When Melbourne Fashion Festival, a not-for-profit run by a voluntary board of directors, saw the opportunity to secure Governance Institute’s 2021 Arts Support Program, they were rapt, says Yolanda Finch, Acting Chief Executive. There were a couple of things at play. ‘Firstly, you can never stop continuous improvement. That is a mantra of ours. Continuous improvement is part of our business DNA. We know that the governance of the business is at the heart of our success. Our festival is extremely glamorous and shiny. It is fun for people to attend the festival, but we have the most complex stakeholder group. And as a not-for-profit that has a state government funding source as well as multiple commercial partnerships, ticket revenue and all sorts of other unique combination of elements, there is absolutely no point in time that we take our eye off the ball about how the business is managed and governed and run.’
However, they do not always operate with the kind of budgets that allow the type of development work they would like. And so, the arts support program truly adds value, not only to the people who undertake the courses and the upskilling. That value Yolanda points out has a ripple effect through the business at every level and right through to their stakeholder groups like the fashion and creative partnerships in Victoria and right through Australia.
Secondly, 2020 was the COVID year. As event organisers during a pandemic, with absolutely no guarantee that their core business could deliver its major event in Victoria, it was more important than ever to have some critical thinking around risk management. ‘We were grateful that we could deliver a live event. We had risk and mitigation plans in play for the entire year leading up to the March 2021 Festival.’ Yolanda says there were seventeen permutations of the festival that could have been delivered according to the changing COVID regulations. It was not a small shift from scenario to scenario. It was a diligently and thoroughly planned set of options, where risk management principles came to the fore in ways never previously experienced in the business.
‘This was an opportunity to do a rinse and a thorough check-in on our governance and risk management practices. So, the arts support program was valuable in delivering a mid-pandemic major event. We were grateful that we were able to stage the full program of live events that we had planned, in addition to what started as a contingency or back-up festival program of digital events or an online program — which, of course, proved to be a fantastic part of the program. It was our risk assessment management processes that brought the creative and artistic direction of the festival to life.’
Representation, inclusion, diversity
What defines Australian Fashion. What is the soul?
Yolanda believes there is a certain attribute to Australian fashion. At the designer level, it is often an elevated version of a relaxed way-to-wear. A structured, tailored look may have an informal style applied to it. ‘We are experts at trans-seasonal dressing because that is what our weather throws at us. From a stylistic point of view, I do think there is a discernible Australian fashion brand. There is a huge variety of styles, designers, brands operating here and contributing to that perception. There is a movement to turn that awareness into a collective branding imprint that every practitioner in the industry can start to leverage off, particularly if they do business internationally.’
Photograph by Lucas Dawson
But how representative is Australian fashion when we talk about a quality that can define or distinguish it instantly. Indigenous Australia presents immense creative and design potential and possibilities. Migrant Australia offers tremendous diversity and design options. Do we see all of that integrated within the industry currently?
‘I think Australian fashion has a leadership role to play in demonstrating how representation, inclusion and diversity strengthen our industry, strengthen individual businesses and strengthen the collective perception of an industry; and that in turn then serves to benefit its growth. We at the Melbourne Festival have been staunch and solid brick-laying leaders in that movement.’
Change comes softly softly
Yolanda firmly believes that change comes about softly softly. But in a firm, diligent and focused way. After twenty years in the industry, she feels that the sledgehammer approach does not work to lever or manoeuvre change. ‘You are dealing with people, their perceptions, their ingrained beliefs around not only who they are but the world around them and how business is done. You are dealing with the rules of an industry.’ Those rules dictated that all models look very similar from a body, age, background perspective.
But many years ago, The Melbourne Fashion Festival started casting differently. That was not easy, Yolanda says. Because to chip away at systemic rules, to change rules, you need to work hard on people’s perception of what a quality outcome looks like. ‘What I am seeing and am proud of is that our runways are genuinely diverse in a way that isn’t even present internationally. We have welcomed those who work with us to come on a journey of talent representation on the runway, and that has absolutely transformed how we truly represent our community on the runway.’ That is what the Festival sees it as. Community representation. ‘At the end of the day, we are trying to sell clothes. So, people want to see themselves reflected on that runway. Albeit in a premium and aspirational fashion setting.’
