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Shoppers' glee at international retail arrivals

Japanese retailer Muji opening its first Australian store in Chadstone follows hot on the heels of H&M announcing plans to base its flagship store in the CBD.

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After decades spent selling their over-priced clothes in relative isolation, Australian retailers have suddenly found themselves in the midst of an international fashion invasion.

A recent report by Colliers International found 28 international retailers would establish 235 new stores and look for 220,000 square metres of Australian retail space within the next five years.

Swedish retailer H&M and Japan's Uniqlo are among the big-name internationals that will open stores in the next 12 months. Fellow Japanese retailer Muji opened its first Australian store at Chadstone on Tuesday while, Zara, Topshop and Gap are rapidly gaining a strong foothold here.

The fashion incursion has come on several fronts – from overseas fast fashion chains setting up bricks and mortar stores in our largest cities and from the hundreds of international retailers selling to Australian consumers online.

The catalyst for both, however, has been the internet. When British-based e-tailer Asos started selling their cheap on-trend clothing to Australian consumers several years ago it quickly realised it had struck gold.

An analysis of their online orders clearly showed Australia was it's second biggest market outside of their home turf.

A similar story has been retold by dozens of international retailers since – Topshop, Net-a-Porter and Neiman Marcus all list Australia among their biggest overseas markets.

Some, including Topshop, Zara and Gap – and there are plenty more to come – have jumped on the opportunity by opening flagship stores in prime locations throughout our capital cities.

Others have invested heavily in marketing and selling their wares to Australians through their virtual stores – by setting up Australian-based warehouses, designing Australia-specific collections, employing local public relations agents and by advertising aggressively directly to Australian consumers.

In the past month, for example, American department store Neiman Marcus, who does not have one single store in this country, has placed advertisements in prime advertising space including the front page of The Age newspaper .

These retail juggernauts have discovered – purely by chance, or more specifically, by the internationalisation of their online stores – that there is a market on the other side of globe that had, until now, been under-serviced and underwhelmed when it came to fashion choice – particularly of the affordable variety.

We cannot blame Australia's clothing retailers for the lack of choice. There are only so many fashion labels that can make a living out of dressing 23 million people. We also can't blame them entirely for prices that – even with increased competition from international brands – remain uncompetitive.

The volumes produced by the likes of Zara, H&M and Topshop to service a global market means it is impossible for Sportsgirl or Witchery or Cue who produce volumes for a much smaller market to compete on price.

However, there is no question that a lack of competition has meant many retailers have been able to keep prices higher for a long period of time.

Early last year, Fairfax Media reported several examples of local fashion importers reaching agreements with international brands to stop selling their clothes to Australians on overseas websites or to lift their web prices for Australian consumers, so local stores could continue selling the clothes at inflated prices.

On the face of it, Australian consumers will be the big winners of the opening up of the global fashion market. Or will they?

Already, increased competition from overseas has claimed several fashion victims.

In the past week, it has been revealed that two of Australia's best known fashion designers – Bettina Liano and Kit Willow – have been forced to walk away from the fashion labels that bear their name. These come on the back of a string of other famous fashion departures in recent months, including Lisa Ho, Collette Dinnigan, Alannah Hill and Kirrily Johnston.

The exodus of half a dozen of Australia's most talented designers in the space of a few months has been the result of a variety of factors. However, there is no denying that increased international competition has exposed the weakest of these fashion businesses – including Lisa Ho, Kirrily Johnston and Bettina Liano.

In instances, where designers have been forced out by their owners – including Kit Willow and Alannah Hill – we can only imagine there have been tensions in those relationships, some of which will have undoubtedly been exacerbated by an increasing need for owners to put profits first, in a retail environment where marketshare is being increasingly eroded by overseas players.

While Australian consumers might now have greater access to affordable, fast fashion there is a risk that as overseas retailers inevitably cannablise our Australian talent that our fashion choice will become increasingly homogenised.

Only time will tell if our homegrown independent talent is in fact talented enough to continue to innovate to protect its marketshare and its signature style.