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Runway Reinvention: five years of FASHFEST

Emma Macdonald

Whether or not you partake of a ‘FROW’ seat at FASHFEST, there’s no doubt Canberra’s annual fashion festival has impacted on the city and its people. 

It’s been five years since FASHFEST founders and husband and wife team Clint and Andrea Hutchinson took the massive leap of faith—pledging to uncover and elevate the city’s nascent fashion scene. Canberra’s only fashion festival has certainly done that— unearthing international talents, kick-starting careers, igniting local industries and bringing 
an aesthetic edge to the city’s emergence as a cool capital.

Not that it has been easy. Indeed, FASHFEST has passed through 
its honeymoon period of sell-out shows and standing-room-only in its opening year, when audiences crammed into the industrial concrete bunker of a half-finished building in Canberra Airport’s Brindabella Business Park. A move to the larger and less-edgy confines of the Convention Centre has presented a new set of challenges, and fickle Canberra audiences are sometimes notoriously difficult to please.

But with unstinting dedication 
to the cause, Clint and Andrea
 are planning a fifth FASHFEST 
that disrupts the very model of
 a conventional fashion week— instead seeking to bring audiences an immersive experience of fashion, culture, art and music over six separate shows on three nights between 28 and 30 September.

FASHFEST 2017 will showcase more than 50 designers, dressing 130 models who will be tended 
to by a team of more than 75 hair stylists and 80 makeup artists. Meanwhile, it will all be set to live music—from the likes of Kirklandd, NeonHoney and Magnifik, to
DJs Soul Sisters, DJ Royce and Mitcharelli.

FASHFEST 2016

FASHFEST 2016

What’s different this year is that the designer talent is not only locally-grown but will feature a “takeover” from six up-and-coming New Zealand designers—and importing New Zealand talent to Canberra is not just a one-way street. Fresh from a visit to Wellington while 
this year’s event preparations hit their peak, Clinton and Andrea
 are taking the FASHFEST model international—hoping to replicate the Canberra experience in its New Zealand sister city.

“We have always seen FASHFEST as a model we could import to other cities, and Wellington does not have its own fashion week. Given Singapore Airlines is a major sponsor, and we have direct flights from Canberra, there is a strong business case there already, and we have been really busy building some strong partnerships over there,” says Clint. He and Andrea say the goal is 
to get a Wellington FASHFEST up and running within the next couple of years.

“And we hope to take a number
 of our Canberra designers to New Zealand as part of that expansion,” says Clint.

Clint at the launch of FASHFEST 2016

Clint at the launch of FASHFEST 2016

Audiences here, meanwhile, will 
be able to appreciate the “New Zealand High Commission Presents” in which designs by New Zealand labels Sabatini, Trelise Cooper and Coop and Cooper (presented by Momento Dezigns), Kowtow (presented by Assemblage Project) and Curate will all be shown on the one night. Another New Zealand label NYNE, will feature on closing night when it is presented by Department of the Exterior.

Paying homage to distinctly home-grown creations, FASHFEST will also showcase for the first 
time 12 Indigenous designers 
from remote Aboriginal and 
Torres Strait Islander communities and represented by the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation. 
It’s the largest presentation
of Indigenous fashion design
in the country and the show promises to deliver powerful stories to the runway while embedding Indigenous textiles into high-end clothing.

Andrea and Clint have always aspired for their collections to fill a more diverse clothing footprint than just commercial fashion. And while that may raise the eyebrows of some purists who want the catwalk reserved for conventional and aspirational designer garments, this year the diversification and democratisation of fashion continues.

Andrea with Clint and Sarah Kelly at the launch of FASHFEST 2016

Andrea with Clint and Sarah Kelly at the launch of FASHFEST 2016

According to Andrea “one of the best things about FASHFEST is having the creative freedom to allow for non-traditional fashion. We are about pushing the boundaries in terms of the creativity of our designers, and it’s not always about presenting commercial collections. I like to think we are a broad church.”

To that end we will see not one, but two, Canberra Institute of Technology shows, carving out generous space for emerging local designers to show among the established labels.

