Sydney is a full day's plane ride from the primary international fashion markets of North America, Europe, Japan and China. Its Southern Hemisphere seasons are out of sync with the biannual fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris. And in most of the world, the opinion prevails that Oz is the land of a limited, laid-back aesthetic built around bikinis and surfer-staple UGG boots.
Yet, Sydney is unexpectedly emerging as one of the next global style cities. The front rows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia (which next takes place April 8 through 12 in Sydney) have increasingly been filled by international press and buyers. And big-deal street-style bloggers, such as Canadian ex-pat Tommy Ton of style.com and Jak & Jil, have repeatedly posted about the eclectic group of fashion scenesters who gather ringside at the shows.
Jarrad Clark, the director of global production for IMG Fashion, which runs the event in Australia, calls Sydney "a mecca for innovative, inventive and avant-garde designers. Australian brands such as We Are Handsome, a favourite of Rihanna's, ELLERY, which showed at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York last September, and Dion Lee, who had great success at the London shows, represent the new generation of talent in the market."
As Clark explains it, there's a distinctive aesthetic coming out of Sydney that holds global appeal: "These designers are the arbiters of an unpretentious cool that has become widespread on the international fashion scene."
Australian designers have traditionally been unafraid of bold colour and prints (both big trends around the world right now) and they hew more to the street style of Los Angeles, New York and Londonthan to the formal couture capitals, which lends their lines accessibility.
The best of Sydney's new generation of designers combine innovative elements, such as graphic digital prints, with vintage quirk and touches of an Eastern experimentalism that befits their perch on the Pacific Rim. The look is typified by 25-year-old Lee – considered the star of the Australian tents by fashion insiders – whose designs feature origami-like pleats and folds, soft prints and edgy, deconstructed asymmetrical silhouettes.
For Lee and his contemporaries, the Internet has been a passport to markets around the world. Labels aimed at a youthful customer – the vintagey Mink Pink, for instance, and Camilla and Marc, with its vibrant stripes and computerized camo prints – are favourites among style bloggers, Pinterest users and popular Web retailers. Net-a-Porter now represents several established Australian brands, and last year Moda Operandi, the hotoff– the-runway pre-order site, came to Sydney to sign up 10 top designers for its trunk shows.
Nick Gower, a digital marketer, co-founded The Grand Social e-tail site in 2008 to shepherd emerging Australian designers onto the international stage. The site now represents about 100 Australian talents and last year, when it launched international shipping, sales increased exponentially. As he sees it, this success is proof that the country's fashion scene is growing up. "In the past, the focus was on youth-culture brands such as Tsubi," he says, referring to the 13-year-old surf and denim label (now named Ksubi) that sells around the world. "But now, we're seeing a generation of more sophisticated designers [delivering] their style to the world in a far more successful fashion," placing sunny Sydney design no more than a few clicks away.