Fashion, a popular culture rooted in delicate finesse superimposed upon a fast-changing world of what’s old and new, may historically have had so little to do with Fiji’s textile industry, but times have significantly changed.
There is all likelihood now the two industries will converge at some point soon, now that an interest in supplying the overseas fashion label market has been ignited in Fiji’s garment manufacturing industry. The talk hints at this being a potential convergence of cosmic proportion for Fiji’s small economy. Fiji’s textile business could quadruple in size in terms of employees, employers and export dollars. Sugar, our much sung-about significant export earner, could be dwarfed if the basic groundwork of this convergence is nurtured properly.
Imagine the spillover benefit that would be created at every link of the value chain. For one, the garment manufacturing industry could return to its heydays of production in the late 1990s, when it was directly employing more than 10,000 people, most of them women, and earning exports of more than $300 million annually. There is much excitement surrounding the prospects, as FIJI BUSINESS found out from Mark Halabe, owner and operator of the Nasinu-based Mark One Apparel, a company that only recently ventured into this new niche of sewing pieces for fashion labels in Australia. “As an industry, we employ around 5000 people and export close to $100 million. We can go up to $500 million, we can employ 20,000 people and have all the boxes ticked for women in the industry, poverty alleviation, exports, investments, all those right things that a country needs. Fiji has an opportunity of doing it,” said Halabe. He has been signed on to supply the Australian luxury fashion brand Scanlan & Theodore and because of that, Mark One has doubled its employees to 600 and spent around $6 million to buy up more factory space at what used to be the Kalabu Tax Free Zone (KTFZ) in Valelevu. Two years ago, the Fiji government sold factories in the KTFZ as the industry’s tax-free holiday came to an end. A few operators already there took up the offer, among them Mark One and its neighbour Lyndhurst Fiji Ltd. Lyndhurst is another company that leans heavily on fashion production as it supplies the Australia franchise of the Kookai fashion empire. Kookai Australia was co-founded and is managed by Robert Cromb, whose mother hails from Bua in Vanua Levu. Cromb tweaked the label’s Australian lines, turning its focus to the 22-year old girl. That led to the brand’s huge success in Australia and gave his Fiji-based factories more workload than it had the capacity to do.
FIJI BUSINESS was told that Lyndhurst purchased three more factories at the KTFZ including the administration block. Expansion of its fashion business is definitely on the cards. Cromb is a fashion designer himself and is very involved in the output of Kookai Australia’s clothing collections, so Lyndhurst’s focus on fashion is more intense than Mark One’s but its success demonstrates the potential available in this niche. As well, recent developments in Australia’s minimum wage laws are said to be pushing fashion labels to look elsewhere for cheaper supply and Fiji has come up on their radar. Where previously these fashion labels hired women based at home to sew their small runs of exclusive collections, the new laws will make these home-based women more expensive to hire. Said Halabe: “In the 25 years we’ve been here, we’ve predominantly been manufacturing work-wear, school-wear, corporate clothing, a little bit of sportswear. But not the really serious stuff coming out of Australia that these women were making. “The contractors or wholesalers or retailers who manufacture these garments are now running out of choices of where they can manufacture. “If they made it in Australia, there would be at least a 40 percent increase in their costs. Fiji is not the cheapest place to manufacture but what Fiji can offer that the other countries don’t and don’t want to do is that we’re very good at doing small runs. “Fashion is normally small runs. They don’t want a container load of the same dress or the same blouse. They want something unique. Maybe a cut of 200 or 300 of a particular style is what they would normally run with a fashion line in Australia. So Fiji is very well placed to take on that business.”
The local fashion people too are excited about this new direction. And more so because for years, they have struggled, at times gone out on a limb, to bring fashion into mainstream interest, not only in Fiji but the Pacific too. There have been measures of success. A community of local designers is growing and some of them have ventured out into the big competitive and harsh world of international fashion, notching hard-earned mileage as they do. Each year for six years now, a Fiji Fashion Week (FJFW) event is held, providing an outlet for local designers to showcase their creations. It has grown bigger every year, gaining support from local communities and businesshouses. A pool of local talent in modeling has spawned out of this. Just last month, a milestone in Fiji modelling was achieved when Sigatoka schoolgirl Phillipa Steele was noticed by a New York based modeling company founded and owned by the American billionaire Donald Trump. Steele is a regular at FJFW—they discovered her—and was picked from a local cadre of 50 hopefuls who auditioned for Trump’s model scouts, here in Fiji recently as part of their worldwide search for models. That is one of the many other achievements that lend credence to fashion being an industry with a lot of potentials to provide employment and to create economic activities here in Fiji.
That the textile manufacturing companies are moving to this niche is being seen as a very good sign. “The fashion industry has progressed immensely since its inception,” said Ellen Whippy-Knight, managing director of FJFW. “People now realise it is not a luxury brand for only a few people but rather an industry that can sustain the livelihoods of many people. “Private sector and the media are extremely aware of the opportunities which exist in the industry and they’ve matched that with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sponsorship. We now need bigger investments to produce the kinds of skills and people who could make the industry a multi-million dollar one,” Whippy-Knight added. “There are now several garment manufacturers with specific fashion operations producing for high-end Australian fashion houses and it is a move that will further reinforce Fiji’s position as a worthwhile fashion producer. FJFW is honoured to have such a close working relationship with the garment industry because it means the work we each do is complementary and only aimed at ensuring a healthy robust Fiji economy.”
