Note from the Author: When researching and writing this article I have found myself on a journey clouded by passionate opinions, varied perceptions and anonymous disclosures. I have questioned the ethics of speaking up versus staying quiet and what the role of a publication such as this is and should be within the Canberra fashion community. In publishing this story Leiden hopes to spark a conversation about fashion, design and creativity and what we all, from the people who sew each garment through to those sitting in the stands admiring them, want that to be celebrated in our home city.
The idea for FASHFEST, Canberra’s annual fashion event, was born on a train in Europe when founders Andrea and Clint Hutchinson realised that most other major Australian cities hosted their own fashion festival, but not the nation’s capital. The pair set about filling this gap, launching the festival in 2013 with a significant injection of their own funds. The first FASHFEST took place in a hollowed out building in an industrial park near the airport where the energy and atmosphere at the event was frenetic as full audiences crammed into the space to celebrate local fashion and creativity.
Fast-forward to today and off the back of the first FASHFEST the couple are now involved in a broad range of businesses. They have founded a modelling agency (HAUS Models) and a creative talent agency (HAUS of Artists). Along with another couple, they have also founded a childrenswear label (Nomiko Kids, launched at FASHFEST, of course) and are part owners in a café specialising in doughnuts (The Doughnut Department). Clint also has a small stake in a luxury tailoring business (Braddon Tailors).
Since its inception the festival has been at the centre of the local fashion scene; no other local fashion event rivals it in scale nor brings together as many people working within the industry in the one location. FASHFEST not only provides an opportunity for local designers, makeup artists, hair stylists, photographers, technicians, musicians, performers and writers to share their work, the festival also creates a visible platform that highlights the importance of fashion and design.
Diversity in casting and design has always been among the festival’s strengths. However, with its fifth incarnation finishing up with lacklustre ticket sales, it appears that FASHFEST may no longer be hitting the mark with the average punter. The fashion diehards and consistent supporters continue to line the red carpet and front row but, coupled with empty seats, many notable Canberra based designers were missing from the runway including Pure Pod, MAAK, Sovata, The Label and Edition amongst others. It seems that the event’s reach into both the fashion and broader community may be decreasing.
FASHFEST is not a traditional fashion festival; in fact this is one of its selling points. The concept of the fashion show first arose in Paris in the late 1800s as a small-scale mechanism for couturiers to present new garments to wealthy clients. By the end of the 1910s shows become more formalised and ‘fashion weeks’ began to emerge to target the increasing number of overseas buyers travelling to see the latest fashions. By the 1960s the modern runway show as we know it began to materialise, as ready to wear labels embraced music, dance, free-spirited models and unique venues.
Up until the noughties, fashion shows continued to be predominantly the domain of media, buyers, industry insiders and valued customers, until the rise of digital coverage, social media and the age of the influencer unfolded. This democratisation of fashion now allows us all to play the critic, forecast trends and even connect directly with brands, without the middleman of a magazine or a department store.
In an effort to differentiate the festival and likely appeal to a wider demographic, FASHFEST also includes live music and performance, short film and an opportunity to schmooze, party and be seen. While local media is in attendance, there are few media from farther afield and few buyers in the audience, which is predominantly made up of fashion enthusiasts who pay for the pleasure of the spectacle.
Growth of any business is of course necessary and desired, but growth may also come with unforeseen and unintended results. In order to unpack why the festival may not have had as big an impact this year we have engaged with members of the local fashion community as well as festival attendees. Many people have approached us wanting to voice their opinions, however, none have wanted to be named. We have also undertaken some statistical research based on information made publically available on the FASHFEST website. From these findings we have identified a number of common themes and potential factors that may contribute to empty seats:
The dates the festival takes place on are not all up to FASHFEST; they are restricted by the availability of the venue. The last two years have seen FASHFEST take place on the October long weekend, coinciding with Floriade’s Nightfest. With two long weekends in a row sitting within the ACT school holidays, Canberrans are notorious for taking advantage of only having to take four days of leave from work to get ten days of quality holiday time. It is highly likely that a number of people who would have otherwise attended the festival were away.
The Price Point
This year the cheapest seated ticket started from $49. Discounts were available for two show packages and bookings of six tickets. The feedback that we received was that the ticket price was inaccessible for a lot of people. We also encountered the perception that with only six presentations per show, a ticket to FASHFEST did not feel like value for money. FASHFEST, however, receives regular feedback that the ticket cost is great value given the inclusion of live music and entertainment. It is of course impossible to please everyone.
