The business of Fashfest: Clinton Hutchinson
For a lot of Canberrans, Fashfest is a yearly opportunity to celebrate the creativity of our city. However, beyond the glasses of bubbly and action on the runway exists a huge machine that has grown from a “What if…” moment to one of the most important events on the local calendar.
We sat down with Fashfest’s CEO, Clinton Hutchinson, to peer behind the curtain and attempt to understand the broader aims and potential of the annual fashion event.
Let’s start at the start. Where did the idea for Fashfest come from?
You have to go back to a trip that (wife and Fashfest Managing Director) Andrea and I took in 2011. We were in Italy on a train to Milano—the fashion capital of Italy, and thought to ourselves, “Why hasn’t Canberra got its own regular fashion event similar to Sydney or Melbourne? We’ve got the talent. We’ve got the population. Surely we could pull it all together?”
Image: Martin Ollman Photography
Plenty of people dream of doing something new, but very few people pursue it in the same way you have. Aside from the fact there was a gap in the market, what was the motivation?
The immediate answer is that we both love fashion and design. To undertake something such as Fashfest, we knew it would bring us into contact with really interesting and inspiring people with a huge amount of creativity, and that was exciting to us.
Although, there’s another part: a love of Canberra. For all the years I’ve been in this town I’ve enjoyed watching it grow and become more confident and more interesting. Fashfest was an opportunity to contribute to that and really make an impact in a sector that was really under-serviced by the occasional events that happened once or twice a year.
So, where do you start?
We knew that we couldn’t do it without finding the best people in their fields to help us execute our vision for Fashfest. I knew that Steven Wright, from CIT’s fashion school, was the most skilled person in fashion in Canberra, so we simply called him up and asked if we could hang out for a bit.
Over time, we explained the full scale of what we wanted to do, and we were fortunate that he believed in it and could clearly see what he’d be able to contribute. Once Steve was on board, we were able to start serious planning and work out what else we’d need to do in order to get to opening night.
Image: Martin Ollman Photography
So it was obviously a huge leap to go from an idea on a train to an event for 2,000 people within 12 months. How has Fashfest changed in scale and complexity over the years since?
There are two aspects to this: the first is the user experience—the offering that starts from the moment someone buys a ticket to Fashfest. We wanted to be sure that every moment—from walking up to that unfinished building at the Canberra Airport on the very first night—had a certain ‘wow’ factor.
It always had to be more than simply sitting in front of a bunch of models wearing clothes on a runway. To constantly improve the quality and scale of that experience requires a huge amount of work of which most people won’t be aware of.
The second part of the growth is in the structure of the Fashfest business, and the way we have to aim to become more efficient every year. We really work hard every year to improve the way all the creatives come together and collaborate and engage with the amazing experience offered by the sound, light and staging teams.
If you step back and look at what happens behind the scenes, it’s a huge undertaking. In 2016, we’ll have over 150 models involved and, while they are essential to the show, they are just one component of the organisation that has to come together seamlessly each night.
Essentially, we’re running a reasonably large scale business, and we need to be sure that everyone’s talents are being properly utilised, and that everyone’s valuable time is used in the most efficient way possible.
The announcement of BAL Lawyers as a partner to Fashfest was an interesting one. Most people struggle to make the conceptual leap to bring a legal firm into a fashion show.
I get that, but what it boils down to is simply that the culture of that business is very close to what we have in Fashfest.
One of the things we love about our event is that creative Canberrans get experience and an opportunity to learn and grow. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of Fashfest—whether it’s a model, a designer, a make-up artist or even a volunteer—to see that they’ve learned as much as we have is fantastic.
As for BAL, they come from a similar position. What they are offering is the opportunity for six Canberra creatives to receive expert coaching on how to progress their way to setting up a business and protecting their assets and skills.
A simple example is intellectual property. We all roughly know what it means, but for designers, it’s essential they understand their rights and how to protect their ideas and designs. This is just one area where BAL can step in and assist. There are plenty of other issues around business management, but IP is a pretty obvious one.
If we can provide even more opportunities through Fashfest to grow the people involved, then for us, it’s a great outcome.
Image: Martin Ollman Photography
What sort of support have you had from the ACT Government?
The ACT Government was a great early supporter of FASHFEST, as part of the Centenary of Canberra celebrations in 2013. The Government is a strong supporter again this year, including with financial support. There are so many points between FASHFEST and the ACT Government that deliver economic, social and community outcomes that I see working together as natural and essential. This said, FASHFEST is a private-sector initiative. We have wide support from the business community but still believe it’s essential the government support strong events-focused economic and community growth agenda.
While we know what we’re putting into Fashfest brings great benefits to Canberra’s culture and the broader economy, and we’re pleased to have the ACT Government supporting us again this year, we know we have to be sustainable and stand on our own over the long term.
Where will future growth come from?
That’s an ongoing conversation for Andrea and I. We continue to invest our own resources in Fashfest to ensure it can grow.
But the next steps are to continue to build partnerships and see where they lead. An interesting one in the last 12 months is having the New Zealand High Commission take up an offer to be involved. They’re paying for two designers to fly over and show their designs at Fashfest. Who knows where that might lead?
Can you see a Fashfest event in Auckland or even our sister city, Wellington?
(laughing) Well, you never know. But it won’t be happening this year!
But the next phase of Fashfest is going to require another total revamp of the way we run the event. We’ve hit the limit of how big we can go with our current systems, and to take the next step is going to involve a new approach that we’ve been designing for the last six months. It’s really exciting.
Image: Red Photography
What’s the harshest criticism you’ve ever received?
It was definitely around Year Two when we copped a lot of flak for the way we were paying make-up artists and models. I could totally understand the frustrations, but the problem was that no one came to us directly in order to get an explanation.
I would have been more than happy to talk the critics through it… to show them the plans for the future and how our operation compared to similar events in Sydney, Melbourne and across the world.
So, while it hurt that we were copping criticism for what was, in fact, better than the industry standard during our second year, it’s more the fact that we didn’t get the chance to explain ourselves that made it a really tough situation to deal with.
When people tell us about something that we can do better it’s always appreciated. We want to improve Fashfest in every way we possibly can. That said, 99% of feedback is really positive.
Have you ever thought about giving up?
Never. Honestly… never.
You haven’t laid in bed at four in the morning, staring at the ceiling and thought, “This is all too hard?”
Look, I’m not going to say there haven’t been days where we feel tired or frustrated, but we’ve never, ever considered giving it away. Andrea and I are both in this 100%.
Fashfest 2016 runs for three nights from Thursday 30 September until Saturday 1 October at the National Convention Centre Canberra. Tickets are available from fashfest.com.au