The future of New Zealand Fashion Week

By Zoe Walker

NZ Fashion Week is the biggest event on the industry calendar. With just weeks to go, we explore its future.

NZ Fashion Week supremos Myken Stewart (left) and Pieter Stewart. Photo / Babiche Martens
NZ Fashion Week supremos Myken Stewart (left) and Pieter Stewart. Photo / Babiche Martens

Up a steep staircase in a humble block of offices in Freemans Bay is a small hub of controlled chaos, as New Zealand's biggest fashion event comes together for another year. At the NZ Fashion Week head office, there are hints of glamour - backstage photos from previous years past line a wall, a fragrant bouquet of fresh lilies scents the air and there are piles of glossy fashion magazines - but beyond this the business of Fashion Week goes on.

Brand manager Myken Stewart demands a re-write of a contract, a meeting table is strewn with printouts of contracts and draft schedules, and the event's founder, Pieter Stewart, discusses how her day has been spent signing off council permit forms about waste management. The unsexy part of Fashion Week then? "None of it is sexy!" she says.

Since its inception in 2001, scepticism has hovered over NZFW. At first, the question was whether our small country had enough credible designers to take part; today it is: will those designers continue to support it?

Stewart laid bare her own issues about the event she founded 12 years ago in a speech at the opening party of last year's Fashion Week. The time has come for change, she told the gathered crowd. "An event this size cannot continue to be the organisational and financial responsibility of one individual - it should be part of an overall fashion industry strategy, not stand alone. It has done well, but the time has come to tell you, that if it is to continue to go ahead strongly, it will need the substantial support of other organisations and ideally, when the time is right, a lead sponsor, to continue."

Behind the seemingly glamorous facade of goodie bags, front row celebrities and photos of models, Fashion Week originally began as a trade event: a way to support the economic development of the fashion industry; its core purpose to create new markets and sales.

Now, in a time when the fashion retail industry is facing its biggest challenges in years, the next question is, is Fashion Week still doing its job?

The big dream used to that, through showing, a designer would pick up a huge number of new wholesale accounts or, better still, be "discovered" by a visiting journalist or buyer who would give them their big break and take their message to the world.

Now? There is still a belief that it acts as a platform to showcase our designers' collections to the world, but this idea is becoming more of a myth. Though it may have been true once, the influence of the internet has changed all this and many designers admit their decision to show now has little to do with the gaining international exposure; instead it's about reaching out to the local market; getting their brand name in front of you, the reader, viewer and potential customer.

Designers have discovered they no longer have to wait for buyers or media to come to Fashion Week to "discover" them: they can raise brand awareness in overseas markets themselves through working directly with and the virality of campaign imagery and film. Many have gained international stockists this way. For example, after buzz created through blogs about Wellington label Twenty-seven names, its range was picked up by giant British online store ASOS.

In order to keep relevant, Fashion Week is adapting to this change with Stewart saying there will be more online buyers than those from bricks and mortar stores this year, much as it was at Australian Fashion Week in May.

"That's where designers are going to get the most traction, I believe, with international buyers in the future. At least until the economy recovers," says Stewart. "For that reason, we've invited a number of online stores this year, rather than sort of looking for individual boutiques. I see that's really the best growth area for designers."

As you, the all-important consumer, claw your way through the coverage surrounding Fashion Week this year, it's worth remembering this: New Zealand fashion is a huge deal here, but in a global context, we are small potatoes.

"Honestly, not much is known about NZ Fashion Week in comparison to Australia Fashion Week," says Susie Lau of the blog Style Bubble. As one of the world's most credible fashion bloggers, Lau attends fashion weeks around the world, and was invited to NZ Fashion Week this year by a local PR agency, but won't attend. The timing - amid the international fashion week circuit - was bad, an issue that has been a thorn in the side of NZ Fashion Week for years. (It begins on September 3; New York Fashion Week begins on September 6.)

"Everyone of course knows who Karen Walker is but she shows in New York. Labels like Stolen Girlfriends Club have a great profile due to key international stockists but not much is known about the way they show," Lau says. "I think the profile of NZ Fashion Week is a little on the low side but that's not to say that will always be the case. It does help if there's coverage from press like International Herald Tribune, Style.com or Women's Wear Daily, and therefore it's worth investing in bringing out those press biggies."

That boat has possibly sailed. In the early days some jaw-droppingly-influential international media attended NZ Fashion Week. Think Lisa Armstrong for the London Times, Colin McDowell for the Sunday Times, Hilary Alexander for The Daily Telegraph and Tim Blanks for Style.com. But in recent years, the credibility of some guests has been patchy to say the least. Fortunately, last year Tourism New Zealand worked to bring out a selection of impressive guests including Gala Darling from New York, Elle Glass of Russh magazine and Christene Barberich of US website Refinery 29.

