophie Holt (ex-Country Road). Her first collection, The Botanist, has gone a long way to reinvigorate the label, chasing a modern, more global customer with Italian-made silk scarves, canvas totes and on-trend straw bags. But it will take time for the label climb out of a $14.2 million sales loss. Visually redefining itself is just one part of the long-term strategy. “Well, I wouldn’t say we have turned the brand around already, we are part way through an exciting journey,” says Holt. “With Oroton’s [design] we are taking an international approach.”
Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton
It’s been four years since Sydney’s Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton retired as the public faces of Sass & Bide – the hugely successful label founded by the friends in 1999. Sass & Bide was eventually sold to Myer in two multimillion-dollar packages, but the reason for the sale wasn't just financial – the label was booming. It was simply time for a change for the duo, who took a much-needed reprieve to travel and workshop new creative ideas. Now, Clarke and Middleton have returned to the fashion game, and this time they’re flying solo. Clarke has recently founded her own eponymous, travel-inspired label SJC, while Middleton has channelled her passion for art and fashion into online retail concept Artclub.
It’s been just over a year since Australian label Lover, known for its halter-neck-style lace bridal gowns, went under. Since administrators were appointed in November last year, the label has undergone a dramatic financial restructure. Australian apparel company Hotsprings purchased the company and is determined to bring it back to good standing. CEO Joanne Goldman blames impractical store locations and long-term leases in large commercial shopping centres for the label’s financial struggles.
“When Lover went into voluntary administration there was a huge amount of media coverage and social commentary that showed there was still an overwhelming love for the brand,” says Goldman.
She has been working closely with founding designers Nic Briand and Susien Chong to breathe new life back into the label before they depart in March to explore other creative opportunities.
Lover’s first collection without Briand and Chong at the helm launched on Valentine’s Day this year, and is inspired by Time’s Up and 1970s activists.
One of Australia’s most respected designers, Kit Willow, also fell victim to the difficult retail climate. The Apparel Group acquired her eponymous label Willow, renowned for its sharp tailoring and corsetry detailing, in 2011. In 2013 – after several financially turbulent years – Willow was forced out. The label closed in 2016 after the Apparel Group was unable to find a suitable buyer for it.
“Overnight I lost my business, but was not just losing a business, it was like losing a family and a child,” said Willow in 2016. “You put so much vision and effort and energy into it that it becomes a part of you. All of a sudden that was all gone.”
And so in April 2015, Willow funnelled her frustrations into a new sustainable label KitX, bringing back her signature tailoring with a newfound edge.
Melma Hamersfeld sold her basics empire Metalicus – known for its body-clinging, stretch nylon essentials – to General Pants in 2016 because it got too big for her. “I sold it after 10 years,” she says, admitting an aggressive expansion strategy ultimately moved production off-shore. “I lost control then because you can’t go out to the dye houses and check the colours anymore – the quality control was lost. I just walked away. Whatever they did, I’m not sure it has been successful.”
The company announced that the label had entered administration in May last year.
“Metalicus has long been recognised as an iconic Australian fashion brand and we would like to take this opportunity to thank our customers for their ongoing loyalty and support over the years,” a spokesperson from General Pants said in an email to customers.
But Hamersfeld hasn’t lost her stride. Partnering with friend Vanessa Brott, she founded new luxury basics line Base Bodywear in November last year. It’s a more refined take on her original stretch designs, in contemporary shapes that better accommodate all shapes and sizes. “We are looking after the ‘booby girls’,” says Hamerfeld of the new leggings, tube skirt and tank top designs. “I didn’t like scoop necks on me so I changed them.”
How were things left with General Pants? “We’re in touch all the time,” says Hamersfeld. “When I said [to General Pants CEO Craig King] ‘I’m going back into the basics business’, he said ‘oh my god that’s terrific – good on you’. So I got the okay to do it.”
And why return to fashion after all this time? “The reason I’ve come back is there’s really no competition in this area. I’ve returned to do the same product but this time it’s all locally made in Melbourne dye houses … the same ones we used to use back in the day. I won’t stay if it goes offshore.”
And has she learnt any valuable lessons from Metalicus that she has applied here? “I’ve learned to slow down and keep the team tight. It’s just us. And where we spend the money is our choice,” she says. But that’s not to say the duo want to keep the business small – far from it. “We want it to be as big, if not bigger, than Metalicus.”