The first show will present first-year students interpreting the idea of the body or movement, while 
the second show will explore more political themes developed through CIT’s Ideas Brewery. The Brewery is open to students once they graduate from the Diploma of Applied Fashion Design and Merchandising—it gives them access to the studios and facilities to develop their talents, and offers support by national and international trainers who are practising in the fashion industry while teaching.

“The CIT shows have, and always will, get me excited,” says Clint. “For me, such a big part of this has been about nurturing new and emerging talent and what we have seen come out of CIT has been just exceptional.”

FASHFEST 2016

FASHFEST 2016

Meanwhile, Clint says his creative team has worked hard on designing a new seating structure that will elevate audiences—bringing them closer to the catwalk, creating greater intimacy in the amphitheatre and increasing the visibility of models.

A focus on food and alcohol pop-ups in the main foyer as people enter the Convention Centre will also, he hopes, make it more of a destination.

“We have worked to set the scene the minute you walk through the door—a lot of food and drink, media, makeup and hair activations. That initial buzz when you arrive is so important.’’

The team’s refusal to deviate from two shows a night over three nights, or the September timing of the event—which falls over a long weekend—is testament to their long-term vision for FASHFEST.

“We have always tried to focus on the bigger picture and we simply have to get Canberra on the calendar along with the other shows taking place around the country. We will get there,” says Clint.

He describes FASHFEST as a labour of love rather than a money-spinning event. Yet Clint notes that in just five years more than 10,000 people have attended one or numerous shows—including a contingent of interstate visitors.

“This year, we have been able to raise the bar for quality of design again.”

Meanwhile Clint’s Salvation Army roots—his parents were both ministers and his father now sits on the Salvos board— have inspired a left-of-field show featuring fashion reinvention and serious eco chic, presented by Salvos Stores. Called “SALVAGED” and curated by eco stylist Faye De Lanty, the show promises to upturn conventional perceptions of what constitutes trash and second-hand clothing. It’s a first for FASHFEST.

FASHFEST 2016

FASHFEST 2016

But it doesn’t mean that all the beautiful dresses won’t be out in force.

Charly Thorn’s creations are
 so mind-blowing, she is squeezing in FASHFEST around stints at both Los Angeles and Vancouver Fashion Weeks.

The invitation to head to Canada 
came in the mail just weeks after the 18-year-old Cooma resident received a standing ovation at the end of her first solo runway show at FASHFEST 2016, when that other famous Cooma style icon—model Annaliese Seubert—modelled her striking and almost geometric gown.

It was Italy that came calling for bridal designer Naomi Hogie, who made her FASHFEST debut in 2016. She will unveil her new Naomi Peris bridal collection—’Fairy Tale Princesses in the Amazon Jungle’—at the invitation-only Milan Fashion Week in late September, before returning home to Canberra to show at FASHFEST’s closing night.

“To be featured in Europe is something I had only dreamed of,” says the 37-year- old designer. “My hope is to open up opportunities in Australian fashion and to have my creations—many of which get their inspiration from right here in Canberra—to be carried by Australian companies.”

Similarly, FASHFEST alumna, Charne Esterhuizen showed her ground-breaking 3-D printed fashion at Vancouver Fashion Week earlier this year—earning her incredible designs column inches in Chinese Vogue along the way. Demands on her design work preclude her from taking part this year but Charne is grateful for the exposure and experience she received in Canberra before she took her work overseas.

FASHFEST 2016

FASHFEST 2016

Success doesn’t always have to mean international runway exposure, however, with several local designers combining their FASHFEST exposure with a full-time retail presence in the city. Braddon’s Assemblage Project represents Karen Lee, Edition, Pure Pod and Stuart the Cat Jewellery.

Karen, who is showing again at this year’s FASHFEST, said the annual event had highlighted the burgeoning fashion industry in a town that had previously struggled to shed its conservative, almost anti-fashion image.

“It has definitely helped us get recognition for our distinctive, and what I like to describe as ‘non-trending fashion’, but the industry is still incredibly hard work for any of us in it,” says Karen.

