Designers Gemma Jameson, Franscesca Altenburg and Karen Lee have opened Assemblage Project on Londsdale St, Braddon. Photo: Rohan Thomson
It was a risky business venture tethered to the fickle world of fashion in a city renowned for its lack of sartorial savvy. Yet Fashfest, Canberra's four-day equivalent to the Sydney and Melbourne fashion weeks, has not only quickly cemented itself as an annual event, but helped kick-start the fledgling fashion industry on to the path of commercial success.
From new retail shops and fashion markets to pop-up boutiques and even a new modelling agency, Canberra's style credentials have been boosted considerably in only a year.
The brainchild of Zoo Advertising founding partner Clint Hutchinson and his Swiss-born model wife, Andrea, Fashfest is estimated to have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of local economic activity and, as the city's well-heeled fashion set prepares to frock up for this year's event, which begins on April 30, there are sure signs that spending is up.
Fash Fest is said to have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars of local economic activity.
Many of the estimated 3500 attendees over four nights are looking to wear local, which is entirely the point.
Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) senior lecturer in fashion Steve Wright says the scene has changed monumentally in a city that was almost decidedly anti-fashion before Fashfest.
''Canberra had this thing where it almost looked down on fashion, where it seemed to reject fashion for more serious pursuits, such as politics and the public service. Now we are truly celebrating it.''
Canberra's Fash Fest.
That celebration has commercial flow-on effects. From Wright's perspective, the development of a fashion label start-up usually takes three years in terms of building brand recognition through exposure and 10 years to become profitable.
Fashfest has taken the agony of exposure out of the equation for some up-and-coming local designers, putting them on the catwalk in front of a new and enthusiastic audience, he says.
In the days after last year's parades alone, participating designers sold more than $30,000 worth of clothes.
Fash Fest has given Canberra's style credentials a welcome lift.
Although it is difficult to put an exact dollar amount on industry expansion and spending post Fashfest, it would be in the six figures, he says.
Wright has personally invested in the process, producing Fashfest, helping mentor the designers as they experience the exhaustion and exhilaration of seeing their first runway production, and co-designing one of the labels on show, Corr Blimey.
An industry renowned for its fierce competition and division is surprisingly cohesive and supportive in the ACT, he says. ''It has been a massive collaborative effort. We've all jumped on board for the same reasons, which is to launch Canberra as a serious design city.''
Wright believes it is working.
''We can track graduates from 2010, who are in other cities now and still in their development phase with those who graduated in 2011-12, who participated in Fashfest, and who now already have a national profile. There's been a huge leap forward.''
He also notes that an increasing number of local designers are being featured in national trade journals and the mainstream press, all of which has helped spark a new sense that fashion design may be an achievable career in the ACT, with a 30 per cent increase this year in applications for the fashion-design course at CIT, compared with last year. Places had to be capped at 30, up from 22 last year.
Although in 2013 several proven, national, profitable labels succumbed to financial pressures, Tsubi and Lisa Ho among them, Canberra is now supporting an unprecedented number of local names.
Two of the most prominent design houses to benefit from last year's Fashfest exposure are Karen Lee, with her eponymous label, and 4 Minutes 33, comprising designers Gemma Jameson and Francesca Altenburg.
The three designers graduated from CIT in 2008 and always aspired to move into the field full time, but Fashfest provided a platform for them to take their designs to the next level - a commercial presence.
The labels have set up a shop, Assemblage Project, in the hipster heart of Braddon, in Lonsdale Street. There, the designers can sell direct to the public, with a studio behind the shopfront allowing custom-made pieces and fittings to be done. Paper patterns adorn the back wall and customers can pop in to visit the designers while they work on their creations. It is an entirely new retail experience.
Lee began her search for a studio space before her Fashfest debut, but the exposure cemented her hopes that two small yearly collections previously sold privately and at the Handmade Market could support a permanent commercial venture.
''You can't establish a business without a name and Fashfest promoted me to a wide audience. I had the market testing. I needed to know whether it would work.''
Lee sold a number of pieces off the runway, and remembers feeling astounded when someone wanted to purchase a catwalk accessory of a ball-of-wool bracelet which attached to a neck collar.
''I was like, really? It surprised me that someone was going to go beyond playing so safe, but I happily sold it to them.''