Cart before the horse?
But Fiji fashion’s own momentum has been slow to carry it forward to where it should be. Some believe this is partly because it has ‘put the cart before the horse’. The focus has been on encouraging design and modelling while the area of basic training in fashion and design was left largely unattended, perhaps more out of lack of resources and support than deliberate oversight. The result: a very low level of basic knowledge and technical skills in the craft. Details such as the handling of fabrics, their suitability in designs, even how to sew are still missing. And now with textile manufacturing moving closer to meet fashion halfway, this deficiency is being magnified and might even be a setback in the manufacturers’ desire to tap into that market. “What we don’t have—which is a concern to me and that’s why we’ve formed the Fiji Fashion Council—is we need a college,” said Halabe.
“We need a fashion college in Fiji and indeed the Pacific region. The skill levels of our staff, even though we’ve been here for 25 years, is not to the level that we need to have it if we’re going to make real fashion manufacture.” Fiji’s fashion industry is acutely aware of this. The renowned local fashion designer Hupfeld Hoerder agrees that the time is now ripe to bring this back to the drawing board, and with a bit more support from the powers that be.
“We definitely need an institution to develop a very basic programme to start with the fundamentals of fashion and design,” he told FIJI BUSINESS. Hoerder has had his share of personal victories in this business and starting from scratch only added to his mostly self-taught learning curve in a field that has received very little support from government. A rare opportunity to take up a fashion scholarship at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 2000 fell through because of the coup. But that did not hold him back from following his dreams. “At the moment, the amount of creative emerging designers are amazingly talented and this is good for fashion in Fiji, as the benchmark is set very high and these aspiring designers will need to work very hard to achieve their goals. “We are also very fortunate that the Fiji Fashion Week has organised workshops for designers to learn from experienced industry personnel about fashion and design, retailing, entrepreneurship, marketing, etc, as these workshops will encourage and generate the necessary skills and knowledge that may contribute to their career.
But having said that, I think there is still a lot of room for support especially from government,” Hoerder said.
Need for formal education
The perfection and detail demanded by a developed fashion market like Australia makes it important that Fiji does not bungle this opportunity when it comes. For that, the right skills are needed. On the one hand, efforts already being put into creating fashion awareness here, mostly through the work of FJFW, are producing a pool of skilled people in design and modelling. Some of them can aspire to be part of the international fashion world because they have had some exposure locally to how it works, albeit in an arguably rudimentary way. Year after year, the level of sophistication improves. On the other hand, both the fashion and the textile manufacturing industry know that this is the time for proper formal education not just for the sake of the manufacturer’s interest but to really retrofit the foundation of Fiji’s fashion market so that we too can do things like creating our own labels and exporting them. “There are a lot of opportunities here to supply fashion labels in Australia,” said Hoerder. “This, however, will not happen overnight. One has to create his own label first in Fiji then create a signature design to capture a niche market in Australia or overseas as the market is very competitive abroad. “One also has to decide which market to target—whether it’s the high-end retail market, the mass-market, the bridal market, swim wear or others.
Fashion Council, a starting point
“So yes, Fiji can supply fashion labels abroad but both government and the garment manufacturing industry have to come together to create opportunities for these designers to assist them in terms of training and development, and exposure in terms of sponsoring these designers to fashion shows and exhibitions here and abroad,” Hoerder added. With the establishment of the Fiji Fashion Council, a new chapter is about to be written for Fiji’s fashion and textile manufacturing industries. “Fiji Fashion Council was formed by interested parties. A wide spectrum of citizens have formed this council and our aim is to encourage tertiary education in Fiji to help the industry move forward,” said Halabe, who is also chairman of the council. “We’ve been fortunate to have AusAID and APTC (Australia-Pacific Technical College) interested. "Hopefully we’re going to have a needs analysis done to scope out the possibility of having a college attached in Fiji and in the region where you’re utilising a very strong resource in Australia where they’ve run these fashion courses for years in all states. “You could possibly tap into that and bring that knowledge into Fiji. So I’m very optimistic and I think in 10 years’ time, the fashion industry in Fiji will be a multiple of what it is now. "Even now, I get daily enquiries from people wanting to know whether it’s possible to manufacture in Fiji for them and the truth is I’ve had to say no because I’m busy with what I already have. And I’m encouraging people to think of opening up their own manufacturing because the capacity we currently have in Fiji is limited.” The Fiji Fashion Council, said Halabe, is building upon what FJFW, under Whippy-Knight’s leadership, has done over the last six years. The x-factor though is that much needed government support to really propel this initiative forward. “The biggest challenge so far has been the political will,” Whippy-Knight said. “We continue to face challenges in convincing authorities of the potential earnings of this industry. “We’ve been fortunate in that private sector sponsorship has been increasing and continues to be promising. “Community involvement continues to improve as people take ownership of their cultural heritage and translate that into fashion design. “But we have reached a point where it is no longer feasible to be investing the $100,000 per year that we have been doing for the past six years. “We now need some government help, some government involvement in building the fashion industry,” Knight-Whippy added.