At the Australian Fashion Summit, they spoke about Indigenous representation because it has so much potential. But there is much further to go, Yolanda reflects. ‘There are amazing people who are reaching out to one another — to bridge gaps, to extend a hand, to walk together towards a place where we have a very lived-in, comfortable and reconciled way — ensuring that our fashion industry has Indigenous representation.’ It is not just designers that they are looking to elevate and profile, Yolanda says. There is a need for the industry to have that representation right through it. People are spearheading this effort at all points of the industry.
Circularity in fashion
‘We've also had a sea change in this industry around the notion of sustainability. Sustainability used to be a one-word topic. It is now broken down into a very complex understanding of all the ways that the fashion industry must do better for people and planet. The environmental impacts, the aspects around labour rights.’ Many initiatives were inconceivable ten or twenty years ago but are now mandatory — and not just in the design of a garment but also in the design of a business. ‘For truly sustainable fashion to happen, it is the way that a business is set up, structured and run that will produce that more sustainable garment. For a consumer to then make it a choice about purchasing.’
Sustainable products cost more. Yolanda hopes that will not be the case in the future. ‘Is sustainable fashion only for the privileged? It should not be. Anybody should be able to buy an ethically made, renewably farmed, cotton-based t-shirt for their child to wear to a sports carnival. We cannot just leave sustainable fashion at the elite end. It needs to be integrated throughout the garment industry.’
Photograph by Lucas Dawson
'I hope that the consumers will back up what the industry is trying to do. The industry can try to do all these amazing things, but unless the customer is picking it up at the rack and saying, 'I choose this garment over that one because this one is ethical and kinder to people and the planet', that is the decision that is really going to make the difference. In essence, this is what the Fashion Festival is here to do. We are educating, making aware, and then putting some glamour and inspiration around making those better choices for fashion.’
One of the sticking points is that sustainable fashion is a lot more expensive to buy. And if you are just a regular person with a family of five, are you going to buy a single t-shirt that costs you what it would usually cost you to purchase several? 'I am a mum. I buy the clothes that will only be worn for a few months and then outgrown. I am a huge advocate for the circularity movement. Where second-hand goods are not seen in a downgraded way like they used to be. It is a fantastic world out there, facilitated by digital technology, connecting ways for garments to have second and third and more lives in peoples’ wardrobes. Because of that, people will genuinely buy something of better quality that costs more because the lifespan is longer. It is down to knowing that there is a good resale value on something super special as opposed to buying something super disposable that you know will go to landfill because no one is going to want it after you've had your wear from it.’
Image-making and receivership
The fashion industry is socially powerful and plays a role well beyond the realm of garments flying off the rack. The economic driving power locally and globally, the capacity to showcase diversity, the social influence, the image-making. Throughout its history, the industry has played a massive role in how we see ourselves, our body image, what we see as success. 'There is an enormous responsibility on the fashion industry, knowing that it can and does affect how people see themselves, their self-perception, their sense of self-worth sometimes. We know how powerful our image-making is. Image-making has so much nuance to it.’ The challenge is knowing that receivership is something you can predict or control. There are layers of thinking, care and responsibility to apply over how an image you put out there could go wrong.
‘Is this an image for good? Is this empowering? Is this spreading a message that fashion is here for you to express yourself? It should not be an intimidating or reductive force. Fashion is the most amazing vehicle for giving confidence. I am an advocate for that because I am an example of it. I didn't feel particularly confident standing next to all the girls at school, or the university dances, who were thinner than me, had more money for better clothes than me. But I entered this industry, and I felt so loved and accepted for everything that was different or quirky about me.’ It disappoints her if people see fashion as something they are excluded from. She reiterates that you cannot always control how you are perceived. Advertisement-makers cannot but they have responsibility for it. All forms of artistic presentation cannot control how they are perceived, but they have responsibility over what they are presenting.
‘We are trying to create things that are very beautiful but what is that beautiful? Are we showing everyone that there are all kinds of beautiful? When we do, they can find the beautiful in their own lives, in their own self-perception and in how they interact with fashion.’