China. Bangladesh. Vietnam. India.

These are some of the manufacturing markets vying for Australia's fashion dollar.

But for a number of Australian brands including Viktoria & Woods, Manning Cartell and RM Williams, a big move to offshore manufacturing wasn't going to be a part of their story or foundation.

Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), which provides accreditation for brands that manufacture fairly and locally, secured $3 million in funding last year to continue its support for the local garment industry.

ECA executive Sigrid McCarthy says that while there are challenges and evolutions happening in the industry, there remains a strong commitment to producing in Australia with approximately 100 companies partnered with the group.

“While the size of the industry is not the same as it has been in the past, it remains highly valuable.

“When speaking to accredited companies, we hear of really positive stories where brands have been able to employ more workers due to growing commercial success, as well as invest in new supply chain innovations and machinery.”

For Viktoria & Woods, manufacturing product in Australia also enables it to maintain a greater level of control over the design process and to develop closer relationships with its partners over time with the company currently working with approximately five local manufacturers.

At present, Viktoria & Woods produces four collections a year with a design process of 10-12 weeks for each collection from the creative brief to the final sales samples.

Viktoria & Woods founder Margie Woods believes that these collaborations with local manufacturers opens up new opportunities in the local market and ensures that the brand is working towards its strategy with each collection.

“One of the biggest advantages is our ability to collaborate with our makers so we get the best out of each design. From technicality, finish and even problem solving, our manufacturers are an extension of our team.

“We can work closer to market and react to trends, recut opportunities and trade conditions a lot faster. Our QC is run by an in-house team, which allows us to access any problems and fix these with our makers faster.

This sentiment is echoed by Manning Cartell co-founder Gabrielle Manning, who says that the ability to work with local manufacturers also allows for quicker turnarounds of product and smaller exclusive runs.

“We may order 300m of fabric and in the initial cut, we might utilise 200m of it. We can distribute it to our stores, see what performs well and out of that, make a little capsule.

“Maybe the dress performed better than the pant so we can go in and recut and we generally have a two week turnaround time to cut and make which enables us to have small runs of exclusive pieces.”

McCarthy says that businesses manufacturing locally are able to respond quickly to customer demands and also enables the brands to trial styles before committing to a full run as well as keep volume orders low while avoiding the risk of being left with large amounts of dead stock.

Designers who manufacture in Australia also commonly reference the invaluable nature of the wealth of knowledge held by Australian manufacturers and how their knowledge can drive a mutually beneficial relationships.

RM Williams CEO Raju Vuppalapati says the company's relationship with their Australian crafts people is crucial to the success of the business and highlighted them as a symbol of what the company is all about.

“We have this place in Salisbury in Adelaide, it's called the workshop. We've got about 350 craftsmen and women. Some of them have been working in the company for 35-40 years.

“Any time you take anybody to a place like that, in two days, you'll understand what the company is all about. You'll get stories but you'll also be able to see the product in action and you think about the beauty that gets done there.”

The idea of designers and brands partnering with a small group of manufacturers rather than consistently changing them is one that McCarthy believes leads to a better working relationships between designers and manufacturers.

“Many companies are placing a greater value on maintaining long standing relationships with suppliers as opposed to continually changing suppliers.

“Some of our companies have been working with their makers for many decades and have attributed much of their success to this consistency, as it has given them the chance to fine-tune and evolve together.”
Manning says it has been a foundation of the Manning Cartell to connect and partner with a small group of Australian manufacturers since the inception of the brand back in 2005.

“We've kept a really tight group of makers. Consistently, we've given them work so that's enabled them to stay in business and it's such a big part of what we do. It's part of our DNA and the makers that we work with are part of our Manning Cartell family.”

While there is a positive attitude towards local manufacturing amongst the companies involved and within the general consumer base, there is a significant challenge facing Australian manufacturing in the form of an ageing workforce and an industry continuing to lose skills as people retire.

There have been calls from across the fashion industry for a renewed focus on skills and training in Australia. There is also a push for the government to increase its support for local manufacturing and to support job training in the area.

Vuppalapati says there needs to be a change in the narrative around manufacturing in Australia to match the culture of other countries with successful manufacturing bases.

“If you go to France, craftsmen and women have certain medals that the president of the country gives them every year recognising that they love that craftsmanship.

“We are trying to work with the government and asking “How do we ensure there is a pathway for young people who want to use their skills?” because most people who want to do that go overseas because there's nothing here.

“We're trying to create an apprenticeship program for young men and women working with the University of South Australia.

“We've also been working with the government of South Australia to look at skill development and training saying we want to double our capacity and want to hire about 150 men and women.

“It' will take them anywhere between six months to a year to start at least making a good pair of boots but that's a journey that we have to stay committed to.

“More and more, we don't have those skills and we're trying to be sure that we not only look at the commercial side of it but also the skill side of it and keep it as part of the world.

“I'm a firm believer that great brands are built around not taking the easiest option and the easiest option is to go offshore.

McCarthy says that the issue of social and ethical responsibility for brands is something that can no longer be pushed to the side.

“Corporate social responsibility is no longer something brands can consider optional.

“With increased media coverage, consumer awareness and pressure from civil society groups, it is now an expectation that brands are actively engaging in supply chain risk management.

“Knowing who made your garments and under what conditions is an integral part of doing business and those leading the way in the industry are the brands embracing their responsibility to ensure ethical business practices and legal compliance.”

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