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Rushh’s Fashion Editor has created an online platform curating the best of Australian fashion talent

PHOTOGRAPHY – EDWARD MULVIHILL
STYLIST – CHARLOTTE AGNEW
MAKEUP – ISABELLA SCHIMID
HAIR – KOH
TALENT – Manahou Mackay

WORDS BY AMY FOCIC

I don’t know why, but fashion is still in this box, where it’s not a real thing, it’s not a relevant thing, it doesn’t matter.”

Despite its immense cultural value and enormous contribution to the Australian economy ($27.2 billion to be exact), the Australian fashion industry wasn’t exactly a priority for government support when the pandemic hit last year. 

Yes, some businesses received assistance from government funds and the federal government announced a $1million grant to develop a trademark for Australian fashion. But many sole traders have since fallen through the cracks with JobKeeper payments finished and JobSeeker eligibility tightened.


For more fashion news, shoots, articles and features, head to our Fashion section.


Unfortunately for freelance fashion creatives in Australia, this lack of formal protection is part-and-parcel with working as a freelancer. After all, the diverse ecosystem of workers in the Australian fashion industry extends well beyond brands and their in-house teams. It encompasses roles from freelance fashion assistants and production assistants, to stylists, hair and makeup artists, and photographers. 

Cue seasoned freelance stylist Charlotte Agnew. Having worked in the industry for over decade, Charlotte has experienced first-hand the confusion of estimating your worth as a creative, and the challenges of sustaining freelance styling as a career.

After years of growing frustration with the state of play for Australia’s freelance fashion workers, Charlotte knew she had to do something, and What-Else was born.

Is it time for fashion freelancers to unionise?

This is the question driving What-Else, an online platform created to give a voice to issues plaguing the freelance fashion industry while highlighting the work of local creatives.

 

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While ‘fashion creatives’ can be difficult to define as a cohesive group, Charlotte notes there are still no unions or formal support systems to protect or guide industry freelancers.  “There’s nothing stabilising what is considered normal for a full day rate, for a half day rate,” she says. “These are things that no one knows going into [freelance work], you just make it up as you go, or go off someone else’s perspective or version of this industry, which isn’t right.”

Alongside issues of uncertainty around rates of pay, getting paid in a timely way is also a common problem faced by freelancers. Some businesses can take up to three months to process invoices or simply not pay at all, leaving freelancers to act as their own debt collectors or otherwise cut their losses.

Charlotte also notes the problem of regulating ethical conduct within the industry, given there’s no representative body for our creatives. It’s a gap that Charlotte is aiming to fill over time with What-Else.

“The goal is ultimately to create a legal support system for the freelance fashion creative industry. Or at least, attempt to create a conversation about why we need one, what our industry looks like without it and what it could look like with one.”

Why now?

To Charlotte, What-Else feels like the natural extension of conversations she’s been having with other industry professionals for years now.

“I was having these conversations with lecturers at UTS and RMIT, and the Australian Fashion Council, which were all talking to the same point. You’d have these great conversations about what this industry is and what it could be, but it would always end with ‘But, it’s not supported’ or ‘But, it’s not structured’.” 

 

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COVID-19 was the push Charlotte needed to voice her frustrations on a broader scale. The massive work disruptions caused by the pandemic meant the freelance fashion community was more vulnerable than ever.

Australia’s lagging behind

Charlotte thinks it’s no coincidence there’s no legal support for freelance fashion creatives in Australia. She notes that here, careers in fashion are seen as less valid than they are overseas.

It’s an interesting concept when you sit with it. If you consider places like Paris, Milan, New York or London, it’s clear that fashion is treated as a well-respected career choice, as well as an enviable one. We know these cities’ economies rely in no small part on their fashion industries and if you tell a fellow Australian you’re off to work in fashion in Paris, you’re often met with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. 

 

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Here, however, despite its massive economic contribution (fashion adds more to our economy than mining, for example), working in fashion is often considered ‘fun’ or ‘frivolous’. It’s a career pathway for those who want to follow their passion rather than settle into a real job. This feeds into a narrative that fashion workers have chosen to sacrifice financial stability to ‘follow their passion’ and shouldn’t expect basic protections. 

Pile on the wider media portrayals of fashion as ‘glamorous’, and those working in fashion are often positioned as ‘lucky to be here’. And if you’re lucky enough to simply work in the industry, how can you possibly demand basic protections? 

“I don’t know why, but [in Australia] fashion is still in this box, where it’s not a real thing, it’s not a relevant thing, it doesn’t matter. It’s sort of this fantasy thing where if you get to do it that’s awesome, that’s an amazing thing you get to do,” she says.

“I believe that going overseas is of incredible value to what we’re doing, but it just shouldn’t be the only option for us to be considered worthwhile. I want options and I want us to feel like being here and staying here is a choice.”

Where to next?

While there’s still a long way to go, there are strategies currently in play with peak industry bodies like the Australian Fashion Council to make Charlotte’s (and many other fashion freelancers’) aspirations a reality.

 

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But until then, What-Else will continue to provide a space for Australian freelance fashion workers to voice their experiences and ideas for change. It’s an opportunity that Charlotte sees a lot of power in.

“I want options, I want possibility and I want support in this industry. I want Australian fashion to be in a better place than where it’s at. We have an obvious gap in the industry and it can be solved with a conversation like this.”

You can read more of the discussion at What-Else here.

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