Published December,18, 1980

Berated by Women’s Lib and bedevilled by cheap Asian imports, Australian bra-makers are ready for a comeback

For some women, the bra may be no more than a faded antique, a garment of the past that has no place in the wardrobe of today’s liberated female. But, according to the doyens in the foundation garment industry, the bra is still being worn by millions of women. Indeed, the industry maintains that the “bra is a necessity of life, not just a fashion accessory,” according to the immediate past-president of the Australian Confederation of Apparel Manufacturers and managing director of Hickory Fashions in Melbourne, Mr H. J. (bill) Griffin.
But while 3 to 4 per cent of women may have jettisoned their bras in favour of body freedom, the business is alive and thriving with a retail sales value of about $90 million and total annual sales of more than 10 million units over the last five years.
“It is not a growth industry or a declining one, but a very steady one,” Mr Griffin added. The number of women in the market has neither increased nor decreased, and bras per person have remained about the same number.
But the industry’s scenario hasn’t always been so stable.
It was bedevilled by uncertainty and turmoil during the early 1970s when cheap imports began flooding the country from South-East Asia, displacing local production.
While the Asians were paying as little as 20cents an hour for labor, the Australian average was closer to $4 or $5 and millions of cheaper bras were soon being flaunted in retail outlets throughout the country.
The effect on local industry was dramatic. Employment in the industry (including waist encircling garments and corsets, not just bras) dropped from 4562 in 1969-70, to 2642 in 1974-75. It has now stabilised at about 3000.
Responding to the transformed domestic market, the unemployment tally and intense industrial pressure, the Whitlam Government introduced a tariff quota of 2.66 million on bras in December, 1974, for 12 months, giving imports a 25 per cent share of the market.
In January, 1976, the quota was increased to 3.5 million and the Industries’ Assistance Commission was asked to look at the industry. The quota was dropped back to 2.66 million in 1977, remaining at that figure up to the present. But in April this year, a final report by the IAC recommended that while assistance be continued, it should be gradually phased out. The government did not accept the recommendation because of the projected employment loss.
In a statement issued in August in Canberra, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Mr Phillip Lynch, and the Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, Mr Vic Garland, said : “We were particularly concerned at the effects on some country areas where alternative employment opportunities are limited. Acceptance of the IAC’s recommendation would have caused severe problems for the people employed in the industry…for many of them, alternative employment would be difficult to find.”
Instead, the government announced a new program of assistance for a period of seven years from January 1, 1982, with the 2.66 million quota applying until then. The new program would be based on 1979-80 import levels, with a 3 per cent annual increase on top of that level, plus market growth.
Waist-encircling garments (everything except bras, and with a retail sales value estimated at $35 million) were granted quota assistance for the first time, with an import share of 50 per cent of the market, based on 1.4 million units.
This move was taken to account for the massive increase in girdles, corsets, et cetera, that have come into the country from South-East Asia over the last two or three years. Only 521,000 units were imported in the year 1977-78, while they nearly trebled in the year 1979-80.
The government’s program opens up a new era for manufacturers, allowing them to plan long-term.
The managing director of Formfit, Mr Brian Ettelson, said: “We now have an opportunity to plan and expand in an orderly fashion and to develop further technology.” He added that business was going very well and that 30 new girls were employed last month to cope with the growing demand.
ACAM’s research officer, Mr Malcolm Stewart, said the policy had restored confidence in the industry and initiated new bursts of re-investment, and Mr Griffin suggested that the trend of manufacturers to broaden their basic merchandise lines into related products like sleepwear, leisure wear, et cetera, would continue.
There are about 40 importers across the country, including large traditional ones, those that do a limited amount- like some of the brand leaders Formfit, Hickory- and retail outlets lkike G.J. Coles. (About 15 per cent of their foundation garments are imported from Hong Kong and The Philippines.)
But with prices about $4, the imported bras no longer offer such an attractive bargain from those manufactured locally. One Lovable range sells even cheaper at $3.50, while Berlei-Hestia’s is also able to compete with prices starting as low as $3.
While imports are now being controlled and the industry can look forward to a more stable scenario, the government has also been encouraging the development of an export market.
At the moment, exports account for only about 2 per cent of the market, but Mr Griffin explained that this was one area where the industry could expand greatly.
Australian manufacturers are looking for new avenues all the time, and, surprisingly perhaps, they are penetrating low-cost labor areas like Hong Kong.
“There is a market there from people who want merchandise that is not mass-designed. They’re looking for more individual and fashion-oriented merchandise,” Mr Griffin added.
For the last 10 years, Formfit has been exporting under 5 per cent of its garments to places like New Guinea and Singapore, while Berlei-Hestia has ceased exporting and instead established manufacturing plants in England, Wales and Belgium, as well as in low-cost areas like Manila, Hong Kong and even Puerto Rico.
But while the industry is competing on an international scale, its domestic market is one of the most competitive in the world, according to the marketing manager of Berlei-Hestia, Mr Richard Hamilton.
“There is more variety here than in England, Europe or even the States,” he said. The national sales director for the Lovable Co of Australia, Mr Roger Cliffold, believes that the Australian woman is really spoilt.
“Each year the manufacturers go overseas and glean the best of the world and bring it back here. We have virtually the pick of the world.’
Some manufacturers claimed that as women had attained their freedom and equal pay packets, there had been a swing back to the older, feminine style of fashion. Indeed, Mr Ettelson explained that the industry had changed from a ‘basic business’ five or six years ago to a ‘body cosmetic business’ with fashionable and exciting new garments.
Mr Griffin summed it up by referring to it as the ‘under-fashion’ business.
But while style and design have altered over the last few years to cater for the popularity of ‘the no-bra look,’ so too has the color of garments. The basic white, black and beige are still in demand, but bold, bright colors like claret, seashell pink, apricot and pewter blue now adorn the marketplace.
“As there was co-ordination in sportswear, we felt there should be co-ordination in underwear,” Mr Ettelson said.
Mr Roger Cliffold suggested that coloring had become far more aggressive over the last 18 months, while Mr Ettelson referred to his Rich Girl collection as a “pretty sensational market.”
Berlie-Hestia introduced a sports bra three years ago to help prevent nipple rash and stop breasts from bouncing round during strenuous activity. It has now become their best-selling garment.
Moreover, Mr Hamilton said that the development and introduction of lycra had been the biggest single thing to affect the industry. And with a seven-year period of some form of protection, who knows what other new developments the industry might herald?