IN CONVERSATION | Speaking with the Australian Financial Review

Alexandra and Genevieve Smart talk to Annie Brown from the Australian Financial Review about sustainability, community and the future of fashion (images by Louie Douvis)...

How Ginger & Smart have sewn up their crisis plan

While it's too early to know what will happen to their industry once the coronavirus emergency passes, the fashion siblings remain committed to sustainability.

This story was supposed to be about Fashion Week, which was meant to begin on May 11. About how sisters Alexandra and Genevieve Smart, who launched their label Ginger & Smart 18 years ago, were excited to be returning to the schedule after a two-year hiatus and with a majority stake investment from the Alceon retail group.

How the pair had finally found a way to make fabrics from 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles fished out of the ocean into beautifully silky feeling dresses, and were using hemp, once the symbol of the crunchiest of ethical fashion, and making it into something luxurious.

But Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia is cancelled, along with a host of marquee fashion events this year, such as the Met Gala and the Paris haute couture shows in July. And in March, Ginger & Smart announced that they, like several other Australian retailers such as Myer, R.M. Williams and Country Road, would be closing their doors (though their e-commerce site remains open) for an indefinite period as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on global industries and economies.

“It was a really difficult decision, but in the end, it came down to making the right choice for our team, for our retail stylists and for our customers,” says Alexandra, who is the managing director of the brand while Genevieve is the creative director. “We felt we needed to make that responsible decision.”

In the meantime, the sisters have been busy. Last week, they debuted a new product – one they wouldn't have imagined making until recently – the Floral Charts Face Mask, a pretty, protective agent against potential disease. The sisters have donated the masks to the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney, for expectant mothers, and are also forwarding 25 per cent of the $25 recommended retail price to the Sydney Women's Fund, helping vulnerable members of the community.

COVID-19, as it has been for many businesses, has pushed the Smarts to reconfigure their operation. Making masks is just the beginning.

“I think everyone will be thinking quickly about how they can restructure their business and how they can talk to their customers and keep everybody in their community engaged,” says Alexandra. “For us, we will be pivoting to our online business for the short term and really looking forward to when we can open our doors again and see our customers.”

She adds that she expects designers to place a greater emphasis on video and photography, and for virtual showrooms and fashion weeks to be a consideration in the long term, too.

While both agree it’s too early to predict what might happen for the fashion industry when we do eventually come through this crisis, they believe now is the time we should be looking out for our own.

“From a brand and business perspective we would hope that the Australian community continues to support our designers,” says Alexandra. "More than ever, it’s important that we look to each other and we look to our own homegrown talent."

 

A few months ago, when I first spoke to the sisters, community was also top of mind, though for different reasons. In the context of brands lending their support to Australia’s bushfire crisis and other charitable works, Genevieve said: “I think designers are probably realising the importance of their influence beyond just clothing. It can be about social change as well.”

The sisters credit their mother with instilling them with values around sustainability and social justice. Growing up, says Genevieve, their mother was “a bit of an eco warrior before her time”, repurposing fabrics, composting, and rejecting the use of plastic in their school lunchboxes.

Image by Louie Douvis

This August, the brand plans to drop its spring collection into boutiques. It will be their first fully sustainable collection. This means each piece was made from renewable and certified (in terms of sustainability and ethically sourced) fabrics. In the past, they’ve made dresses from discarded fish scales: Genevieve says there’s something “really exciting happening with seaweed”.

The brand is known for its striking prints, vivid use of colour and sophisticated details. Inspiration for the collections, which Genevieve says will always “speak” to each other (for example, a particular bright tomato red from one of their earliest collections appears again next season) can come from anywhere.

Much has already been written about what fashion might look like when the pandemic is over. There is something to hold onto in predictions of slowing down, appreciating community and taking care of the planet and others.

Alexandra hopes that after COVID-19 there may be a shift in the way we consume and what we choose to wear. “We would hope that things like investing in longevity and pieces that really mean something to you … or conscious consumption might be really more important than ever,” she says.

Whatever the future holds, the sisters’ commitment to sustainability will remain. Alexandra says she recently pulled out their first business plan, written in 2001. It had, as she puts it, “words and words and words” about sustainability.

Read the article by Annie Brown on the Australian Financial Review here... Out in print today!