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Dan Ahwa: At Australian Fashion Week, the clothes were only part of the story

Viva fashion director Dan Ahwa processes the chaos and creativity of Australia’s premiere fashion event.

There was a moment at the end of the Albus Lumen show at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney last week, where even the seat ushers raised their devices in quick succession to take videos of

The scene was not unlike one from Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning film Triangle of Sadness, where the fashion industry and all its foibles are laid bare — from the awkwardness of seating hierarchies to the wincing realities of model castings.

Here was real-time proof that Fashion Week — no matter what city you’re in — has morphed into a form of entertainment.

The vibe

This was evident outside the event’s hub at the industrial cultural hub of Carriageworks in the leafy suburb of Redfern, where the fashion cognoscenti descended upon the fashion week headquarters in a parade of looks.

There were the Sydney editors looking polished in a wardrobe of neutrals with their queen bee, newly minted Australian Vogue editor Christine Centenera, looking typically chic in a black blazer dress at the event’s official opening Welcome to Country, along with international press, buyers and a stream of content creators from an assortment of style subcultures, including romantic goths, ‘clean girls’ and vintage lovers dressed in a patchwork medley of nostalgic treasures.

New media collided with traditional media, the latter including a couple of veteran journalists displaying their willingness to move with the times, documenting their outfits on social media and filing video content immediately after each show.

Several influencers were seen getting changed in their cars on side streets, and while several weren’t invited to any shows, this didn’t deter them from making the most of the spectacle, posing for any camera pointed in their direction. It’s reminiscent of the controversy surrounding influencers who were near the Coachella festival in April but not actually attending any of the performances, instead taking photos of outfits for both personal and commercial content.

At Australian Fashion Week, there were editors looking polished in a wardrobe of neutrals, maximalists, and everyone in between. Photo / Supplied

Speaking of commercial relationships, Fashion Week proved to be an opportunity for several brand partners, with a multitude of on-site activations that the public also had access to. This included two holographic Porsches parked both inside and outside at Carriageworks.

The San Jose e-com behemoth eBay stationed an escalator runway in the middle of the venue where anyone could peruse a rack of clothes available on its website and style it their way for their own runway moment. Across from this, a Hendricks gin bar ran over half the length of the main Carriageworks hall, while Afterpay, Australian Fashion Week’s official naming rights sponsor, took over the main bar space where guests were invited to work and socialise in between shows.

What’s Australian Fashion Week without the opportunity to truly showcase how beautiful and cosmopolitan Sydney is? Showing off its famously sunny disposition and the great outdoors, off-site shows are still an important part of the overall storytelling of a brand.

Joslin showcased its collection of puff-sleeve dresses and resort wear at the Clovelly Ocean Pools, an unexpected high tide washed the front-row stools away before the team swiftly reconfigured things for an otherwise dreamy show. Maggie Marilyn showcased her sailing club-inspired attire at the Darling Point Sailing Club in Rushcutters at the perfect time of 5pm as the sun set. And at Bondi Born, founder Dale McCarthy sent guests to the Coal Loader, a former fossil-fuel dock now used as a sustainability centre, situated in the coastal suburb of Waverton, with a fresh perspective of Sydney’s skyline shining in the distance.

The New Zealand contingent

In its 27th year, Australia’s premiere fashion event remains a strong drawcard for New Zealand brands to extend their reach to a much bigger pond. New Zealand fashion designers have benefitted from being part of the event’s opportunities from showing on the official schedule to organising one-on-one appointments with key buyers.

In Australia, the general feedback from the New Zealand contingency was that this was a market that offered them access to customers with a high disposable income and, arguably, better quality of life.

From July 1, New Zealand citizens who have been living in Australia for four years or more will be eligible to apply directly for Australian citizenship and this will only continue to re-enforce New Zealand fashion’s influence in the market. If Hon Dame Anette King — the high commissioner of New Zealand to Australia — was invested in our local fashion industry and hosted an AU/NZ dinner during next year’s Australian Fashion Week, this could help take our designer presence in Australia to another level.

Wynn Hamlyn’s show during Afterpay Australian Fashion Week 2023 was held at Syndey’s Hyper Karting. Photo / Getty Images

Two New Zealand brands — Maggie Marilyn and Wynn Hamlyn — already solidified their commitment to their Australian customer base by each presenting offsite solo shows during the week. Both have cornered the market with their sophisticated offerings, represented by leading sales and PR agency The Known Agency, who also represent other NZ brands including Baina towels and Meadowlark jewellery.

