The year was 1996. Slip dresses, crushed velvet and chunky sneakers dominated the fashion landscape. And against this backdrop, some of Australia’s sharpest sartorial minds came together to create something radical and new: a fashion festival for the public. Unlike the exclusive, invite-only events on the international fashion calendar (including Australian Fashion Week – launched a year earlier in 1995), the Melbourne Fashion Festival (MFF) was created and curated for the everyday fashion follower.
Twenty-five years later, Graeme Lewsey, who’s been CEO of MFF for the last 10 years, is in awe of his predecessors’ foresight. “It couldn’t possibly be more relevant: a fashion festival that celebrates the consumer,” he says. “Right now fashion weeks around the world are choosing to make big changes to their businesses to survive – they’re recognising that there’s been a seismic shift.”
Of course in the early days of the MFF, nobody knew that social media would come to democratise fashion and position consumers at the forefront, or that eCommerce would completely shake up the fashion cycle. So while the festival was ahead of its time, its original aim was to drive sales for designers and retailers – while functioning as a not-for-profit business – and to add life to Melbourne’s already-thriving arts and design scene.
Soon, they were flying in big names from all over the world to headline the festival – Ashley Graham, Dita von Teese, Eva Longoria and Barbara Palvin, to name a few. “I’ll always remember Ashley Graham on the runway,” says Lewsey. “She was doing the power pump and she came off and said, “The energy in that room! This is incredible! This is incredible here in Mel-bourne!”
That electric energy, says Lewsey, sets the festival apart from other sartorial spectaculars (read: you won’t spot stony pouts or oversized sunglasses in the front row). “I love watching the sheer sense of joy, delight and empowerment that our consumers get from experiencing the events – it’s unrivalled,” he says. “That positivity becomes a drive for more economic stimulus – more sales and better livelihoods for our designers.”
The 2021 festival kicked off on Thursday, with a packed calendar of events to mark its 25th anniversary. There are a mix of live and digital runways (including two shows presented by marie claire), plus art exhibitions, performances and fashion talks – all COVID-safe, of course.
Last year, the festival made the difficult decision to close early as the pandemic took hold, but this year it’s back with a bang.
“It’s been a rough year for all of us and everyone’s experienced challenges in different ways,” explains Lewsey. “The silver lining is that it’s taught us to be more innovative and nimble. Safety is our number-one priority this year. When you’ve got that balancing act between safety and creative integrity, it’s interesting times.
“We know that we’re part of the Australian fashion industry’s recovery post-2020 – we’re the first major fashion event to start the process. We’re really honoured and proud of that.”
The Melbourne Fashion Festival runs until March 20. Find out more and buy tickets here.