One of the world's biggest consumer fashion events takes place in Melbourne next month, offering a chance to shop the runway, discover how art and commerce collide and learn more about the business of brands.
It's the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival which, over nearly two decades, has grown to encompass a month of activities. The festival proper runs from March 17-23, but for the whole month pop-up stores, exhibitions, free events and special deals make the city ever more the Southern Hemisphere's shopping and style capital.
I've been in New York during Fashion Night Out and it's a blast how it takes over Manhattan from downtown to Fifth Ave. But it's all over before you can say I saw Andre Leon Talley holding court like a giant bullfrog at Louis Vuitton and Anna Wintour retreating to the safety of her town car as girls from the 'burbs hunted the stores for discounts and selfies with celebrities and designers.
Melbourne's festival has similar support from high-end and department store brands, Voguettes and Australian media players. Although it may not have American-style access to all the "it" names, it pulls those in the fashion know and boasts a strong line-up of international speakers.
Designer Mary Katrantzou attended from London last year, as did revered American fashion illustrator Bill Donovan and some of the world's best retail brains. They spoke at seminars and forums about how the shops that would survive in the online age were those offering an experience of brand that was authentic, intimate and relevant. This year, the focus shifts to driving success in difficult trading times.
Festival visitors who want the glitz rather than the industry insight can expect to see a decent sprinkling of top models and famous faces. They can hang out at waterfront bars between the evening and weekend shows, which are a who's who of Australian names. Leading New Zealand designers are back on the runway again, because for the likes of Trelise Cooper and Kate Sylvester, Australia is a big chunk of their business.
The festival has a surer footing than many similar events elsewhere which helps explain its comprehensive programme. It has the luxury of breadth as well as depth and its less frenetic pace allows downtime to wine and dine or comb the shops to bag a bargain.
Based at Central Pier, Docklands, the festival also reaches out to encompass off-site boutique shows in style strips such as Chapel St, Prahran and at the historic Malvern Town Hall. The 2014 Tiffany & Co National Designer Award will be announced and graduate talent given a runway outing. City galleries and cinemas, window display specialists and the giant Chadstone shopping mall are also in on the act.
New Zealand-born Australian supermodel Megan Gale, who in her post-runway career is a brand ambassador for DJs and a L'Oreal spokesmodel, has seen the role of the festival develop. "Fashion Week is more industry, for buyers and editors, but the festival is for the public, an exciting place to see trends in fashion and beauty," she says.
With the Northern Hemisphere fashion week circuit in full swing at the moment, but looking many months ahead, fashion you can actually buy has instant appeal. Hang out in the L'Oreal Powder Room, sip Champagne and pick your favourite outfit. Choosing your own front-row seat rather than dreaming about being on the A-list of an arcane club also appeals given that fashion has such high visibility but not always accessibility.
Recognition of the need to fuse fashion and retail - in a welcoming way - drives the festival. After-parties and beauty workshops aren't all invite only. Similar open thinking is behind Auckland's own upcoming 10 Days of Fashion in the City programme.
Viva is involved in the emerging local drawcard which starts next Friday (February 28) and asked Melbourne festival chief executive Graeme Lewsey for his tips on what makes for success. Delivering a carefully curated event with fashion credibility is essential to ensure ticketholders aren't short-changed, he says, but even more important is remembering who the fashion audience is.
"The magic ingredient is to talk to the consumers."
• To find out more about the Melbourne Fashion Festival and to book tickets, go to vamff.com.au. Janetta Mackay travelled to the last festival on Air New Zealand and stayed at Sofitel on Collins St, home of the festival's business programme.sofitelmelbourne.com.au.