Two things struck me when I first discovered Australian high-fashion label Song for the Mute about five years ago: one, that co-founders Lyna Ty and Melvin Tanaya sourced their fabrics from some of the most prestigious mills in Italy and Japan; and two, that they proceeded to manufacture their garments right here in Australia.
Since then, SFTM has grown significantly, adding prestigious locations such as Selfridge's and Dover Street Market to its list of international stockists. But the label still makes about 80% of its clothing in Sydney (starting this season, the remaining 20% is being manufactured in Japan).
The threads that bind
Tanaya says manufacturing locally is first and foremost about loyalty. "The local factories are the ones that started us," he explains. "At the beginning, when we didn't know anyone, they helped us. These people have been with us this whole time, and now we call them 'uncles' and 'aunties.'"
Tanaya admits SFTM's commitment to Australian manufacturing impacts its profit margins. "Local manufacturers simply can't compete with China on price," he says. "But we think it's important to nurture the industry and keep it alive. It's not fair for us to get successful and then say, 'See you later' and go to China just to cut costs."
Back to Bassike
Of course, Song for the Mute isn't the only Australian clothing brand to manufacture locally. Bassike has become a thriving global business despite – or, perhaps, because of – its commitment to 'Made In Australia'. And new labels, such as the casualwear purveyor Best Jumpers, are making local manufacture a key part of their sales pitches.
But, overall, our clothes-manufacturing industry is in decline. Several designers I've spoken to say the turning point was Pacific Brands' decision in 2009 to move the manufacture of Bonds and other brands offshore. In the decade since, the industry has shed countless skilled workers.
It's worth remembering that, without access to local manufacturing infrastructure, the next SFTM or Bassike might never come into existence. Australian consumers who value our industry should factor that in to future purchases.
Simon Foretti, a former member of the ARIA-winning hip-hop group 1200 Techniques and founder of the new Melbourne label B.O.Y.D, says buying locally-made threads also ensures your garments have been manufactured under fair conditions. "I'm seeing labels that manufacture in China or Bangladesh saying how green and ethical they are, and I'm just like: 'How ethical can it be when it's mass-produced in countries where I know they don't regulate and don't have [stringent] laws?'" he asks.
Many Australian clothing brands that do manufacture in Asia would contest Foretti's claim about working conditions. But he says it's not the only reason he manufactures his premium streetwear in Melbourne. "I like dealing with the whole process," he says: "we pattern-make in-house, we sample in-house, it's a very tight little family. It just gives us a lot of control." At B.O.Y.D Studio, the label's bricks-and-mortar shopfront, customers can request customised garments and chat with Foretti about the design process.
He says brands that manufacture locally have at least one thing in common: an obsession with quality. "We're not into fast fashion," he declares. "We're trying to make modern-day classics that will get you through a lot of occasions."
Dan's writing on style, travel and more has appeared in The New York Times, the Australian Financial Review, Condé Nast Traveller and others. He is based in Sydney.
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Check out the gallery above to see the best men's gear made right here in Australia.