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Courtesy of Alix Higgins, Jordan Gogos, and Ruby Pedder via Getty Images/ Stringer

Why 2023 marked a turning point for Australian Fashion Week

Vogueing on the runway, First Nation designers, and drag queens models. This is Australian fashion week like you’ve never seen it before

Earlier this month, devastatingly before both Snoop Dogg’s performance and, therefore, Marion Cotillard’s dancing, I ran out of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood – past the writer’s strike protests that fought for the attention otherwise bestowed to Paris Hilton – to catch a redeye flight to Sydney, Australia. The airport reality check following Chanel’s celebrity-filled resort show was especially poignant in the Down Under section of LAX, where men were dressed in grey tracksuits and thongs at midnight (I posted a cropped pic of those fits on my close friends only to have someone reply they ‘know those feet.’).

Australian Fashion Week has taken place annually in Sydney every May since 1996, showcasing local designer’s Resort collections. The decision to stage the event in autumn means the weather is never really that great – this year, a seating chart was swept into the ocean by high winds – but at least it doesn’t clash with the official fashion month calendar, allowing some international press and buyers to make the long trip to see the collections in-person. (This year Vogue Runway attended and so too did @UpNextDesigner’s Albert Ayal and @TheKimbino’s Kim Russell).

Compared to New York, London, Milan and Paris, Australia’s fashion week edition has always been paired back: many separate typical of resort wear and uniform dressing emulating (sometimes unsuccessfully) the effortless style seen in Europe. Most shows follow a traditional format, held at the official venue of Carriageworks – a brick-laden contemporary arts centre in the suburbs – and there are not many (if any) parties worth writing home about. 

But recently, a new direction has been taking hold. After years of attempting to parallel the runways and style sensibility of heritage-brand-laden Paris and Milan, the industry and those surrounding it are leaning into a more London and New York state of mind: fun, feverish, community-minded clothing that makes you feel something.

Young designers in Australia are being celebrated and the schedule isn’t gatekept. Instead, it’s organised around these new names: Caroline Reznik, a costume designer whose subversive pieces have found fans in Doja Cat, Rosalía and Beyoncé, had her debut close out the week, in a similar vein to Rual Lopez’s Luar holding the same prime spot at the most recent NYFW. Steps have been made toward healing Australia’s sordid past, but until recently, the runways have been relatively absent of First Nations designers. This year, Ngali made history as the first Indigenous standalone show with Wiradjuri woman and lead designer Denni Francisco sartorially re-contextualising First Nations Australian art through her collection, entitled Murriyang (which translates to 'skyworld'.) 

Alix Higgins’ sophomore show had almost as many people wearing his designs – in my opinion, some of the most exciting to come out of the country right now – in the front row as on the runway, which was opened by his close friend and bandmate, Joan Banoit (also to thank for producing the affecting accompanying soundtrack). 

Evolving while still staying true to his brand’s DNA, Higgins sent upcycled old polo shirts and his take on suiting down the runway, interspersed with rugby jerseys, pleated skirts, and pieces showing a scan of wolf fur he procured during his time working under Marine Serre in Paris. Throughout was his signature poetry – a short-sleeve striped polo with “In the dream, it was all right” becoming his most shared moment – and a few creases: Higgins refused to steam looks backstage prior because that’s “not how [his] friends would wear them.”

Elsewhere, multidisciplinary artist Jordan Gogos collaborated with one of the industry’s most respected names, Akira Isogawa; Wackie Ju eschewed expectations through both the otherworldly genderless designs and the performance art that bookended it (before models stunningly took their final turn to Lana del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”); and Ruby Pedder’s embodiment of casual couture was, as expected, a standout in Next Gen. 

This gear switch has been years in the making, coinciding with the resurgence of Sydney’s nightlife and clubbing scene that was almost completely wiped out following lockdown laws that came into place after the tragic death of 18-year-old man Thomas Kelly in Sydney’s King’s Cross in 2013. In recent years, the ballroom scene has begun flourishing, queer collectives and their club nights have become constant, and even Boiler Room has travelled to put on its first-ever shows in the country (for which people flew across state lines to attend). 

Of course, club culture has historically influenced fashion – everyone from Alexander McQueen to Valentino were first club rats, to today’s Mowalowa and Luis de Javier – similarly, now Australia’s most celebrated young designers are ones who made their start in subcommunities around the city. Erin Yvon, Jordan Gogos, Alix Higgins, and Nicol & Ford, all of whom are heavily influenced by club and queer culture, each showcased collections including friends, drag queens and ballroom performers. The latter of which found its entire cast exclusively at clubs and queer events in recent months, including at Sydney’s recent Pride festival. Meanwhile, Youkhana made fashion week feel like a ‘safe space’ by inviting exclusively friends of the brand and created 25 one-off couture pieces that were completely hand-braided, most made with hand-tied closures that can be adjusted to accommodate bodies of different shapes and sizes. 

Queer culture is built into the foundations of Australian Fashion Week through people such as Xander Khoury, who works on the ground with IMG (its organisers) by day, and by night is Father and co-founder of House of Silky, one of the country’s most prominent ballroom collectives, as well as Xaddy’s Door List. And Basjia Almaan, a model, creative and casting director (and House of Silky member), brought on to work in casting for Australian Fashion Week after calling them out for a lack of diversity in 2022. And Johnny Seymour, known as Uncle Johnny in the queer community, who founded the ‘90s queer club, Club Kooky (a place that was frequented by George Michael), who works with both Australian Fashion Week and individual designers as musical director. When speaking about the community she’s found in recent years during an on-schedule panel discussion, Almaan was brought to tears. 

Shortly after, when a young queer man asked Almaan, Seymour and Nicol & Ford’s Lillian and Katie where they found the inspiring community they speak so passionately about, he was immediately showered with advice, given names of events to look up, and told to “come to The Bearded Tit tonight”. Australian fashion week has finally come into its own and, most importantly, it’s bringing others along with it.