Australia: Top tips for Australian designers and fashion businesses

Last Updated: 30 April 2014

I will survive! Global law firm K&L Gates hosted a panel of experts, featuring David Briskin (Executive Chairman, sass & bide and Director, VAMFF), Rachel Smith (Partner, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu) and Jol Rogers (Partner, K&L Gates), at its annual Fashion Law Breakfast held as part of VAMFF. The panellists shared their insights and experience about the critical aspects of business strategy you need to get right early to ensure business survival in a lively discussion facilitated by K&L Gates partner Lisa Egan.

Get your product and focus right

It's a crowded market out there, so it's crucial that you have a clear idea of who you are as a designer and what your label represents. David Briskin advised that creating a unique brand doesn't end when your first line is sent out to retailers – instead, take the time to talk to your retailers about your goods, and to visit stores to check your visual merchandising and whether your products are being displayed and promoted as you had agreed. Your retailers are an invaluable source of information about colour, sizing, fit and how customers are interacting with your products, so make sure you ask them!

Take control of your business

It's critical that you choose a business structure that fits your business. Jol Rogers advised of the importance of getting sound advice early - starting a business can be risky, and it's prudent to have a structure in place that both protects you and your business partners if anything goes wrong, and that allows you to grow and seek investment.

This also means ensuring that you have a trusted financial advisor. Rachel Smith advised that successful businesses require much more than simple bookkeeping – to thrive, fashion businesses need up-to-date, detailed information about the parts of the business that are booming and the parts that might be holding you back. Detailed inventory management allows you to better control your profitability and adapt to changes in the market, such as the influx of northern hemisphere retailers. David Briskin recommends knowing your products and their success in the market intimately, and prioritising stock turnover by creating a plan to turn over all stock within a set timeframe such as 6 months.

Protect your business

It is important to protect your financial and legal position with manufacturers and retailers that you engage. You need to understand the agreements and what protection you have if anything goes wrong. Jol Rogers explained that a very common issue faced by fashion labels is who owns products that have been supplied to retailers, but not yet paid for or sold. Some retailers allow you to retain ownership of the goods (which means that you have the right to take them back if they break an agreement, for example by not paying you for goods), but this is often not the case, and it's important that you seek advice if you are unsure.

Protect your brand

One of the most valuable assets a fashion business owns is its brand, including your name and logo. We recommend that you register these as trade marks. Registering a trade mark is a small investment and is quite a simple process that an intellectual property lawyer or trade mark attorney can help you with. Lisa Egan advised that the more distinctive your branding, the easier it will be to protect, so you should steer away from names or logos that are too similar to other brands or that are very obviously related to your products. Registering a domain name or a business name doesn't give you any proprietary rights. Only a registered trade mark will give you an easily enforceable property right, which will become an important business asset quickly over time and through use. If your business becomes so successful that you begin to export or manufacture overseas, you should register the trade mark in those countries as well.

Lisa also recommends protecting your designs. Australia has a system of registered design protection which covers the shape, configuration and ornamentation of designs (which can include clothing and jewellery), and registering your designs is one way to reduce the resources you expend on chasing imitation brands and copycat designs. An intellectual property lawyer can help you determine if your designs can be protected as registered designs. You should also be able to protect your graphic designs and fabric print with copyright, which does not need to be registered. You might need advice to make sure you own all the copyright in your designs if you are using any contractors or freelance designers.

Meet the challenges of online retailing

Online retailing is not simply a challenge for the Australian fashion industry, but an exciting opportunity for established and emerging brands alike. David Briskin's advice is that all fashion businesses need an online presence, but need to be prepared to meet challenges such as online fraud and brand protection. Rachel Smith advised designers to be cautious of immersing themselves too deeply in the online world – before launching into an online project, it's crucial to work out its logistics (such as warehousing) and your strategic plan so as not to anger customers by not being able to meet stock requests and expectations. Lisa Egan advised that for designers hoping to use their online presence to expand overseas, it is crucial to first protect your brand by registering trade marks and designs, and to do your research to make sure that you are not at risk of being accused of copying an overseas brand.

The breakfast was well attended by people from all parts of the industry. Watch this space for follow up events!

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

K&L Gates has been awarded a 2012 EOWA Employer of Choice for Women citation acknowledging our commitment to workplace diversity.

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