Australia can come across as a utopia when it comes to balancing the fragility of nature with a developed civilisation. Its almost draconian restrictions on what travellers and returning citizens can bring into the country only seek to protect its unique natural ecosystem.
It's no wonder then that there seems to be a collective consciousness of living in harmony with nature among Australians. It helps, too, that the pace of life is generally slower in Australia.
We found these similar qualities among the Melbourne-based designers taking part in the annual Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF). Held in early March (the festival was scheduled to end on 14 March but was cut short due to the Australian government's efforts in curbing the COVID-19 outbreak), VAMFF featured two runway shows presented by Global Victoria, a government initiative to connect the state's businesses with the world. The two shows were a tight edit of fashion designers and brands that embody a consciousness to be sustainable and create fashion in a more considered way.
A new way of creating
"We're not a sustainable brand," Brian Huynh, founder and creative director of Mndatory, tells us. "But we're consciously always thinking about how we can incorporate that into our business and our design. Hence, why we've introduced Co- Creation as an example of how we can do things better and more innovatively to have less of an impact on the environment."
Mndatory's focus on menswear, specifically tailoring, has brought about different ways that a customer can experience the brand. Apart from a made-to-measure service and ready-to-wear, Mndatory offers a concept Huynh calls Co-Creation. Customers are able to, in a way, co-create by customising existing pieces that are already part of Mndatory's collection according to their liking. Love the silhouette of a trench coat but prefer it in another fabric? Done. Wished the lapel of a textured wool blazer was different? Settled.
"We live in a day and age when people can get what they want—you're not at the mercy of what's already there. We give customers the option to do that. And from a business perspective, it just makes a lot of sense," Huynh explains.
The introduction of Co-Creation has meant that Mndatory is able to focus production on what's needed. Instead of traditionally having multiple ready stocks in a range of sizes, Mndatory is able to scale back by having only sample pieces in different sizes for customers to try. They're then able to order what they want and receive them to specification in two to three weeks. And for something that's partly done in one's vision, the prices are reasonable—around AUD600 for a blazer to about AUD1,300 for a coat.
Taking it from the source
Christian Kimber is no stranger to us. The winner of 2019's National Designer Award, Kimber started his eponymous brand doing shoes six years ago before branching out into menswear in 2018. Since then, the brand has crafted a signature Christian Kimber look that's more often layered in an off-kilter manner; not messy but just the right amounts for it to be a sartorial choice.
The Christian Kimber brand is expanding beyond Melbourne— current stockists include Lane Crawford in China and Hong Kong—with clients spanning the globe, including Singapore and Europe. Which is no surprise seeing how the designs and fabrications are geared towards a season-less approach where one won't be hard-pressed to find something suitable.
More than that, buying into the Christian Kimber brand means always having interchangeable options that are timeless and durable. "There's this idea that I always want for guys—if they buy a whole look from us and then another look, all of them will work together," Kimber tells us. "And then if we add new colours, I'd have to pare it back to everything else that we've done and see if they work."
Kimber is conscious of how and where his clothes are made. It's, as he calls it, a "happy clothing" concept. "I always find it interesting that when people talk about sustainability, they just talk about the product. Happy clothing to me is something that is made in a place where people are happy. Like the factory that we work with in Bulgaria; we have lunch with the workers when we visit and it's like a family business. They have a bus that takes everyone back to their homes. I didn't coin the term 'happy clothing'; the factory said it," explains Kimber.
He stresses that "we're not trying to be sustainable but we're constantly thinking about how to improve". Whether that's making patchwork versions of old fabrics or using recycled fabrics, it's something that Kimber refuses to shout out loud as a marketing tool because they are already things that he's been doing from the start.
Using Australia's revered material
For Chris Ran Lin, being based in Australia gives him the opportunity to innovate even more with his fashion medium of choice: knits. The designer creates some of the most exciting knit pieces we've seen, especially from such a young designer. Constantly experimenting with different techniques and material combinations, Ran Lin approaches knitwear in a unique way.
