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Assia Benmedjdoub investigates the top export and sales strategies of Australian designers.
One year ago, Vanessa Manning was about to witness an event which would drive 665% traffic growth to her online business.
Along with the co-founders of designer brand Manning Cartell, she sat back as their spring/summer collection was almost wiped clean from the website. It was November 24 and under the advice of a digital consultant, the brand had enlisted in Black Friday.
“We didn’t know a lot about it ourselves,” Manning explains. “For us, it was an American shopping event. It wasn’t Australian and yet and we had an incredible lift online. It was a frenzy.”
Black Friday has routinely been described as the peak shopping day of the year in the US, scheduled to take place a day after Thanksgiving. The uptake is now global and for Manning Cartell, this is serendipitous as the brand starts to reap international success.
In August 2017, Manning Cartell made its first collection drop to US luxury department store Barneys. It has since expanded from seven to 11 locations and on the morning of this interview, Manning confirmed a production order for the latest spring/summer collection was up 38% on the previous year.
“When we signed with Barneys, we gave them the exclusive US rights for online and retail in the market. In turn, they gave us a guarantee of what they would spend during that time. The relationship has gone above and beyond our original expectations.”
Until the exclusivity arrangement expires in March 2019, the brand is unable to sell to global sites such as Net-A-Porter and Matches. However, Manning hopes to build the Barneys relationship through an expanded presence in top-selling locations such as Madison Avenue (New York) and Beverly Hills (Los Angeles).
“Real estate in a department store is based on your sales and we are ranking right up the top in our category, so that would be something we would be very interested in pursuing. When we decided to expand into the US, we wanted to find the right partner and have tight distribution. Barneys was and is always at the top of our list.”
The brand delivers to Barneys stores from January to March, then starts again from June to September. Manning said dresses at a price point below $650 are consistent top sellers, along with the brand’s signature feather-light blouses.
The top sales channel in the US is online, with price points across the market only marginally higher at 3%.
She credits a tight production schedule, competitive pricing and regular workshops with in-store teams for the sales success. She also advises prospective exporters to be prepared for long-term investment.
“We appointed a PR agent in LA in 2016, and it was a full year of loaning our collection to stylists and celebrities that gave us a bit of a profile to go in and make a deal. The fact we have a press agent who is getting good placements on the right girls is definitely a bonus.”
Australian designers will now have an added advantage in the market via a new deal between US trade show Coterie and the Australian Fashion Council (AFC). Last month, AFC CEO David Giles-Kaye announced the strategic partnership would include seminars on exporting to the market, government grant awareness and a focus on Australian brands for trade shows in the US.
He says local designers have key strengths in their collections.
“The US can be a highly saturated and competitive market, making it difficult for Australian designers to make a splash,” he starts.
“Despite this, the appetite for Australian fashion has grown substantially over the past few years, with thanks to our fresh, innovative take on design and trans-seasonal fashion collections.
“Support from bodies such as Austrade and their Export Market Development Grant Scheme (EMDG), as well as on-the-ground support from US based organisations like Coterie organiser UBM Fashion, have helped smooth the transition for many brands looking to break into the market.”
The Export Market Development Scheme provides grants for new and current exporters, with up to $50,000 claimable per application. For designer lifestyle brand Camilla, which has an 80/20 revenue split between Australia and the rest of the world, any short-term investment will be internal.
The brand currently operates a dedicated US eCommerce platform, as well as a wholesale presence through key partners such as Bergdorf Goodman. In the next few years, it will look to open its own stand-alone stores in the market as it enjoys 700% growth over the last five years across its entire business.
CEO Jane McNally says in order to meet this growing local and global demand, it is spending 300 hours a week rebuilding and improving infastructure. This includes new software systems across PLM, ERP and financial management, as well as the appointment of industry stalwart Donna Player to oversee global production and supply.
Camilla operates some 20 domestic retail locations, online sites in Australia and the US as well as a wholesale network stretching across 55 countries worldwide.
“Selling a global ready-to-wear range means a good investment in sampling collateral,” McNally says.
“We produce and showcase a seasonally appropriate range for two hemispheres simultaneously - bear in mind that our collections already comprise 600 unique styles per season.
“This means manufacturing up to an additional 800 sample units in the complexity of a supply chain that was, initially, overstretched. We’ve addressed these supply chain challenges by putting in a clear, detailed, critical path timeline and production schedule and on-boarding some carefully selected new vendors.”
The result has been delivery strike rates of over 90% per season.
While this overhaul has meant long hours for the Camilla team, McNally says brands which put in the hard yards early will be rewarded.
“Growth is really exciting but be prepared for hard work, risk and some sleepless nights. Check that your proposition has a point of difference, understand your customer, ensure you have the right team, check you’ve got the money to pay for it all, hold onto your seats and enjoy the rocket ride.”