When the coronavirus hit international fashion manufacturing centers last year, many Australian designers have turned to onshore clothing manufacturing. But as the Sydney lockdown extends into the second half of 2021, garment factories are struggling to stay open and the long-term viability of manufacturing in Australia is threatened.
The inner west of Sydney is generally a hub for clothing manufacturing. But the machinists who power the industry often come from the city’s southwest, an area subject to New South Wales’ toughest lockdown orders.
According to the rules, people are allowed to leave their homes to go to work if they cannot work from home, but the fashion industry relies on the skills and talent of a largely labor force. made up of migrant women, who are uncomfortable traveling in the midst of a health crisis. The net effect is empty factories and stalled production of next season’s collections.
At the end of July, Christiaan Kidd found herself without staff and had to close her business, The Fashion Production Company. It has 11 employees, most of whom are over 55 and live in sensitive areas. He says, rightly, that they are “too afraid to get on public transport and come to work”, even if they have been vaccinated.
Kidd’s aide, who requested anonymity, arrived in Australia from Vietnam 10 years ago. She is in regular contact with the machinists Kidd employs. “Most of us live in western Sydney which has a very high rate of Covid cases,” she says. Most have chosen not to work during the current lockdown because “they are afraid to bring Covid-19 home”.
She describes the pandemic as a frightening and precarious time. “We all feel like we’re in the dark… we don’t know what’s going to happen and they are concerned that the factory may not be able to last while the lockdown, it could shut down. They fear losing their jobs.
Bianca Spender, a prominent Australian fashion designer, says the tailors she works with have expressed similar fears. She says that many of its creators “are the matriarch of their family, they take care of the grandchildren, they often take care of the parents. It’s not just garment workers, it’s just one of the hats that they wear.
“Of course there is a lot of fear because if they get sick their whole family gets sick. “
Spender is an advocate for local manufacturing and has maintained production in Sydney since launching her brand 10 years ago. She says, “By manufacturing in Australia, we have been able to be nimble and dynamic and respond to the current climate”.
This agility is the key to the survival of young brands in an increasingly competitive industry, she says. “Maintaining production in Australia is integral to the growth and development of our industry. “
The shutdown couldn’t come at a worse time, Spender said. “Summer is our high season and it’s time to make these collections. It hurts us as designers, it hurts retailers, and it hurts manufacturers. That’s when they earn the money that keeps the business going year round.
Amrik Sohal, professor at Monash University and director of the Australian Supply Chain Management Research Unit, said there would be a serious impact on the Australian garment manufacturing industry if the Sydney’s lockdown continued for several months.
He says the industry works most efficiently when manufacturing is local, because it means designers can easily interact with the people who develop their products. “If you send manufacturing overseas, it adds micro-complexities within the supply chain,” he says – this can lead to issues such as quality control and delays in production deadlines. delivery.
Charlotte Hicks, the creator and founder of Esse Studios, is struggling to make her next collection. His business is in its third year and was just starting to grow with retail partners in Europe and North America. She spent 2020 working hard to nurture relationships with international resellers, which might be impossible to restore if she is unable to deliver their orders. “It’s really hard to think, here we are again, with the possibility of having to sever those ties,” she said.
Hicks is passionate about manufacturing in Australia. She fears that the current epidemic will “kill the whole industry very quickly” because until factories are operational, brands will be forced to relocate production in order to meet their commitments to retailers. Once the jobs and skills are gone, she thinks it will be difficult to get them back.
Sohal says there are currently two opposing forces impacting the long-term outlook for apparel manufacturing in Australia. On the one hand, he says, due to the disruption of the pandemic, supply chains are increasingly regionally focused. But on the other hand, technological advancements in factories in Bangladesh and China mean that overseas garment manufacturing will become so cheap and efficient that a shift to overseas manufacturing is inevitable – to less additional disruption from global pandemics.
Australian clothing manufacturers like Kidd experience this market volatility in real time. Last year, supply chain issues prompted designers to turn to local manufacturing. It was great for companies like Kidd’s. “We booked several months in advance and it was pretty fantastic,” he says.
But the surge in interest has brought to light another problem: the lack of education and training. “There are a limited number of skilled workers in Australia who can manufacture clothing to a standard high enough that we can charge the prices that we have to charge. He says there is “no one behind them with the skills and the training to replace them.”
Under the financial pressure of the last epidemic, it plans to close permanently. “I don’t know what’s the best thing to do right now. Rent still has to be paid, electricity has yet to be paid, bills have to be paid.
For Spender, this is of great concern. “As for the manufacturers, who have very small businesses vulnerable to such success, they are all made up of immigrant and refugee populations and we have an obligation to make sure there is an industry after the lockdown. for these communities. “
She says the government must step in “to financially support these businesses so that there is a long-term future and a healthy clothing manufacturing industry in Australia.”