According to an Australian journalist at the opening ceremony Welcome To Country on Monday, the Wynn Hamlyn show was being touted in industry circles as one of the week’s top tickets, a testament to how designer Wynn Crawshaw has managed to expertly create a perfectly seamless trans-Tasman look that appeals to both markets. Launched in 2015, the brand has evolved from its early days as an endearing, off-kilter label into one that feels closer now to Australian than New Zealand aesthetics.

Looking around at the show’s attendees, the brand has (perhaps inadvertently) shifted its attention squarely to the gaggle of mostly hot 20-something Sydney creatives who congregated at the brand’s irreverent show at the Hyper Carting Carpark Arena in Moore Park’s Entertainment Quarter. Despite the severity of the styling, what emerged was a New Zealander’s romantic, crafty take on contemporary fashion for an upwardly mobile Australian market.

Also there to meet with the press and buyers were Wellington-based luxury bag label Yu Mei, jewellery label Jasmin Sparrow and womenswear brand Harris Tapper. New Zealand creatives such as photographer Rob Tennent, leading model Manahou Mackay and journalist Isabelle Truman have also found a community of creatives in Australia that have embraced their unique perspectives, forging even closer ties back to Aotearoa.

On the runway

For all its talk about inclusivity on the runway, perhaps what was even more encouraging was the event’s continued efforts to finally recognise First Nation’s creativity and indigenous voices beyond lip service. The Welcome to Country opening ceremony with respected leader, artist, musician, storyteller and dancer Brendan ‘Japangardi’ Kerin should continue to be an important part of the week.

For the first time on the schedule, Wiradjuri designer Denni Francisco was bestowed the honour of becoming the first solo runway show from an indigenous designer in the event’s 27-year history. Featuring unique custom print work inspired by her heritage on languid wardrobe separates, the show also featured a melting pot of models reflecting Australia’s unique indigenous identity.

The schedule also included a range of designers who create garments that infuse the stories of migrant creativity in Australia, including the brilliant Assyrian heritage of designer Nathaniel Youkhana and Saudi Arabian-born designer Yousef Akbar.

Youkhana’s debut show at Australian Fashion Week celebrated the designer’s love of couture and craft, fusing intricate braiding techniques in a collection of sculptural dresses, with the designer spending five to six weeks on each garment.

A model walks the runway during the Iordanes Spyridon Gogos show during Afterpay Australian Fashion Week at Carriageworks. Photo / Getty Images

“Aside from Jordan’s fantastic creativity,” says Isogawa, “I respect the sustainable practices he employs in producing textiles from remnants and recycled and discarded fabrics. My last collection, Fragmented 21, was inspired by sustainability. I’ve continued designing garments using upcycled, reworked and embellished pieces and textile remnants.”

Aside from Isogawa, the schedule was scant on established names, but another familiar name made a welcome return: Gail Sorronda. Known for her darkly romantic aesthetic, Sorronda hasn’t shown at fashion week in eight years, and her return was a reminder of why this Australian fashion brand remains a cult favourite. Mixing her love of pleating and organza, Sorronda’s gothic sensibility offered a softer side to Australian aesthetics, which is needed — whether in the form of a sheer overlay cape or combining gold into several standout dresses for an added dose of drama.

New and noted

Among established names, three other emerging labels — Alix Higgins, Nicol & Ford and Caroline Reznik — stood out, not only for their outward commitment to sustainability or diversity but also simply for their innovative design. Alix Higgins’ second-ever runway show was inspired by the visceral mood of Lars Von Trier films, gender-fluid strategic cutouts, sporty separates and floor-sweeping skirts that made this show one of the best-styled of the week. Designer duo Katie-Louise and Timothy Nicol-Ford of Nicol & Ford’s popular demi-couture collection was a celebration of conceptual design on another level.

A model walks the runway of Caroline Reznik’s show at Carriageworks. Photo / Getty Images

Historical Regency-era shapes reimagined into whimsical cocktail dresses and bias-cut slips styled with intricate headpieces added a celestial vibe to the week’s parade of otherwise commercial collections.

Closing the week out on Friday was Caroline Reznik’s show, another key collection that stood out for its radical way of reimaging textiles. Fully fashioned knitted gowns and dresses with strategic leather cut-outs celebrated the body, while other looks featured contrasting feather panels on skirts and jackets.Already worn by the likes of avant-garde-loving musicians Cardi B, Doja Cat, and Rosalia, the designer’s debut at Australian Fashion Week was a strong statement to end the week on.

Finally, here was proof that Australian fashion wasn’t just about resort-wear kaftans and linen suits, but one with a promising future prioritising First Nation’s creativity and emerging voices who are spearheading a welcome return to traditional craft techniques in new and innovative ways.

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