While Australian fashion’s finest were being dazzled on the runways installed in the Royal Exhibition Building for Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival, a couple of blocks north in a Fitzroy backstreet, interested consumers and industry observers were being shown into a graffiti covered building. With Quick Snap Industrial Laundry written above the steel roller door, visitors were toured through Melbourne brand Nobody Denim’s denim laundry, one of the last vestiges of Australia’s once thriving fashion manufacturing industry.
Dave Giles-Kaye, CEO of the Australian Fashion Council, remembers what the industry looked like.
“We used to have hundreds of thousands of people employed in manufacturing in Australia, when we mass produced T shirts and underwear, and that’s mostly gone.”
While manufacturing’s share of employment in Australia has been in decline for almost half a century, Angela Bell of Ethical Clothing Australia dates the shift in fashion manufacturing to the cutting of tariffs on imported textiles in the mid 2000s.
“Industrial hubs now operate very differently from how they used to and the size and the scale of the industry in Australia is very different to what it was in the eighties and nineties.”
While the amount of fashion manufacturing that occurs in Australia is undoubtedly smaller, Giles-Kaye counters that instead of just shrinking, “it's not as visible as it once was.”
As the fashion industry looks to solutions to reduce its carbon footprint and the waste it generates, local manufacturing has the promise of shortening freight lines and reducing the production of excess stock. In a country such as Australia where the manufacturing base has been decimated, the question of how to make clothing sustainably, the divide between runway and factory can seem insurmountable.
Elysia Evers Wilson, sustainability mentor at Nobody Denim, acknowledges that local manufacturing is only the first step towards sustainability. “I think there's a perception that things are sustainable just because they're local to which I say, of course that's not true.”
As textile mills in Australia shut down or have moved overseas, and the yarn factories that spin raw materials such as cotton or wool into thread have disappeared, garments that are cut or sewn in Australia are almost always produced from fabrics made overseas. For a conscious brand, these overseas factories, whether they are in South East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent or China, can be ethically audited to standards as high as those enforced in Australia and bought for much cheaper. The benefits of local manufacturing come instead from an interlinking of the design, manufacturing and retail processes.
“One of the key reasons why Australian manufacturing is important,” points out Giles-Kaye, “is that it's very hard to have a design rich industry if you don't have manufacturing ability.”
Today, although the Australian fashion industry as a whole is valued between $25-$30 billion dollars, fashion manufacturing employs somewhere between 20 – 25 000 people. From Nobody Denim’s perspective, keeping things local means that innovation and design can happen faster and more efficiently than when each link in the supply chain is in a different country and different time-zone. For others, there is an even more fundamental benefit of local manufacturing. Julian Lowe, who is in the process of launching Aus Studio Collective, a platform to connect designers with manufacturers, argues local production allows for increased flexibility.
“The benefits of keeping things local is being able to have less stock, … you might make less money per item but you've got less tied up in your garage as stock.”
Taking the advantages of shorter supply chains and reduced stock levels to their logical conclusion, made-to-measure t-shirt brand Citizen Wolf is starting to pioneer a new model of clothing manufacture, albeit one that owes much to the traditional practice of tailoring. In putting this model into practice, co-founders Zoltan Csaki and Eric Phu ran up against another obstacle that is facing the Australian fashion manufacturing industry.
“I was riding around Sydney trying to knit together the supply chain and we just kept hearing ‘no’, at every step,” recalled Csaki.
With the Australian industry so small, most seamstresses and tailors to whom Csaki and Phu spoke were permanently booked up, and unwilling to change practices. Looking around for new blood, Csaki struggled to find makers who could turn his idea into reality.
“At the moment our biggest challenge is finding experienced seamstresses,” highlighted Csaki. “People graduate fashion design every year but they don't generally want to be a machinist, they want to be the next Karl Lagerfeld. A few lucky people will, but the lion's share of those graduates will fall into fashion PR, which is probably not what the world needs.”
Both Lowe and Giles-Kaye echoed this sentiment, with Giles-Kaye highlighting that from the industry’s perspective, “one of the biggest problems facing our industry now and into the future is a shortage of these skilled people.”
For Csaki and Phu the answer has been to automate elements of the manufacturing process. Taking up half of a large room in old paint factory in St Peters is a computer driven laser cutter which, according to an algorithm based off a consumer’s age, height, weight, and for women breast, measurement, cuts an individualised t-shirt. Currently, a team of seamstresses still sew the pieces together, but Csaki sees a future where this too will be automated. Csaki remains optimistic that this could mean a developed country like Australia could continue to make clothes.
“Robotics is going to fundamentally revolutionise how garments are made, and that's going to be hugely problematic for the Third World, however for places like Australia I actually think robotics is a huge opportunity.”
Staying local has meant that both Nobody Denim and Citizen Wolf have found other ways to be sustainable too, and leverage the advantages of a shorter supply chain. Nobody Denim has found various ways to reduce the resource intensive process of denim washing, cutting water use by 50 per cent since 2017. Citizen Wolf has collaborated with textile manufacturers to use dead-stock, that would otherwise go to landfill, for some of their garments.
For this interlinking of social, economic and environmental sustainability to continue, Australia still needs people to run the machines and sew the garments. As the current crop of seamstresses are retiring and will continue to reduce in number over the next decade, it is yet to be known who will replace them.