At the end of the day FASHFEST is a commercial business with a bottom line and the ticket price is a core component to covering costs. The move to the Convention Centre in 2015 would likely have increased costs, which may be reflected in the cost of attendance. However, with the venue only half sold on some nights we have to question whether the large, impersonal venue may be more of a hindrance than a draw card. Perhaps a smaller, more unique venue such as that which the festival first occupied would be a better fit and a greater audience pleaser, although a venue such as this without the necessary infrastructure comes with its own costs and challenges.
Like last year there has been much discussion about the six-show format. The festival currently runs over a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night with two shows each night, one at 7.00pm and one at 9.00pm. The general feedback that we received from both the creatives involved and attendees of the festival was that, particularly for a weeknight, the two shows be combined. For attendees this suggestion was closely linked to a perception of increased value for money.
More shows equals more potential revenue, however, four shows each featuring more designers may prove to be more appealing and ensure a sell-out.
Designers Versus Boutiques
Over the past three years talk about the increasing number of boutiques presenting collections has reached our ears. When researching this article we took a look at the proportion of independent designers versus the number of collections presented by a fashion boutique or shopping centre.
We found that since 2015, year on year, the number of independent designers has been steadily decreasing as the number of boutiques increased, peaking this year with almost half of all shows being presented by a boutique or shopping centre compared to an independent designer. See our results here.
We have always believed that the inclusion of local business in the festival is a good thing. It supports another subset of the local fashion community, offers attendees the option to see a presentation they could go and buy from the next day if they feel so inclined and offers a wide range of design perspectives and labels to be presented in one collection. However, many of the people we engaged with after the festival questioned the appropriate proportion of boutiques presenting compared to independent labels.
While less prominent than last year, we also received feedback on the inclusion of large-scale commercial brands. The scale and ubiquity of labels such as Portmans and M.J Bale (who each presented a collection this year) provides access to other platforms to connect with customers, including the stores that they occupy within local shopping centres. For emerging and independent local labels, FASHFEST serves as one of the only major opportunities of this nature designers have to access the broader community.
Let’s not forget that designers and boutiques pay to be a part of the festival. This fee gives them access to the venue, models, hair and makeup artists, technical production and so much more. The decision to participate and the associated cost for a local designer, especially an emerging label, is comparatively much greater in terms of the overall budget the business might have than for a business like Portmans with a dedicated marketing budget.
The festival may need to cap the number of runway slots open to a boutique to ensure that the proportion of independent designers taking part is consistently greater.
The Presence of Local Talent
When we examined the proportion of Canberra based designers presenting a collection on the FASHFEST runway over the past three years we made a sobering discovery. While, for possible reasons discussed below, we did notice the absence of a number of our favourite local labels this year, the extent to which they were missing came as surprise. In 2015, 70.97% of all shows presented were by a Canberra-based designer. This is compared to 34.15% in 2016 and 33.33% this year.
The inclusion of presentations from interstate and international designers as well as boutiques, as mentioned above, adds variety to the program and gives Canberra audiences the opportunity to encounter designers and labels we may otherwise not come into contact with. But when the number of local designers presenting a collection at what is meant to be Canberra’s annual fashion festival dips below 50%, can the festival truly be called a Canberra fashion event? FASHFEST has pointed out that they do not necessarily bill themselves as such, but as the only major fashion event in Canberra there is an expectation that predominantly local talent will be showcased as in previous years.
These statistics also raise the question as to why Canberra based labels are not taking part in the festival. In some cases the timing is not right and other commitments or opportunities prevent designers taking part. Some labels are no longer operating and many emerging designers are not yet in a position to create a full commercial collection. In other cases the cost of participating, the reach of the festival in terms of exposure a label might gain by taking part and the opportunity to actually drive business are reasons that have been shared with us. There appears to be a perceived gap between the expectations of some designers and what the festival can reasonably offer.
Some that we have spoken to have said that each year designers are asked to provide a list of publications, buyers and other contacts for the festival to invite, an opportunity FASHFEST tells us few have taken advantage of. This year we were told that only one designer responded with the name of an industry representative. FASHFEST did invite the buyer who was unable to attend due to it being school holidays. Other retailers who were in attendance were also invited by FASHFEST some there for the first time this year.
