Festival of Steve champions local traders putting quality first

As global luxury brands saturate the market with an ever-increasing proliferation of goods, smaller producers are smiling quietly to themselves. Why? Overexposure of the big players creates a growing niche for smaller operators who focus on creating exclusive products for a clientele more concerned with quality than labels. 

Festival finery

Nowhere is this more evident than in Melbourne's thriving men's style community. Capitalising on increasing interest in high-quality and small scale operators, a group of designers, retailers, stylists and outfitters will come together for the fourth annual of the Festival of Steve this Saturday.

"We've got so much demand now from people who want to take part," says organiser Carl Navé, also one of the city's top tailors.

Sitting in his studio above street level in a 19th century heritage building on Bourke Street, Navé is adamant that while many people simply love to support small business, there's also a growing movement to seek out the one-on-one service provided by small outfitters. "It's [about] having my phone number in their phone," he says.

Keep it special

Melbourne's CBD fosters a number of small artisanal businesses, but after the collapse of Australia's clothing manufacturing industry, many are forced to source their products from overseas. Navé has his made-to-measure suits manufactured in both Shanghai and Biella in northern Italy.

It's [about] having my phone number in their phone.

Carl Navé

That fact aside, Nave says small businesses are managing to stay alive in a fast fashion world by keeping services small and specialised. "I believe there is a rag trade, but it's a value-added and service-added rag trade," he says. "What we're doing is on a much smaller scale than a lot of other businesses."

Bridging the gap

Right now there are some significant forces playing into the hands of made-to-measure businesses. First, there is the dramatic improvement in suit manufacturing in China and the significant upturn in willingness of European manufacturers to take on small orders from Australian operators. When he first started in 2010, Navé says it was very hard to get the Italians to return his calls, let alone accept his business. Now a different Italian suit maker contacts him on a weekly basis to chase his business.

This is what is most important about a business like Nave's; it has made overseas craftsmanship highly accessible. A suit made-to-measure in Italy for around $2000 is something every well-dressed chap should celebrate – that is, after making an appointment to get measured up.

Sock it to 'em

A similar willingness to build relationships overseas can be found at Melbourne-based sock company Fortis Green. Founder Ray Willmoth, a former buyer for the UK menswear brand Charles Tyrwhitt, put his experience to good use in creating the best sock possible.

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"All of our materials, all of our construction processes, and all of our manufacturing and finishing processes are as good as it gets," Willmoth says.

"Creating a strong brand is a constant evolution and I'm lucky I have a strong retail grounding to guide me in this process ... I'm aware of the pitfalls and I'm very clear about what's needed in the design, product development and manufacturing stages in order to create something special for our customers."

Dapper chaps

At the other end of the experience scale to Willmoth, but no less determined, is 22-year-old George Bauer. Along with a couple of colleagues, Bauer runs That Dapper Chap, a small outfit that makes bow ties, pocket squares, ties and cufflinks in Melbourne's Brunswick East.

To have such a quality accessory made in Melbourne is another reason to support small producers. No doubt Bauer will hope to take a few orders at the Festival of Steve.

Executive Style is a media partner of The Festival of Steve, to be held at Melbourne's Federation Square on Saturday, May 28, 11am–6pm.