#5: THE FASHION PRODUCTION COMPANY
Established by Christiaan Kidd in 2016, The Fashion Production Company is a small-scale clothing manufacturer based in Redfern, Sydney, producing clothing for labels such as Ellery, Lee Mathews and Locally Made's Annie Hamilton.
We visited Christiaan's studio one Saturday morning for a cup of coffee and a chat about the changes to the local garment manufacturing industry since Christiaan started back in the 90s.
Jess: What's your background?
Christiaan: My background is... everything to be honest! I first started at Mt Gravatt TAFE in Brisbane, I had twelve months there and then it was really time to move to Sydney. I enrolled at East Sydney TAFE and did the fashion design course there, while also doing post-grad studies in tailoring. I come from a very strong technical background. I've always loved pattern making and been very good at construction and that sort of stuff.
I went to work pretty much straight away for my design idol, Stuart Membery, who was a big fashion icon back in the 80’s and 90’s (he started Esprit in the late 70’s). Then I was at a company called Depict (they were a big manufacturer), working for accounts like Katies and Susann.
Jess: What was your role at Depict?
Christiaan: I was doing patterns - the technical side of things. I wanted to get into menswear but menswear wasn't a thing back then, it was all stubby shorts. Mambo hadn't even really been born yet. You've got to pay your rent, so I ended up just doing patterns.
Jess: Was their apparel all made in Australia then?
Christiaan: Back in the mid 1990’s you'd be doing two to three thousand pairs of the one pant, all made in factories around Australia. At the same time, all these big companies were dipping their toes in the water in China and finding bigger factories. When you’d do a basic pant, for example, when it was being made in Australia, you'd do a fake fly and you'd always find ways of doing tricky things really cheap and easy because you'd have to stay at a price point. Because it was more expensive to make here, you were very conscious of what went into making a garment and you had to keep it cheap.
Jess: Is that why you’d get pants with fake pockets?
Christiaan: Yep. And then the bosses came back from China and everything changed. Pants would have real flys, real pockets, and the boss would say, 'chuck everything you've got at these pants’ - pockets, coin pockets, belt loops - and it still came in cheaper than what a basic pant made in Australia would be.
China really chased my tail around for most of my earlier career and it became harder and harder for me to get jobs, because I'd only be at each place for twelve months. In the space of the twelve months I was at Depict, all of their manufacturing shifted from Australia to China and everyone lost their jobs. This would’ve been around 1995, maybe 1996. So I went to another company and in another twelve months everyone got fired from that place, because it all moved to China. I was in that first generation who kept losing their jobs. Others I know left the industry, but I wasn't good at anything else so I had to hang around and keep doing it.
Jess: When and why did you set up The Fashion Production Company?
Christiaan: I started my own menswear label, Utility, back in 2010, and I was really struggling to get it made. I really wanted to have it made in Australia. Making in China is a difficult and expensive process, despite the cheaper cost of garments - which are now close to the price here as China is putting their prices up. The minimum quantities make it hard for a new label - China is not set up for anything under two hundred units. So I was driving for hours between makers, cutters, button-hole machinists, all over the place to get my stuff made. It was getting harder and harder and I was sick of driving around.
We considered calling it quits - it was either go hard or go home. So we set this up and in the process of investing money and machinery and space and finding workers, we thought, ‘well let's put it out to other designers who might also be having a hard time getting stuff made here, with smaller quantities and better quality.’ It was like a tsunami of work came rolling in. We haven't really had to go out looking for work - we've had a mountain of work fly at us, it's been great!
I got my first staff member at the end of June 2016, Elinda came in then. Finding staff has been the hardest part of the whole business, because there's no one out there. All the people who can sew are in their fifties or older and wanting to retire. That's been the biggest challenge in the business, finding staff.
Annie: Where is the younger generation of machinists?
Christiaan: They all want to be designers. There's this notion that it's all Paris and Champagne, which it's really not. They don't want to learn the fundamentals. I've had some experience with students who have asked me to produce their final sample range for college, and it's like, ‘well what have you learnt in the last four years?’... ‘Oh we're going to be designers’ - but if you can't make a garment or a pattern, what are you doing?
I think Australia really does rely on the immigrant intake to fill those jobs, it's seen as a lowly job I suppose. I view it differently and pay my workers accordingly - it's a highly skilled job, you know? We make beautiful garments and we have a good time with it. Back in the 80’s and 90’s it was a bit of a hard yakka job, but these days, because of our clients like Ellery and Lee Matthews, we're producing beautiful clothes, working with beautiful fabrics and only doing two or three of each piece, so you don't get bogged down. It's not like the China factory where you're just doing one thing 55,000 times in one day - this is as bad as it gets for us, and it's a beautiful silk satin dress. It's beautiful fabric. We laugh, drink coffee, listen to nice music. It's a nice environment. Again, it's probably the exception rather than the rule.
