Mark Ritson: Retailers of Oz: get some ‘break your arm’ spirit

7.38am is a relatively unlikely time to hear sturdy Anglo-Saxon language. But if you rose early on Sunday morning to follow England’s second innings reply to Australia in the first Test at the weekend you certainly got an earful.

Ritson_despair

Jimmy Anderson, England’s best bowler, was attempting to survive an over of searing pace from Mitchell Johnson when he engaged in a bit of “spirited chat” with test debutante George Bailey. Australia’s captain Michael Clarke wandered into view and fixed Anderson with a firm look.

“You should get ready for a fucking broken arm,” Clarke snarled at the clearly astonished Englishman.

The comment was picked up by a stump microphone and was widely reported (and decried) by the English press the next morning. Incensed cricketers lit up social media with outrage at the incident. The fact that Australia had clearly already all but won the Test merely made the interaction all the more inexplicable.

Unless, of course, you know Aussies. I am married to one and spend about half my time there. Clarke’s comment is about as Australian as board shorts or a walk on Bondi beach with a couple of cold ones.

Aussies are self-acknowledged fighters. They are at their tempestuous, horrendous best with their backs against the wall. Unlike us English who love a battle but prefer to play it straight with studious attention to decorum, Aussies like to scrap. Anyone with even a passing appreciation of Australian culture knows that England will have to fight like hell on every level if they hope to defend the Ashes down under.

That competitive spirit and defiant attitude is exactly what the Australian fashion retail brands must now draw from. It might seem an odd connection, but the kind of manic, competitive rage Clarke displayed at the weekend is now badly required if Australia stands any chance of retaining its retail brands.

This year has been an incredibly bad one for Australian fashion. For decades, local Australian brands have managed to survive and even prosper despite lacking core differentiation, creative flair or any sense of value. Australia’s geographic isolation and reversal of seasonality created sufficient barriers to entry to ensure that local brands could get away with the fashion equivalent of murder.

But all that changed during the global financial crisis. While the rest of the world tightened their belts and abstained from buying new ones, Australian consumers continued to buy big. Gradually, major overseas brands like Gap, Topshop and Zara all opened major flagships and – to everyone’s surprise – began to make enormous amounts of money.

Aussie consumers have the same taste levels and desire for fast fashion as their cousins in London or Lisbon – they just haven’t been offered it before at these kinds of prices or taste levels. They have gone mental for it. International retailers learned that despite growing maturity in their core markets, Australia was a high potential market and have started to arrive in ever bigger numbers.

A report from Colliers International predicts that 28 international retailers will establish 235 new stores over the next five years and open up 220,000sq m of retail space across Australia. Existing brands like Zara are rapidly expanding their networks of stores and new entrants like Muji, H&M and Uniqlo are set to open their first Aussie stores in the next 12 months.

You don’t even have to open in Australia to benefit. Earlier this month American department store Neiman Marcus started a big advertising campaign across Australia promoting its online site and delivery service. Its prices and range, combined with the convenience of delivery, made Australia a growth market. It helps that, devoid of competition, many Australian retailers have only recently embraced the concept of ecommerce.

The impact on Australian brands has been nothing short of disastrous. A cavalcade of formerly successful fashion brands have been culled in recent months. Household names such as Bettina Liano, Kit Willow Podgornik, Lisa Ho, Collette Dinnigan and Alannah Hill have all shut up shop.

The big question is whether the remaining Australian fashion retailers will now show a bit of true Aussie grit and start breaking a few fucking arms, or slip back and suffer a slow and painful death at the hands of the European and American invaders. This is one test the Aussies have so far failed to win.

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