Jameson and Altenburg were also ready to make the leap after Fashfest. The pair graduated together in 2008 and had set up separate labels Eternal Safari and Sebastian's Sister. In 2009, their collaboration won the prestigious Debut Designers award at Fashion Exposed in Sydney and, as their experience grew, they began the round of Australian trade shows. They also tentatively tested the waters in the United States, but found the financial climate too cool to embrace an unknown Aussie label.
They grew slowly, selling in a few select boutiques around Australia and through the Department of the Exterior in Manuka, which has been a bastion of local design support during the past decade.
Jameson says it was a dream come true to set up her own shop, but it has been tremendously hard slog. Although she makes a living from her love of design, it is not huge.
''Like with any new business, it's a lot of personal investment from all of us at this stage.''
There are some aesthetic synergies that help the three designers share a retail space and workshop. The two labels work well together in that they both strive to create contemporary collections and one-off pieces for real women, including, refreshingly, those beyond a size 10.
Some of the garments are versatile and can be worn in different ways. One of Lee's Fashfest items appeared on the catwalk three times in different forms.
Offcuts are recycled and repurposed and texture is a key feature of the pieces. Sustainability is important and little fabric goes to waste, with fellow Fashfest designer Suzan Dlouhy collecting scraps and offcuts from 4 Minutes 33 for her own SZN label.
Indeed, the small design community has flourished and spawned a number of new collaborative ventures. The Hustle and Scout Twilight Fashion Market is a good example.
One only needed to see the hordes of frocked-up men and women charging through the foyer of the Nishi building at NewActon last September to know that the concept had found its niche.
Founder Tegan McAuley remembers sitting in the Fashfest crowd in May, soaking up the buzz and thinking she could pull off an upmarket market to bring designs directly to the public.
McAuley is a Canberra girl who went to university in Brisbane and was looking to settle in Sydney or Melbourne until her Fashfest experience, which convinced her that there was an exciting scene bubbling along underneath Canberra's staid surface.
She decided to stay, and she is the travelling exhibitions officer at the National Portrait Gallery by day and Hustle and Scout co-ordinator by all other hours.
The two markets held so far have attracted more than 2500 attendees each, and a third is scheduled for April 12.
Some come simply to soak up the vibrant scene, helped by a prosecco bar, live music, dancing, DJs and mingling models from the newly established HAUS Models, an agency established by Fashfest co-founder Andrea Hutchinson to cater directly to new runway and editorial work opportunities in Canberra.
Others see the market as a serious shopping adventure, where they can speak directly to designers and perhaps make a commission.
''From my perspective, I was able to capitalise on the natural momentum created by Fashfest, with local designers in the spotlight,'' McAuley says.
''From the designers' perspective, it has been an opportunity for them to find a commercial space, speak directly with buyers, develop a client base, and conduct consumer research, which can take them to the next level of moving into the commercial realm.''
She describes Assemblage Project as a trailblazer, showing full-time clothes design and retail is possible in Canberra. She also notes several labels have taken the initiative to set up a pop-up store in NewActon's Hotel Hotel space while it is being developed.
Three Little Birds and Little Boy Blue is a creative but temporary collective of fashion designers who have made themselves at home on the ground floor of the hip new hotel, stitching and networking the last few months away, while finishing touches have been put on the commercial space around them.
Despite the noise and disruption, Perpetually Five, SZN, and G. Ginchy are grasping the opportunity to interface directly with the public while they build their brands and work on their Fashfest collections.
Meanwhile, their work is increasingly finding its way into the feeds of Canberra's fledgling band of fashion bloggers, many of whom sprang into existence after last year's Fashfest and who now regularly feature photo shoots and posts about all things local fashion.
Red Magpie and Closet Voyage are among the most popular, garnering thousands of hits each week between them.
As Fashfest 2014's opening night approaches, activity is only going to increase. Models, hairstylists, make-up artists, set designers and directors are locked down in a punishing schedule of rehearsals and preparations. Designers are frantically stitching their collections together.
More than 50 individual designers will show their work on more than 70 models during the four nights on a custom-built runway at Canberra International Airport's Brindabella Business Park.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city needs to settle on an outfit worthy of sitting front row to it all.