Annie: So you’ve found that there's a lot of demand from designers to make locally with you?
Christiaan: If I had ten staff, I could keep them busy. If I find the staff I can get the work, but I've been saying no to work, I'm just too busy. People respond well to the fact that it's made in Australia. There's a bit of an awakening perhaps. I think the whole world is undergoing massive changes now and people want to know where they are buying stuff from, that they are ethical companies, they take care of people... Which wasn't such a big thing before, but as the younger generation come through and they're watching the trauma that came before them, people are more aware. It's having a massive impact on the fashion business, globally, not just here, which is a good thing in my books.
Annie: Do you think the demand for locally made garments is going to move into the mainstream, or is it a small bubble?
Christiaan: It's a small bubble. The last twenty years has trained the mainstream Australian consumer to want to buy cheap crap. You've got your H&Ms and Zara's who will design a reasonable product for a reasonable price and people are now programmed that this is what everything should be. We couldn't make a tee-shirt for twenty dollars for love nor money in Australia any more. The “Made in Australia” bubble will stay at the high end for designers like Lee Matthews, Elery, Matin, whose price point is not price sensitive, but it's not going to filter down the mainstream, I think that's well and truly gone.
Jess: The cost is obviously a big reason why designers would do their making offshore. You were saying China is coming on par with costs for local designers with small quantities?
Christiaan: For someone like me or Annie to produce in China when you're doing everything from scratch, you have to cost in freight and courier packages back and forth for sampling... It may take three to four goes for them to get the garment correct, and you may still receive a final delivery that isn't correct at the end. You've got to be financially stable or have an office over there with staff who can visit the factories, measure them and check them before they are sent, so you can be sure that what lands here in this country is what you want. For the small guys dealing with China it's a bit of a Russian roulette game.
The only way Australian labels will grow is to go overseas, because there's a much bigger market. But the market in Australia - I don't see it growing. The population is too small, and people are too trained to think that a five dollar t-shirt is fantastic. People don't ever think and work backwards - when you pay five dollars for a t-shirt, someone somewhere has been really fucked over.
When you think of the amount of water and chemicals that's gone into producing those cotton fibres, you think of that entire process and what they've produced and then sold on to somebody else, who has then added their value of cutting and dyeing and sewing, and it gets to K-mart and they sell it for five dollars. But K-mart won't make anything less than two dollars off that t-shirt, so they've bought it for maybe three dollars. So how much is that farmer, who has grown all that cotton and used all those pesticides, getting out of that t-shirt, you know? Especially for the business I'm in, I am very conscious of it - I'll look at the price and I know how much something has cost to be produced and I see where it's made, it's really scary.
Annie: It’s like food, when we buy the end product pre-packaged it’s hard to imagine where it has come from.
Christiaan: One of the reasons I'm doing this job is I grew up on a farm. When I see these ads in Coles and Woolworths where the price is always ‘down down down’, I don't understand why people want food that is so cheap. The quality is going to drop, the life of the animal will be worse, but the mindset of the cheapest food possible is being hammered into people with a big red hand over their head. There needs to be a mindset change… it's the retailers who are driving it.
Jess: What do the next few years look like for you making locally?
Christiaan: I'm not sure. Only eighteen months in, I'm still feeling very insecure with the business as we've had such a hard time finding staff. But I'm trying to build it to a stage where it's self-sustaining and I can take a step sideways. I'm hoping we'll have our own brands and stores to secure this part of the business. Before too long it would be nice if we could start training people in here.
Annie: Can you see any of your work becoming robotised?
Christiaan: There are factories in America that are doing basic sewing that's all robotised. Push a button and you get a tee-shirt out the other end, there's no human hands.
Annie: Do you see that as a realistic way of doing things in the future?
Christiaan: Our brands that we work with do very much artisanal, handmade products. People pay for that, you can't get that garment by robot. You can get a basic square t-shirt with a round neck, you don't need human hands for that. I'd love a computer laser cutting machine, that's a slow process for me. But I think a laser cutter is about seventeen thousand dollars. We haven't reached the tipping point where it's so expensive to cut something that it's cheaper to do it with a seventeen thousand dollar machine!
Annie: But it would make your life easier for when I change all my quantities at the last minute all the time!
Christiaan: It would!