Melbourne Fashion Festival’s National Designer Award hints that utility is here to stay in 2021

Words by Bianca O’Neill

What to expect (and hope for) in the next 12 months of fashion.

Melbourne Fashion Festival delivered some pre-event hors d’oeuvres last week in the form of its COVID-safe launch at Government House and National Designer Award (NDA) announcement – in a new format, as a seated brunch at Half Acre, South Melbourne.

If you were hoping for a return to up-dressing in 2021 then you might be disappointed, because the NDA runway, featuring Australia’s brightest young designers, was all about muted utility and relaxed silhouettes.

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Kicking off with Emma Mulholland’s newest label, Holiday The Label, we were treated to nostalgic ’90s summer vibes. Think playful prints in tie-dye and yin yang motifs, with models styled in easy-going overshirts and bucket hats.


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Local women’s tailor E Nolan was also riding the relaxed wave, delivering the label’s trademark suiting paired with layered shirting and a looser fit. If we were to return to workwear, this is probably how we’d want to do it after spending last year in track pants.

“I think last year taught us to reflect critically on what we really want and need from our wardrobes,” says E Nolan designer Emily Nolan. “Personally I see a shift towards a closer relationship between garment and clothing. We’re craving emotional totems, and a simplified approach to dressing. We have too much stuff, and the stuff we have is often devoid of meaning and durability. My goal is to ensure my clients are rewarded with a covetable, cohesive wardrobe devoid of time or trend.”

Autark delivered a nod toward workwear for the modern woman with a chic two-piece, in a runway punctuated with a voluminous, draped purple dress and easy-to-wear plaid maxi.

“When I design Autark pieces I want to attach feeling to them,” says Sophia McMahon, designer and director at Autark, “which is why I carefully consider their components at each touchpoint. From the details, fabrics and finishings, to the choice to manufacture locally with talented Australian pattern makers and machinists, to the idea that they are an investment to be a part of someone’s life for a long time.”

“It’s a real honour and an incredible vote of confidence from the industry to be a part of the NDA – that in itself is hugely impactful as a designer.”

Sleek yet casual Leophil pieces delivered an argument for comfortable, post-pandemic friendly clothing that can also be chic as hell. Classic separates in black, coffee and blush were paired with on-trend mom slides.

“By creating quality garments with a timeless appeal, they can be worn longer and more often,” says Valerie Jantz, creative director at Leophil. “Choosing fabric that is of high quality and from purely natural sources impacts the way these garments feel on the skin, how they can be washed, how they age, and eventually have a recyclable value. This is all necessary in my opinion to create a premium product which is environmentally friendly.”

Commas, this year’s double winner of both the Honourable Mention for Sustainability and the National Designer Award presented by David Jones, showed us that separates are the way forward into 2021.

Its pieces blurred the boundary between traditionally gendered fashion, with longline relaxed shorts and loose shirting in a subtle paisley print that harkened back to the kind of business tie your dad wore in the early ’90s – in the best way possible, of course. “The name Commas represents ‘a pause to catch your breath’ and we aim to reflect this concept in everything we do,” says Richard Jarman, co-founder of the label.


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On the win, Jarman acknowledged his co-founder and wife Emma Jarman. “We have so much fun. It’s just an honour to get to work with Emma, and so many incredible people. And for the Fashion Festival, the support we received – you all mean so much to us, how much you encouraged us. This helped propel us into the future, at an even greater speed and we’re very, very grateful for everything.”

“It’s been such a pleasure to get to know the other finalists,” said Commas co-founder Emma Jarman. “We really have something special in Australia – this country, and how supportive we are of one another.”

Maara Collective was the final designer on the runway, showcasing its luxury resort wear featuring beautiful and intricate prints – many of which are the result of collaboration with key Indigenous artists and artisans.

“Our core values are around collaboration and storytelling, cultural integrity and sustainability,” says Julie Shaw, founder and creative director of Maara Collective. “Maara Collective is built on the foundations of collaboration and co-design, and of executing our creative partnerships in a meaningful and appropriate way.”

After today’s National Designer Award, it’s clear that the future of Australian fashion is secure in the hands of our next wave of local designers, all of whom noted that true sustainability and ethical manufacture was a cornerstone of their brand.

In looking toward the future, I also asked the nominated designers what they hope to see more of from the Australian fashion industry in 2021. Here are their answers.

E Nolan: “I would like to see the industry extend open arms to the micro tribes / communities that are Australian women. Trans-women, ‘plus size’ (our industry really only effectively markets and caters to a size 14), and the inclusion of fabulous modest clientele are amongst my favourite people to dress.”

Autark: “I would love to see a more considered, slower approach to the industry, and a push to educate and encourage consumers to value their clothes again.”

Leophil: “I think that COVID made people more open to collaborations and I hope we can continue with this openness. There should be definitely more ‘together’ than ‘alone’. More exchange within cities and across borders, more learning from each other, helping each other out. Especially for small brands with little funds and influence. I hope that continues beyond 2021.”

Commas: “One thing that started throughout COVID was open lines of dialogue between Australian brands. It’s been so positive for us at Commas and I hope this continues into 2021 as we support and champion each other.”

Maara Collective: “I’d love to see a continuing recognition of Indigenous brands within the broader Australian fashion industry in 2021 and beyond.”

Bianca O’Neill is Fashion Journal’s senior industry columnist. Follow her at @bianca.oneill.

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