A ‘Day 5’ has twice been added to the festival, once at the end of the first year and again in 2015. This FASHFEST initiative gave designers the opportunity to connect with and sell directly to customers. Based on low designer uptake the second year and after discussions about its future potential Day 5 was scrapped. This year the festival has published a guide to ‘Shop the FASHFEST Runway’ on their website to facilitate potential sales for designers.
While the proportion of local design talent may be decreasing on the runway it is by no means absent behind the scenes. Almost all of the models, makeup artists, hair stylists, photographers and crew are Canberran.
Fair Pay Versus Payment Through ‘Exposure’
A topic that many of the people we have engaged with have wanted to raise awareness of is that of pay. As we have discussed, the range of creatives working on FASHFEST extends far beyond the designers presenting each collection. Alongside the designers who pay to be a part of the festival are makeup artists, hair stylists, models, photographers, musicians and support crew, many of volunteer.
For most creatives involved in FASHFEST (emerging or established) experience, exposure and opportunity are the payment they receive in return for their time and expertise. These sorts of offerings in lieu of payment are rife throughout creative industries. Our publication, having no income, also faces the difficulty of not being in a position to pay its contributors for their work.
Until such time as we can, we instead offer mentoring, workshops, references, internships and other opportunities to those who work with us to ensure there is value to their contributions. FASHFEST offers publicity, mentorship, training, references, internships, a venue, insurance, and access to the public, models, makeup artists, hair stylists and many other creatives. Unlike other festivals, FASHFEST also offers exposures for creatives involved throughout the year, not just during the festival.
Participating in the festival is undeniably an incredible opportunity, one that is not offered as part of other Australian fashion festivals where an open model casting is rare and preferred agencies are common. While FASHFEST is the recipient of a number of sponsorships it has not to date made a profit and relies heavily on volunteers in order to be viable.
For young creatives seeking to gain experience and make connections in the industry, participating in FASHFEST offers them access to a professional work environment. FASHFEST has been a proven launch pad for designers like Charne Esterhuizen (MAAK), Charly Thorn, Megan Cannings Designs and Naomi Hogie (Naomi Peris Bridal), who between them have been invited to participate in numerous overseas fashion festivals off the back of their participation in FASHFEST. Models like Zoe Barnard and Ilana Davies currently enjoy successful international careers after starting out on the FASHFEST runway.
However, when it comes to participating professionals, particularly when it comes to makeup artists and hair stylists, who have paid their dues and honed their craft, the predominant perception that we have encountered is that they should be paid for their work. FASHFEST has advised us that more creatives are paid each year with hair and makeup team leaders, and the top two tiers of models receiving payment as well as others.
The make up artists, hair stylists, photographers and crew may get to walk the runway on the closing night of the festival, but the names of the professional artists who invest hours working to create each look, leading and mentoring their teams, were not credited in the program this year however many are credited on the website and on social media.
Note: As mentioned, we have crunched some numbers to support our discussion above. Click here to find out more about our findings and methodology.
There is no question that FASHFEST remains a vital part of the local fashion community. In answer to this article’s title, FASHFEST does still pass the fash-test. It excels at diverse casting, presents a broad variation of fashion, and offers a glamorous night out packed with fashion, beauty and music. The festival is still the only one of its scale in Canberra, and the only one that launches its designers to such heights as Vancouver and Milan Fashion Weeks.
But, given our findings, perhaps it is time for the festival to re-examine its approach. Something is off; from the half-full venue to the quietly whispered opinions, FASHFEST is no longer being perceived in the gilded light it once was. So then what is the source of this pocket of discontent?
We have done our best to bring our opinions and ideas together with those that have been shared with us. It is our sincere hope that our work will not only help to identify some of the perceived issues around the festival we love and admire, but will also open a dialogue amongst the Canberra fashion community.
There appears to be a disconnect between what the festival is offering and what the creatives involved and the public are looking for from it. The poor performance of an event in Canberra is often blamed on the nation’s capital ‘not being ready for it’. However, in the case of FASHFEST, we think Canberra is ready and has been for some time. There is a large and growing appetite for local design with consumers becoming more conscious of where they shop, where their purchases are made and by whom.
In order for Canberra’s leading fashion event to thrive, we believe it must return to its roots and focus on nurturing and showcasing local talent.