The Australian textiles industry has become much smaller over the last 50 years, with more than 90 per cent of locals now wearing clothes made overseas.
But small businesses like Sydney’s Good Day Girl are creating a niche market for local manufacturers and finding success with customers seeking ethical practices and transparency around clothes production.
Founders Alexia Spalding and Sophie Toohey have a slow fashion approach: with a focus on eliminating waste, all their garments are made to order in factories around Sydney.
“When we’re in production mode — we’re in the factories three to four times a week, sometimes more,” Ms Spalding said.
“We know our machinists, we know our cutters, we’re there, we’re watching them make things.
“It allows us to pick up on issues, on problems, that there might be in the production run and fix them very quickly.”
Smaller volumes but higher quality
Around 40,000 people are employed in the Australian textiles industry.
While factories were once large with more than a thousand workers, today most are small or micro businesses with 20 workers or less, said head of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries, David Giles-Kaye.
Most mass production has moved offshore, Mr Giles-Kaye said, with local manufacturing focussed on small-scale, high-value products.
For Ms Spalding and Ms Toohey, this means it can be challenging to get their products made on time.
“We have to start each season fresh,” Ms Toohey said.
“We go to the cutter, we go to the maker and we say ‘what’s your schedule like?’ Generally everyone’s really, really busy so it’s very competitive to get onto the cutting table.”
Transparent fashion on the rise
Good Day Girl is one of many brands taking part in Fashion Revolution Week.
It calls for transparency in fashion production and asks brands to showcase who makes their clothes.
Fashion Revolution Australia’s Melinda Tually said big names like David Jones and Tigerlily had taken part in the movement by publishing factory photos or lists.
“Australian brands are really getting behind the movement and showing Australia who makes our clothes.”
Since the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 people, the number of brands applying to be listed on the Ethical Clothing Australia list — which accredits ethical, Australian made production of fashion — has risen significantly.
Although it is a small section of the market, Ms Tually said this growing trend was having a flow-on effect in fashion schools.
“I’ve been speaking to some of the educators and they’ve shared that they’ve had the biggest attendance numbers of late into courses on entrepreneurialism and also hard skills like how to make shoes,” she said.
“The signs are that more and more Australian students are wanting to learn how to make the products themselves with a view to having Australian-based businesses.”
Consumers willing to wear the cost
It is a big challenge for small locally-made brands to compete with international giants who can sell fast fashion at a tiny price.
While buying ethically and locally made clothes might still be a luxury for many, consumer habits are changing and price is no longer the priority, according to the National Retail Association.
“There are consumers that will only shop at certain brands because they know what their stance is about their product and where it’s sourced,” chief executive Dominique Lamb said.
“Gone are the days where we’re looking for mass-produced items that may not have that longevity — it really is about the quality of the product now and we’ve moved away from price.
“It’s more about what values are reflected in that brand.”
Ms Lamb said it would be a good business decision going forward to produce locally and ethically.
“This will be a growing industry and I think it’s certainly a trend that should be identified and entered into by a number of other Australian brands that might not be manufacturing here,” she said.
But for that to happen, Ms Toohey said the industry would need more investment.
“We need better factories, we need a lot of education to skill up new people to work on the machines, we need new machinery,” she said.
“We’d just love to see [Australia become] the fashion tech hub.”