By Phoebes Garland, Garland & Garland Fashion
A couple of years ago we decided to look into a bit of local manufacturing. It was an interesting little exercise. For the most part finding a maker was really difficult. Simply they just aren’t here, or if they are here, they are making for the likes of big chain stores, and the minimums are as prohibitive as making in China. And the rest, well they were just not competitive in terms of price points we needed for our customer base.
The other factor, which was a big hindrance of going down the manufacturing path in Australia, was the new uncompromising homeworker’s code, which had just been implemented at the time. (Anyone manufacturing garments in Australia had to guarantee a minimum of 20 hours work a week for an ‘outworker’.)
All the romantic notions of doing a bit of local manufacturing and supporting the local industry quickly faded away with a very harsh reality. If we did go down this line it would be highly financially uncompetitive and not to mention filled with unnecessary bureaucracy. Isn’t our industry hard enough without these woes?
The whole exercise really got me to think about this. Why did the Australian government let the Australian fashion industry become so uncompetitive? And not just the entire fashion industry, but the car industry as well, courtesy of The Button Plan under the 1980’s Hawke government.
Ironically, government grants are still handed out to people manufacturing fashion in Australia, which seems strange. On one hand the government and the unions make it extremely difficult to manufacture in Australia by creating fears of hefty fines for non-compliance, but then on the other hand the government gives handouts to operators trying to manufacture in a demising non-competitive manufacturing industry in Australia. Talk about a fruitless exercise.
While the mining industry has done well exporting to China, let us not forget this essentially created a two-speed economy. Try telling that to the overseas chain stores hitting our shores and not to mention the overseas wholesale import labels, which have highly unrealistic sales figures in their head of Australian market, and are consequently faced with the disappointing reality every season when they receive their ‘actual’ sales figures.
‘Made In Australia’ has and is gone. Echoing my thoughts on the tariffs, the astute business-minded Richard Evans, CEO of the TFIA has been recently addressing the tariffs issue with the government and is calling for an overhaul, stating it is outdated and is calling for it to be revised. But is it too late?
‘Made in Australia’ is now really only a financially viable option to some of the smaller vertical operators. Even the larger ones abandoned it years ago when they had to chase price to achieve and sustain margin, resulting in the bulk of the manufacturing sent offshore. Along with the demise of local manufacturing, there is the further problem of the fabric offering being extremely limited here. On too many occasions I have seen ranges with the same fabrics in it, obviously at vastly different prices. That is, providing you can still find a fabric house with so many closed or closing.
Ultimately the next question to ask is, where does the industry lie for the next generation of graduates? Being taught pattern making in Australia is almost a redundant exercise due to the majority of pattern making now done in China. However, I do maintain that this is an area which China could improve on and fit problems are always the bane of the industry, so perhaps the death of the pattern maker is not over yet.
But is there really enough work to make a living out of from a freelance perspective? Again the poor pattern maker falls into the ‘outworker’ category, which is still subject to a set number of hours per week instructed by the TCFUA. After speaking to one pattern maker, she confirmed my belief; this would be essentially driving the business ‘underground’. Then there is the issue of lamenting the death of the skill set of the tailor and pattern maker being lost, as result of ‘Made in China’.
Could the combination of price consciousness of the consumer and our Australian casual lifestyle have also killed off a skill set? We also have a problem with the smaller emerging operators who struggle to meet the minimums in China, and yet are unable to be financially competitive making here. Essentially, this is where the area of the great divide lies between making in China and Australia. Most smaller Australian manufacturers have become, well, almost relegated to a position of an ‘artisan maker’, as opposed to a fully-fledged business. In other words, sadly, the garments may be beautiful but on a commercial scale, they do not generate enough sales for me to put a range in my showroom. Talk to any major fashion operator and they will say the death of ‘Made in Australia’ occurred over 10 years ago, and it sure did on the mass scale.
And it’s too late to go back, as simply the facilities and technologies in garment making overseas are way ahead of us, as well as being far more competitive. The larger manufacturers will not go back to making in Australia and there is not enough business of the smaller player to sustain it properly here. However, there is a huge opportunity for factories overseas to offer smaller runs or to bank together on production in Australia with several smaller operators. Even some of the larger players still struggle with numbers in production and it is still a huge issue and continues to be a cause of frustration with fashion labels, fashion buyers and agents.
I have always found the minimums in China completely shortsighted. While in my last article, we spoke about some factories offering smaller minimums about the ‘Do’s and Don’ts of manufacturing in Asia’, there needs to be more. There is still an opportunity for more factories to offer smaller minimum runs. Most of the companies we represent are still finding it difficult to adhere to minimums in China.
And at the end of the day, most of us all want the same thing. Who doesn’t want the big numbers in terms of sales? So why is this industry faced with such battles regarding manufacturing. I maintain that enough little units start to add up. In a tough industry and with even the chain stores suffering set back on sales, I wonder at which point are the current factories in China going to loosen up on their minimums?
Interested in your thoughts.
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Phoebes Garland is a Features Writer for EXPOSED Online and co-owns Garland & Garland Fashion with Robert Garland, a leading fashion agency based in Sydney. Phoebe also owns Fashion Initiative an online fashion destination covering business of fashion, fashion, luxury and events. Described as a” Power Agent” by Ragtrader magazine. Between the two of them, Phoebes & Robert Garland have over 50 years sales experience in fashion, publishing and advertising. Garland & Garland Fashion is a respected leading boutique fashion agency based in Sydney, and they are regularly sought for comment from various media and the fashion industry on business fashion topics, fashion and issues.