Fashion loves a buzzword. Transparent, authentic, responsible and the latest biggie: disrupter. It's an interesting choice for an industry that prides itself on being ahead of the curve. Historically this has meant creating a spectacle that guarantees front page headlines (Ksubi's infamous rat runway in 2001, Ten Pieces debut in the drained pool at Icebergs in 2015). But a growing number of designers are now opting for a more subdued approach that, rather than courting controversy, lets the work speak for itself.
"When we first started it was very tough for us to convince the industry that we were doing something that was viable," explains Melvin Tanaya who, with business partner Lyna Ty, is behind Sydney label Song for the Mute. "But we stuck to our guns and just followed our gut and our instincts."
The tactic had immediate benefits, scoring the label a coveted spot on the racks alongside Balenciaga and Saint Laurent at top-end retail destination Harrolds - the first Australian brand to do so - and an invitation to show at Paris Fashion Week. (An invitation, incidentally, that Tanaya and Ty declined citing their youth and inexperience: "we knew that we were too young, too inexperienced".)
A national crossroads
Ross Poulakis, managing director at Harrolds, says our fashion scene is at a critical junction.
"It's an interesting time in the Australian market because we have a lot of international brands coming in," he explains, a trend which Harrolds has also been partly responsible for, bringing in Off White, Gosha Rubchinskiy and LA label Amiri.
With stores in Sydney and Melbourne, Harrolds has become the go-to for consumers seeking out gear from the hottest brands of the moment. Poulakis says the family-owned business has been increasingly dedicated to sourcing Australian brands that have what it takes to compete on a global scale. "For us it's about making sure we find Australian designers that aren't just up and coming that are going to have longevity."
It was this prediction for Song for the Mute that made the decision to stock them obvious to the buying teams. "They were enthusiastic, they wanted to build their brand and do it in the right way," Poulakis says. "So rather than just hitting the highs with their first collection it was all about building it brick by brick and that was something that is imperative to the growth of Harrolds too - slowly but surely. It's taken 30 odd years to get to where we are today. So that's that's what we saw in them."
Design for life
This quest for longevity is also integral to the work of Sarah Gittoes and Robert Grynkofki, whose jewellery line Sarah and Sebastian blurs the line between traditionally gendered pieces. "No one really identifies with any particular sort of style anymore and it's just this big great mix of personal taste and personal aesthetic," says Gittoes, "This perfectly compliments our jewellery because we aren't always leaning into the traditionally feminine. A lot of what we do is quite structural and that is influenced by industrial design and our appreciation for architecture. It is that masculine/feminine mix."
Gittoes and Grynkofki both came to jewellery from a design background, bringing with them a more architectural approach to a traditionally delicate art form. Each piece is handmade and finished in their Alexandria studio. "I think our industrial design background really helps us," says Grynkofki. "How much can we take away before an object gets boring? How does it impact the body, how does it move, how does it wear, do we really need this detail?"
Aussie T-shirt label Nothing cashed in on a punk-rock interpretation of their Asian heritage, their iconic "Squat Club" top remains one of their most sought after items. "Design wise, the Asian influence is what made Nothing stand out three years ago," says founder Mark Soetantyo. "Nobody was doing it like that back then. Maybe some did, but I was lucky I talked to the right people and showed it to the right people as well through connections and networks of friends."
A practical approach
Bondi-based grooming baron Patrick Kidd's takeover of men's bathrooms began as a response to very real-world situation. "I was just sick of getting shit haircuts," he explains.
After opening his eponymous barber salon for men, the former electrician struggled to find male grooming products that had the same high quality feel. "I was watching all these guys go across the road to David Jones, and this was 12 years ago, starting to buy skincare and look for quality hair care," Kidd says. "There was a real movement around men's grooming. But there wasn't a high end men's hair product. And there still isn't! We're still the only ones in this space."
Kidd's gamble wasn't just on the product itself - men are usually loyal to something once they figure out it's any good. It's getting them to take the initial risk that's the biggest hurdle. The solution: create packaging which ticks off multiple design cues while looking sensational.
"Design is always function over form," Kidd says. "If I make something expensive for a guy I want him to be able to take it to the gym, take it on business trips or weekends away and not have any risk of the products come loose in their bags"
While plenty of designers have previously railed about Australia's relative isolation, Tanaya says there is something to be gained from our distance. "Not centred in Paris or London, those fashion hubs, lets [us] imagine further what is out there and use her imagination more … I'm sure we would be creating a very different collection if we were based in Paris, for example."
Soetantyo says Australian brands are in a unique opportunity to integrate itself into one of the world's largest consumers of fashion. "Geographically speaking, Australian fashion has the advantage to reach out the Asian market. Many have a goal to make it in the European and North America market, but economical wise, let's not forget South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Philippine and Thailand. Add China, Hong Kong and Japan, then you'll have a sustainable business."
It's reassuring to know that there is one buzzword that remains a failsafe for anyone with their eye on something truly disruptive: originality.
Song For The Mute, Sarah and Sebastian, Patricks, and Nothing are available at Harrolds.