Fashion Quarterly editor Fiona Hawtin has attended every NZFW and believes there's now less of a curiosity factor from international buyers and media about New Zealand so we're less likely to get the heavy hitting journalists from Europe and the States to attend. Hawtin does credit Stewart's energy in ensuring there are key buyers from Asia, "as that really is where the business opportunities for local designers is likely to be".

Hawtin is unsure that NZFW takes the local fashion message to the world. "From a business perspective I don't know how it goes generating long-lasting new accounts for designers. I'm also not so sure about taking the message to the rest of the world in terms of media coverage either, as the heavyweights like Lisa Armstrong and Colin McDowell don't seem to come anymore. There are a lot of young bloggers in their place but I've yet to work out if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

The rise of the blogger is a separate debate altogether, but Lau, a blogger herself, has a pragmatic answer. "Blog outreach is important," she says, "but so is coverage on the more mainstream publications and therefore building up on stockists is very important. If you're stocked in the big department stores and boutiques, it helps international press get to know the brand. It's not feasible to invite a big group of international press to New Zealand so it's a case of bringing the designers to them."

As for that dream of picking up a whole lot of new retailers after showing at NZ Fashion Week? The designers spoken to for this story say it's not realistic.

"It's definitely not about wholesaling," says designer Juliette Hogan. Rather, showing is about marketing.

Kirsha Whitcher of Salasai agrees."It's about marketing and media really at the end of the day."

Whitcher relocated to Perth last year, but will show at NZ Fashion Week this year for local customers, buyers and creative partners. "[Showing] makes for a better sales meeting, but we do it to keep customers loving the collection and the media talking about us."

Fashion Week does work as a reminder to the consumer about local fashion, as designers face the growing onslaught of international chain stores and online stores that threaten local retail.

"Fashion Week waves a flag for NZ fashion and reminds us just how good local fashion can be," says Hawtin. "It also encourages the public to get out and shop locally."

The effect Fashion Week has on her financial take in store is part of the reason why Hogan will show for the seventh year in a row. September and March are always her biggest sales months, which she credits to new season arriving in store.

"What I have noticed, and what scares me about not doing Fashion Week, is that my February/March sales - which is when the clothes I've first shown back in September hit the store - completely annihilate my August/September spring/summer sales. And I wonder if that's because we've had our winter clothes shown at Fashion Week, and people become aware of them in September.

"I'd be nervous if I didn't do a Fashion Week, what the February/March figures would be like. In saying that, I thought my autumn/winter collection was the best I've ever designed, and my sales were down from the previous winter's collection."

This, of course, would also be to do with the tough economic times we're in. With designers feeling the cashflow squeeze the cost of showing at Fashion Week is, in itself, a challenge. As a result we will see more on-site shows because it's cheaper. It reportedly costs $8000 to hold an off-site show (not including the cost of lighting and production), while showing in the biggest venue on-site costs $23,000 and the smaller space $17,000 (where lighting and production are included). There are official costs sent to designers in the lead-up to the event, but many negotiate individual deals - something no one will talk about officially. Many offset the costs of a show through sponsorship, although this year securing sponsorship has reportedly been tough.

So some designers are simply choosing to spend their marketing dollar elsewhere.

Lonely Hearts is not showing this year and instead is moving their focus to growing stockists and brand awareness of their lingerie line Lonely and main womenswear line in the United States market. Sales manager Keya Matthews will fly to New York in September to attend market week, where brands sell collections in an exhibition-type space. The United States is a market that requires someone on the ground, selling and doing market research, and label co-founder Steve Ferguson says it is still too early for them to try to do this through an agent in the US. Matthews and co-founder Helene Morris visited last year and picked up about 20 stores, including key stockists like Free People, Steve Alan and the fastest growing online store Nasty Gal, and they are hoping to double that this time. Instead of doing a runway show at Fashion Week, they are spending on branding, lookbook imagery featuring an international model, and travel. They are also about to launch an online store, focusing on direct sales.

Ferguson says the option of showing at NZFW again is always there, "We always have a blast when we do it," and that their ultimate would be to be able to do both. "I guess you just have to start making decisions when things are tough, and you have to look at it all and see what's going to cost you a lot and obviously what's going to get you a lot back."

Flamboyant label World has also made the decision not to take part this year, instead holding a show featuring their current season collection especially for their customers, at The Langham.

"We've looked at this year and asked ourselves, essentially if we're going to put on fashion shows, what's the goal for doing it?" explains WorldMan designer Benny Castles. "The most important part of our brand, outside of the design and creation of the garments, is retail. At our humblest, we are shopkeepers, like a corner dairy, and at our grandest, we are fashion designers, and very humble that people work hard to earn their money and invest it in our ideas. So we wanted to create an event this year where we could include those people with ease, an event that wasn't focused on media and the idea of international sales."

