Why Global Fashion Should Keep an Eye on Australias ‘Barefoot Luxury
Photo: Claudia Smith for Aje

Why Global Fashion Should Keep an Eye on Australia’s ‘Barefoot Luxury’

This article originally appeared on Vogue Business. To receive the Vogue Business newsletter, sign up here.

“It really takes a lot of time and effort to get here. Plus, there’s the jet lag to consider,” observes Nathalie Constanty, consultant for Le Bon Marché in Paris, over a coffee before Friday night’s Caroline Reznik show, the penultimate of Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW).

We are in Carriageworks, the event’s three-runway venue — a former rail repair warehouse — in the gentrified inner city Sydney neighbourhood of Eveleigh. Outside the venue, dusk is falling as local influencers jostle like birds of paradise for their last #aafw shots of the season. Another Australian Fashion Week came to a close on Friday: the question is, should anybody outside the country be paying attention?

In fashion, as in many other cultural arenas, the reality of distance and time means that Australia tends to languish out of sight and out of mind. Sydney is almost 10,000 miles from New York and 10,500 miles from Paris. Time-wise, its clock runs 14 hours and 8 hours ahead of those two global fashion capitals, respectively. As a southern hemisphere nation, the seasons run opposite to those in the north. And Sydney sits in a country whose geographical size is similar to that of the US, but which has a human population only 5 million greater than that of New York State. It is so far away, so out of sync and so sparsely populated, that Australia could be, and often is, considered something of a backwater.

However, after this week’s shows, it has become apparent — at least to this observer — that Australia’s isolation is as much a strength as it is a weakness. As Constanty concurs: “It may be tough to make the journey here from Europe, but once you’ve made the effort to get to Australia, you find ideas and brands that are unlike any other. And some of them have proved super successful with our customers.”

As an example, she raises Alémais, whose debut show opened AAFW this season. Constanty picked the brand up shortly after founder Lesleigh Jermanus launched it in 2020. “The Alémais aesthetic is really fresh and different — very feminine and wearable in an easy way,” she says. Constanty hails Sir and Oroton as other recently taken-on labels that have proved successful among her Parisian audience. Asked what labels she has picked up this season, she demurs, saying that confidentiality reasons prevent her from spilling the beans.

Models and artists at the Ikuntji Artists show.

Photo: Naomi Rahim/WireImage

In many ways, this fashion week has felt analogous to similar events in London, Milan and elsewhere. Among the 50-ish names on the schedule, its ecosystem boasts notable up-and-coming anti-commercial firebrands (such as Iordanes Spyridon Gogos); Parisian-incubated progressives (Marine Serre veteran Alix Higgins); non-binary boundary breakers (Wackie Ju); and technically accomplished veteran independents(Bianca Spender).

There are also plenty of designers who — despite the partisan instinct to cheerlead everything that makes it to the runway, as we see in other cities — are less impressive. What Sydney is missing — and this is arguably to its advantage — is the canopy of commercially powerful heritage brands that in Paris and Milan (and via Burberry, in London) compete so ruthlessly for the oxygen of attention.

Another point of difference is that the runways of Australian Fashion Week are patently more socially progressive than most its equivalents north of the equator: almost every show I saw this week appeared diversely cast in terms of size, age, ethnicity and other points of identity. Natalie Xenita, who oversees the event as VP and managing director of organiser IMG, says: “That’s true, and it’s very authentic — I hope it doesn’t seem tokenistic in the way it is being done, because it’s a reflection of Australian society more broadly.”

This inclusive spirit reflects Australia’s current aims to reframe its long-unjust relationship with the indigenous community that pre-existed Europe’s arrival in the country in 1788 by tens of thousands of years. As mentioned in the Vogue Business report on Ngali, the first-ever standalone show by an Indigenous Australian designer at AAFW, Australians will vote in a referendum later this year on whether to enshrine an elected Indigenous Australian voice in Canberra’s national parliament, and at other levels of government, too. Elsewhere the strong Ikuntji Artists show was prefaced by a welcome from Yvonne Weldon, deputy chairperson of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, who, while reminding us of her ancestors’ long stewardship of the country, also paid tribute to “cross gender and gender fluid” allies, adding: “Let us be inclusive, kind and respectful wherever we venture.”