"I always say that when I'm doing knitwear, it's like I work in a lab; everything's by trial-and-error. I have to test everything like how a particular yarn shrinks or if I put metal details onto it, how would that work. And it's fun! Once I get something I like from small squares of swatches, I photocopy them and work them around in different proportions and scales to get something new and kind of different," Ran Lin details.
It's interesting to note that while Ran Lin refers to his brand as a menswear brand, about 80 percent of his customers are women. Even so, he finds that categorising his brand as gender-neutral would limit his creativity and pressure him into creating something that fits only that criteria. But at the same time, he finds pleasure in having women appreciate his creations even though they were designed on a men's form.
"I tell people that my label is for people who have their own attitudes, know what they like and believe in whatever they believe in. It's not about telling people what they should wear. I just want everyone to wear the clothes that they like, regardless of what the clothes were originally supposed to be," expresses Ran Lin.
As for now, a huge part of the Chris Ran Lin brand is catering to private clients who are eager to purchase his unique knitwear pieces. And at the same time, propelling the use of Australia's renowned age-old material in ways that the world has probably never seen before.
Quality above trends
Kerrin is the youngest brand on this list, in fact it's the youngest brand to show at this year's VAMFF. At just over a year old, Kerrin is the brainchild of designer Kerrin Schuppan, former head of menswear at Country Road (an iconic Australian fashion brand), and wife Miranda. Focused on staple separates with a resort feel, the brand has its clothes designed in Melbourne and then responsibly made in Europe using the highest quality materials possible.
"My first goal was to make pieces that have longevity. For example, the swim shorts that we have, there's a possibility for us to move to a recycled fabric but I don't feel like the quality would be as good as what we're currently using," Schuppan explains. "So it's about working with our suppliers and moving towards getting to that level of quality. I think the longevity of the garment, making something that can last longer, that's an important aspect as well in terms of overall sustainability."
Schuppan tells us about how he worked with his suppliers in finding new ways to create the elements that he wants in the clothes. For example, a rubber-dipped and sealed-end drawcord for Kerrin's board shorts that lends a more seamless finish. Shuppan's energy and enthusiasm about his brand is quite contagious and we reckon he'd be able to convince his suppliers to work on more innovations towards sustainability.
Both founders stressed the importance of knowing where and how their garments are made, travelling from factory to factory to ensure that everything is to their discerning tastes and standards.
Take a quick look through Kerrin's inventory and you'll immediately be struck by the choice of colours. They're easy-to-wear separates in approachable colours but done in a way that the tones are not what you'd usually find anywhere else. Kerrin's signature colour is a chalky yellow that reminds us of a colour achieved through continuously being left out in the sun; an appropriate choice given the brand's embrace of a resort lifestyle.
The brand with a 'radical' point
"A.BCH was established because I wanted to prove that there could be such a thing as a circular fashion label, that we could be transparent and achieve all these things that everybody said you couldn't. It's our whole purpose. It drives all the decision- making, the design process, and it informs how we educate and communicate," says A.BCH founder Courtney Holm.
Holm is not only passionate about the circularity and sustainability of her brand, she's unwaveringly so. The A.BCH website is more than just mere e-commerce, it's also where she imparts her knowledge about circular fashion and the industry gimmicks that are often used to pass off as the 'sustainable' tag. She lists materials that are sustainable (and those that are not) with reasons, in order to inform.
"I think customer education is incredibly important to us as a brand. It's kind of 50 percent of the business. One aspect is making a product, but the other is how do we make it digestible for people to understand and hopefully take action," Holm expresses.
To prove just how circular every garment is, customers have the option of either returning used pieces to the brand (shipping will be covered) where they can be recycled and resold as second- hand garments or recycled to make new yarns, or composting them at home.
But being essentially a fashion business, there's always that natural want to grow, which is inherently contradictory to what A.BCH is about. Holm recognises this and admits that the limits of the brand as a business is what she asks herself all the time.
"We're never going to make millions of garments—that's not the point of what we do. And I don't know if A.BCH will even always exist the way it exists today. I don't have an answer to your question because maybe we will serve our purpose to be an example and then everybody else will do the right thing and come on board, and then we'll serve a different purpose somewhere else. I don't know what the exact limit is but I know there's a limit for sure," ponders Holm.
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