Industry insights: independent fashion

CWC_2016-01-21_georgia-phase_insta-graphic_template By Annette Wagner

Most of us are acutely aware that the mainstream ‘fast fashion’ industry generates mass-produced garments directly to the retail floor in only a few weeks, and consumption comes with a hidden price tag. The ‘slow fashion’ movement has personally made me more conscious of the pieces I seek out and the designers that have a unique approach. Additionally, when Australian fashion is still relatively young compared with UK, European and US markets (despite our recent milestone highlighted in the brilliant exhibition ‘200 years of Australian Fashion’ held at National Gallery of Victoria, Australia) how does a label start, compete and compare in fashion landscape?

Behind the racks, I really don’t know much about the fashion industry at all, so I asked Melbourne-based Australian label Chorus' Cassandra Wheat and Louise Pannell about their experience.

How exactly did two high school textile friends transition into business together? What was the exact point that you both committed and started planning to launch Chorus?

In 2012 Cassandra had just returned from five years of living overseas to take up a position at RMIT, knowing she didn’t want to go back to designing for another brand. I was working at Mimco as their Visual Merchandising Manager and found out I was expecting my first child. We’d discussed starting some kind of label or business on and off for years and when I was on maternity leave it seemed like the right time to take the leap and start something. It really happened quite fast in the end.


Our upcoming September outfit for which we have collaborated with European based surface designers Pinar&Viola on the print for the outfit. Photo by Isabella Capezio

What are your roles within Chorus?

Cassandra – Design, toiling, sampling making, fabric sourcing and selection, production management, Marketing and social media.

Lou – Day to day operations and finance. Running the website, email design, customer orders/ relations, PR - managing the relationship with press and stylists. In saying that we each step in and out of many of the above roles, and both do what needs to be done on any given day. Cas can invoice and I can cut out production if need be!

Cassandra, after graduating from RMIT with a BA in Fashion with Honours, then completing a masters in design at Domus Academy before working for Viktor & Rolf, you are now now currently undertaking a PhD in fashion. Have you always been so focused on  fashion and pursuing your passion and career?

Yes, since I was very young in fact - there are sketch books of imaginary labels from my primary school years. That does not however mean that I have not doubted this path many, many times. Studying my undergraduate was hard, as was my masters and even more so my time at Viktor and Rolf, and I must say the work just gets harder, but I can’t imagine what else I would do. I have also, as made obvious by your question, been interested in pushing my education, taking that into the research space gives me a perspective not many practicing fashion designers have.

Louise, after studying Visual Merchandising at RMIT, working in the industry here and abroad for over 13 years and consulting at many big name brands, how has your journey directed you into creating a fashion label here in Melbourne?

What I loved about VM was the fact that its very operational and sales focused as well as creative. (I initially I wanted to do fashion design at uni, but when I met Cas in year 11 and saw how passionate she was about becoming a fashion designer and how dedicated a student she was I knew I wasn’t that person! A career advisor at school suggested the VM course at RMIT and the combination of creativity and retail felt right to me). I come from a family who has run businesses so I think wanting to work in sales and for myself is in my blood. Especially after the arrival of my first daughter I knew I wanted to work and work hard, but I wanted to channel my skills, time and energy into building something over the long term that was ours. I knew Cassandra and I would be able to run a business together, having been such close friends for so long, and knew our combined skills would work well. Cassandra has the design and making skills and I have the practical organisational skills that are required to run the business. And I still get to be creative with our shoots and image making, and in the past (and I’m sure again in the future) at our events and retail space.

In such a competitive industry, what sustains both of your interests in building Chorus and continuing in fashion?

We are working in rhythm now that just keeps things moving, having a resolved creative output every month gives us the opportunity to feel like we have achieved something good really often. So celebrating the small things helps. Also working with others in the way we do – collaborating with another creative for every second outfit - is very stimulating creatively, sharing ideas and making the work of others come to life is very sustaining.

Chorus has a unique approach to launching new designs. What inspires your monthly capsule concept?

It was really a response to feeling like the traditional fashion calendar of bi-annual collections was not working for us – on many levels. It was involving continued large investment, leaving us with stock we had to clear, and only providing us with two sets of images per year to promote our work with, so we had to shift. This way we can offer the newness people want from fashion in a manageable way.

Knowing the right people is critical in most industries. How important is networking in your industry?

It is important for sure, but for us it’s more about building relationships with like minded people that encourage us.

What has been harder, getting started or being able to keep going?

Keeping going with out a doubt. Starting was a lot of man hours, but keeping going demands innovation and flexibility.

I think its safe to say that the fashion industry is predominately women. How supportive are women in the industry?

There are actually a lot of men in the industry, particularly at the top, and in the past we have both worked alongside many talented men and women. It depends in what part of the fashion industry you are in, for sure in our sector of independent labels in Melbourne there is a swing towards women. I think there is a perception that the fashion industry is very closed and that brands keep their secrets and don’t support each other, however I feel like the network of Melbourne designers is very supportive of each other.

How important was working OS for you both? And, why?

Cassandra - For me it was pivotal, I think being from Australia we feel we are somehow inferior to countries that have larger industries and longer histories of the discipline. It was important to prove to myself that I could gain employment in a fashion house that showed in Paris. That being said my job there was so similar to those I had had in Australia, it really highlighted that skills are transferable and that my RMIT education was a good one. Travel also gives a great perspective on your own culture, I think its important to keep travelling, and wish I could afford to do it more.

Lou – I agree with Cassandra, it was vital time of learning and discovery for me. Being tested in all the ways a new city and country can test you – not being able to find work, not having your support network around you and literally have no money, to finally getting my ‘dream job’ which was the VM for Mimco when they launched in the UK. Working for an Australian brand trying to establish itself in the UK was a challenge as the UK and Ireland is such a broad, established and saturated retail environment. At the same time it was lovely to work with familiar people (Australian HQ and lots of Aussies in the UK stores) and brand. It was a hard slog, but again I learnt so much about people and communication and working in different cultures and across very distant time zones! The retail environment in the UK, particularly London is so inspirational. I loved nothing more than heading into central London on the weekend and checking out Liberty, Selfridges or Harvey Nichols latest windows and collections.

What is the Australian fashion industry like compared to UK/European industry?

The Australian industry is small and it doesn’t have the hundreds of years of history, which is great in one way as we get to be more innovative as we don’t have the established rules of working. However, because we are not so established and also a relatively small population compared to the other big fashion centers of the world there is not the investment or support for Australian fashion brands as there is in UK, Europe or the US. In saying that the advent of the Australian Fashion Chamber recently has been a positive step for the support and strengthening of the industry both here and overseas.

Where do you often find the most inspiration?

In working with other creative women. Working with our various creative collaborators’ provides us with endless inspiration.

What is the best advice you have ever been given?

To always follow your gut and that cash flow is king!

Do you have any recommendations for others wanting to pursue a career in fashion?

Don’t do it unless you mean it and although it’s a cliché, you have to be prepared to give it your all.