Australia’s progressive social and sustainable ambitions are part of what makes it such an intriguing incubator for contemporary fashion. Allied with its enviable urban multicultural lifestyle and its fundamental affluence — Australia has a AAA national credit rating and an abundance of raw materials — that progressive instinct creates a unique aesthetic context.

Exporting Australia’s ‘barefoot luxury’

Three of the most commercially convincing collections on show this week were by AjeMaggie Marilyn, and Bondi Born. Each, in their own distinctly Antipodean way (Maggie Marilyn founder Maggie Hewitt is a New Zealander), offered versions of what Aje co-founders Adrian Norris and Edwina Forest described post-show as “barefoot luxury”.

Alongside Alémais, this genre — much more believable that the TV-extrapolated fallacy that is so-called “quiet luxury” — might be defined as clothes that are sustainably manufactured to an elevated fabrication, that are comfortable to wear, and which do not overtly signify class, status or any other strata of social division. If there is any notion of difference here, this difference is presented not as hierarchical but horizontal. Barefoot luxury similarly bypasses the traditional dialectic of formal versus informal — the notion of exclusivity — as one that is not relevant to an inclusive society. A nice, albeit unwitting, illustration of barefoot luxury’s disregard for the reductive categories that old-world fashion and “quiet luxury” came during the debut show of Joslin in the waterside suburb of Clovelly. Here, the front row was washed away by the rising tide.

Cindy Rostron for Ngali.

Photo: Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images

When pitched the barefoot luxury tag, Xenita says: “That makes sense. You know, I think Australian fashion has a reputation of being understated, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

Swinging into ambassadorial mode, she adds that Australian fashion is ripe for export, but “100 per cent we need more investment from corporate Australia”. She says that recently signed trade agreements with the UK and EU should remove many of the tariffs that currently complicate life for those Australian designers that wish to export their products.

However, not every Australian brand hankers to break out internationally. Sydney sisters Beth and Tessa MacGraw launched the label named after their surname in 2012, and on Thursday presented their latest collection in their new townhouse store in the Paddington neighbourhood. Beth says: “We thought we wanted that [international success] for a long time, but what we want has changed. We make everything in Australia, in Marrickville, which is not so far from here. Tess knows all the makers and we check everything before it goes out. We like it that way: it gives us life balance.” Tessa adds: “Knowing exactly where your product goes and exactly how you produce it is positive ethically, and it’s also positive for the sustainability of your life. We like how big we are.”

Bridget Veals is head of womenswear, footwear and accessories at David Jones, Australia’s chief multi-brand retailer of luxury fashion. Asked to analyse the current creative burst/sprint at play at these shows, she reflects: “David Jones was the first retailer in the world to host a show for Christian Dior outside of Paris, because Australia was rich after the war. In a way there are parallels to be drawn today: Australia is not as beaten as the rest of the world after Covid: the sun still shone here during the pandemic, and even in lockdown you could still enjoy life. Also the Australian lifestyle — and especially the Sydney lifestyle — is not divided between the 9-5 of work and leisure time. Here, leisure and work overlap; people embrace the day and the look is never stiff; it’s fluid and free.”

Although no nirvana, Australia is an innovative, confident and progressive nation. Its topsy-turvy position in the global jigsaw enables its citizens to approach many aspects of contemporary life from a different angle. Both the flat white and avocado toast emerged from Australian culture this century to become globally consumed lifestyle markers. Despite — and thanks to — its distance from the US and European mainstream, you wouldn’t bet against Australian fashion producing a just as ubiquitous articulation of contemporary luxury, barefoot or not.

On the way out of Caroline Reznik’s dynamically dance-charged show, I cross paths with Constanty once more. “I met some amazing people and saw some beautiful and interesting collections,” she says. “We have a lot in common in terms of femininity and understated elegance. So, I feel happy to have been able to dig into this market a little more and discover some brands that are suitable for us.” Once again I ask her to share her latest hot tips from Australia’s far away fashion ecosystem. She replies: “Absolutely not!”

Ikuntji Artists show.

Photo: Stefan Gosatti

Alémais Resort 2024.

Photo: Isidore Montag / Gorunway.com

Maggie Marylin show.

Photo: Dan Roberts, courtesy of Maggie Marylin

Maggie Marylin show.

Photo: Dan Roberts, courtesy of Maggie Marylin

Joslin Resort 2024.

Photo: Su Shan Leong

Joslin Resort 2024.

Photo: Su Shan Leong

MacGraw Resort 2024.

Photo: Esteban La Tessa