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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fashion up from Down Under

Fanastic prices and a chilled attitude draw Japanese to Rosemount Australia Fashion Week


Special to The Japan Times

When Myf Shepherd, the next "It girl" model, stepped out onto the runway at Rosemount Australia Fashion Week in a slinky jumper, it wasn't only camera flashes that lit up the room — so did the glow of computer screens and handhelds. Not only did pens record notes like lightning on paper — keyboards and Blackberrys followed digital suit. A conspicuously mixed group of fashion editors and bloggers, the Vogues next to the Tweeters, were all treated as VIPs and asked to share the same golden front row that is usually reserved for the purveyors of print.

Crusacean couture from Australian fashion label Romance Was Born
Rock lobster: Fashion label Romance Was Born attempts crustacean couture in this lobster-inspired piece at the Rosemount Australia Fashion Week in Sydney.

At Rosemount Australia Fashion Week in Sydney, the conspicuous change was just one example of unanticipated progress seen on and off the runway as the focus of the South Pacific hub has diversified. Held April 25-May 1 with the iconic Opera House in Circular Quay as its breathtaking backdrop, RAFW is the country's main fashion industry event, now in its 14th appearance. Still, despite its long history, the cachet it receives is below that given to better known fashion weeks in New York, Paris, Milan and London; no doubt, Australia's location and backward seasons make for tricky logistics for buyers.

"Actually, we're technically bigger than London, in terms of number of shows and days," says Simon Lock, who founded RAFW and now runs the event from his position as managing director of IMG Fashion Asia Pacific, its producer.

"Our job is to help designers who show with us to get their pieces into the marketplace," Lock says. "We do this by bringing in buyers and by exploiting the global press; by embracing both traditional and new media alike."

As diverse as the kind of reporters in attendance was the fashion on which they were reporting. Jason Lee Coates and Hiro Suzuki of Tokyo agency H3O Fashion Bureau were in Sydney to look for new brands to represent and chose Dion Lee as their hands- down favorite. Straight out of design school, Lee became the breakout of the week with a debut collection whose geometric shapes and laser cutting on sharply tailored jackets put the press in a tizzy.

"It was simply amazing," said Coates. "Very chic, sophisticated and technically advanced. Even just four years ago, Australian fashion was vastly 'beachy,' but I'm seeing a darker, more fashiony element to these designers now."

Another standout was the imaginative label Romance Was Born, with a couturelike cacophony of lace, frills and fantastical design that would appeal perfectly to the kinds of Japanese girls who lap up such costumes.

Japan was represented most noticeably at the event by Akira Isogawa, who started his brand Akira in Australia 16 years ago and has since become one of the country's most celebrated designers (see sidebar). Isogawa was joined by Yu Konishi and his edgy young label Yu Couture. Konishi was originally a designer in Japan for the Burberry Blue Label before he moved Down Under to start up his own line. The brand's strength is in the fabrics and pieces produced in Japan, and Yu has quickly garnered favorable nods in Australia.

"I wanted to make my label abroad, and Australia appealed to me," says Konishi. "I feel like I have more space in my head to think when I am here."

Australian designers Kirrily Johnston, Alex Perry, Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke join Milan's Margherita Missoni
Australian designers Kirrily Johnston, Alex Perry, Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke join Milan's Margherita Missoni (second from right).

Fashion exchanges with Australia have gone both ways, and the country has launched brands from neighboring New Zealand into markets such as Japan. One such label is Z-79 (known as Zambesi outside of Japan), which has 50 stores in Australia and New Zealand that feature edgy and urban- glamorous designs. Melbourne-raised Lubo Lakic, director of Lakic Showroom, brought the brand to the Tokyo market, where it is stocked in the chic boutique Le Ciel Bleu in Shibuya and in Tokyo Midtown's Restir, the creme de la creme of high-end shops.

"They're really dynamic, have such a great brand image and have a strong following," says Lakic. "Z-79 is like the Yohji Yamamoto of the South Pacific."

But what is the point of stocking brands that already resemble other import labels? Simply put: It's the money, mate.

"Since the yen is so strong now, the prices for us as buyers, and even more for consumers, makes Australian brands extremely attractive," says Lloyd Seino, who buys midrange Australian brands such as Backstage and Injury for his Tokyo agency Jack of All Trades.

With fears about the economy growing, Japanese consumers appear to be increasingly turning to mid-priced imports and shunning their luxury counterparts. The exchange rate between Australia and Japan is doing much to help: The Australian dollar is currently trading in the incredible range of ¥70-¥80 after hitting highs of ¥105 last year.

"The prices are amazing," says Coates of H3O Fashion Bureau. "For example, in Dion Lee's case, for the girl who loves the Balenciaga style, he would be maybe a third of the price," referring to the sought- after Paris label which boasts prices that are out of reach of most consumers.

"When we came before, it seemed the designers here really couldn't care less about us and Japan," says Coates. "But now that the traditional markets like the U.S. can't pay for orders, they are suddenly bending over backward. They will give us exclusive rights, make another set of samples or are willing to adjust their patterns for the Japanese sizes. It is so difficult to get that treatment in Paris or New York."

There was still a steep decrease at Rosemount in the number of buyers this year as stores cut their budgets for buying trips, leaving Sydney off their itinerary. There were 144 international delegates in attendance, down from the usual 200-250 seen in the recent past. Still, that's an impressive number as compared to the paltry 37 international buyers at the Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo this March.

"We've become more aggressive due to the recession," says Lock. "Of all of the international fashion weeks, we have not cut our marketing budget — on the contrary, we have expanded it. This is an opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to international buyers."

Although fashion is one of the most competitive industries in existence, Lock believes that it is best to avoid any kind of rivalry between Australia and Japan in creating a market center for fashion in Asia-Pacific, especially considering the increased interest from buyers and consumers from the north.

"We have worked hard to have the South Pacific and Asia covered, but I feel there is still room for a significant representative in northern Asia," says Lock. "It's going to be Shanghai, Seoul or it will be Tokyo. One just needs to step up, and whoever does will be the showcase for that part of the world."



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