Meanwhile, retailers such as Rebel Muse’s Alicia Xyrakis notice a definite bump in sales as the FASHFEST season rolls around each year and ticket-holders experience acute wardrobe anxiety.

“It has been embedded as a significant annual event and we do notice an increase in traffic as people search for something really stand-out,” says Alicia.

FASHFEST 2016

FASHFEST 2016

She showed a collection of her boutique’s designers in last year’s FASHFEST but will just be an observer this year.

“I was in Sydney when it started and when I finally got to go I was amazed at how big it was. Fashion is a relatively new idea in this city so it is great to 
see how FASHFEST has evolved and bloomed into something so distinctive. We really needed it!”

Also benefitting from the flow-on effect of an enlivened fashion scene is the modelling industry.

Canberra has received a new modelling agency in the form of Haus Models, run by Andrea—a former model herself. Haus has 70 models
 on its books, and one of the biggest buzzes on the FASHFEST calendar 
is the massive open model audition, which this year drew around 400 aspirants— including those represented by other major Canberra agencies.

Andrea said she was surprised this year about the strong contingent of male models trying out and is always thrilled to see new talent emerge.

“I get to see these young models sign up and I think, ‘wow’ where did you just come from?”

She has also cast the likes of Zoe Barnard and Ilana Davies for the FASHFEST catwalk in previous years and seen their careers take off. While international bookings preclude either model from walking this FASHFEST, Andrea is philosophical.

“It’s great—both these girls are serious global talents now. We wish them well and turn our eyes to welcoming other new models to hopefully follow in their footsteps.”

NOMIKO's debut at FASHFEST 2016. Image: @wearefoundau

NOMIKO’s debut at FASHFEST 2016. Image: @wearefoundau

The creative couple will also welcome “pear-shaped” models to the runway this year. In keeping with their diversity ethos, Clint and Andrea are also including Thunder Thighs among their list of fashion houses— going somewhere most fashion weeks don’t dare—into so-called ‘plus-sized’ territory.

Bronwynne Jones, a self-taught designer, created her label last year specifically to celebrate the pear-shaped body and describes her pieces as “sitting in the right places and floating over the wrong ones”.

“Yes, it is a little bit of a risk sending someone other than a tall skinny girl down the runway, if that is what your audience expects,” says Andrea.

“But we have always embraced difference—in our clothes and in our models. We want the general public to see there is something there for everyone and to portray real clothes for real people as well as the beautiful dresses that you would expect at any fashion show. All we can ask is that people come with an open mind. You can’t please everyone all of the time.”

FASHFEST 2016. Credit: Eric-Red Photography

FASHFEST 2016. Credit: Eric-Red Photography

Seasoned fashion observer and long-term FASHFEST devotee Sarah Kelly says Canberra has changed for the better since FASHFEST ignited the city’s sartorial imagination back in 2013.

While Sarah has sat front-row at several New York Fashion Weeks, and regularly partakes of the Sydney and Melbourne events, she says she appreciates FASHFEST differently.

“For me, it endeavours to showcase all mediums of the arts and encompass all facets of fashion design. A fashion designer will be featured on the runway but the opportunity is there for that designer to be teamed with a jewellery designer and milliner at the same time. All the while being entertained with local DJ talent and performers that add more of a wow factor—different to just watching a fashion show.”

“The themes and content and quality are comparable with other cities in Australia, but FASHFEST is unique to our capital city, which is just bursting with talent.”

Similarly, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr is thrilled that Clint and Andrea have stayed the distance.

“Five years in, FASHFEST has matured into a great addition to our events calendar. It’s the kind of event that doesn’t just bring in visitors, it shows we’re a cool capital where interesting things happen.”

the essentials

What: FASHFEST 2017
When: 29-30 September with two shows each night
Where: National Convention Centre, 31 Constitution Avenue, City with after parties at QT Hotel
Tickets: From $49. Purchase yours here.
More information: fashfest.com.au

HerCanberra are proud media partners of FASHFEST 2017

Photography: Martin Ollman unless otherwise credited

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Disruption for Spring 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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