Other top designers Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, Nom.d, Helen Cherry and Workshop and Zambesi (also showing at Fashion Week) will also show in-season collections before the event, as part of The Marr Factory series of nightly fashion shows being hosted by hair salon Stephen Marr. Again, the focus is on the consumer: you can buy tickets to the shows, and buy what you see on the runway the next day.

For the record, Stewart says she absolutely supports events like these. "We're just the platform - it's like any exhibition, sometimes a company will be in it, sometimes they won't. A lot of people don't show that regularly, but choose to when it's right for their business."

That focus on retail is a recurring factor in all of this chatter about the future. As Dan Ahwa, fashion editor of Canvas magazine, says, NZ Fashion Week is a very small part of a bigger picture. "Designers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to focus their time and money into other aspects of their business that will allow them to improve their sales." In the current economic climate the key is keeping retail alive, and local business is core - and more designers are using Fashion Week to their advantage, as a platform to push retail focused promotions rather than relying on the event for an international big break.

Footwear designer Kathryn Wilson utilised the connection to retail last year with a huge public show with 3000 guests; something she says she embraced as a celebration with the consumer. The next day she opened her first retail store, which is why the public angle of the event was so important.

This year Ruby will show for the third time on the official Fashion Week schedule, and will continue a tradition of incorporating their customers into the event. Managing director Christine Sharma explains they hadn't shown previously as they weren't sure how they were going to benefit from it. "It was Emily [designer of Ruby's co-label Liam] who came up with the idea of making something, putting it down the runway, and selling it in store that day." They also livestream the show in-store, creating an event that's proven popular with their loyal customers.

"The problem with Fashion Week is that it [what's been shown] takes so long to get to market, and in New Zealand particularly, I think over the past few years there has not been the extent of the buyers or the important people that need to be here to develop our growth of labels in New Zealand," says Sharma. "So the capsule collections were a way we could cover some of our costs of Fashion Week, and give our customer something that was special and a good experience in store."

But the traditionally trade-focused Fashion Week is not the Fashion Festival, which focuses on the public. So is this really the future for NZFW? "It needs to be reinvented, and Pieter even said that herself last year," says Sharma. "She said, it's got to change, because the sponsorship isn't there, and the market, and the world, has changed."

World's Benny Castles believes the way they have used Fashion Week as a local branding tool - including their huge live show as part of the NZ's Next Top Model finale last year - is the way ahead.

"Given that we are at the bottom of the planet and we're in a different season to all of the buyers that we're chasing in Europe, the United States and Asia, it makes it very difficult to convince them to come down to this part of the world, buy out of season, at a time when it's very busy for them. And considering the GFC and all of these things, it does make it a very difficult decision to use Fashion Week as a wholesaling tool - essentially, fashion weeks as a rule are wholesale events."

Says Stewart, "I think like any business in the current environment, the model will change, just as the fashion industry is changing, and the economic environment and what is working is changing."

A focus on retail could be part of the evolution - much like the public-focused Fashion Festival, although this will not go ahead next year due to the venue, at the Cloud, being unavailable, and Stewart's daughter and business partner Myken about to have her first baby - but Stewart is adamant the event's focus on providing an "international stage for New Zealand designers to showcase their collections and their talents" remain.

Her long-term hope for the wider industry is a New Zealand fashion council, like the British Fashion Council, which she touched on in her opening party speech last year.

"It shouldn't just be Fashion Week that's making these decisions. Fashion Week needs to be part of it - with the Government, Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development, FINZ, all the other educational organisations. It needs to be much broader to strategise the fashion industry going forward."

A bigger picture, if you will, that includes a new designer award, ("We're missing those big awards - there's lots of small ones."), Fashion Week, ("whatever shape it takes in the future"), mentoring, educational programmes and more.

Ruby's Christine Sharma believes a bigger-picture plan and working together is the way forward too, rather than breakaway events that make the industry appear fragmented. "That is a real concern to me, as the market is so tough. It's the old united you stand and divided you fall kind of scenario. I think Fashion Week has to be a place where we get to show our young designers, and our young labels as well. If we don't have that sort of forum to present ourselves as an industry, we're just going to dissipate.

"There is a subtle erosion going on at a foundation level of fashion in this country, and unless we really halt the erosion, we're going to be in a situation within two years where people walking down their streets in their local neighbourhood go, 'Oh, I wonder what happened to that cute boutique, I wonder what happened to that lovely store?'. And there's going to be an Australian chain store in its place. The public have no idea of this massive erosion that is happening in our market. So even more so, we need to consolidate as an industry," she says. "The strongest thing we've got to present to the international market is a group of brands that are solid and connected."

The question is, are they?

- NZ Herald

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