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Why Gorman can't ignore its fans

Shiny polka dot raincoats, whimsical tea dresses, daring patterns, bright and playful colours – look around in any major Australian city and you'll see them en masse.

Instantly recognisable and perpetually coveted, Gorman has become the uniform of fashion-savvy Australian women. The cult surrounding the local label has swelled to the point where past season pieces often sell for over twice their retail price on Facebook groups dedicated to the brand, the largest of which boasts over 8000 "Gormies" searching for their "unicorns" – the pieces they lust for most.

The label has a charming back story – it was launched in 1999 by nurse-turned-designer Lisa Gorman in Fitzroy, an inner-city Melbourne suburb known for its distinct local vibe. In the 17 years since, Gorman has become an iconic Australian brand, proudly positioning itself as sustainable and local, with organic collections and small, personable boutiques country-wide.

Due to its high price point, with dresses(semi formal dresses) costing up to $350 and jackets hovering around $600, there's also a touch of elite about Gorman – it's a status symbol as well as a fashion statement.

In 2009, the label was bought by retail giant Factory X, which also parents brands including Alannah Hill, Dangerfield and Jack London. Gorman continued to put out popular collections, recently collaborating with artists Fred Fowler and Camille Walala to produce interesting, unique designs.

Gorman founder and head designer Lisa Gorman (second from right) with models.

In the last week, Factory X has come under fire after receiving the lowest possible rating on a report on Australian fashion ethics from Baptist World Aid Australia, covering policies, suppliers, auditing and worker conditions – placing them below companies like Kmart.

This stands in stark contrast to the fairly ambiguous social and ethical compliance policy on the Gorman website, boasting "safe working conditions", "sustainable living wages" and "fair and equitable treatment".

Though Gorman was not included in Factory X's assessment as they have separate supply chains, the parent company received the F grade for choosing not to participate in the survey – which begs the question, why stay tight-lipped if you've got nothing to hide?

Immediately following the report's release, a petition was launched online calling for the company to disclose details of factory working conditions and provide transparency to its loyal customers. So far, it has amassed over 1200 signatures, as well as pages of comments demanding fairer ethical practices.

The woman behind the petition, Hannah Bowen, started buying Gorman in 2005 and has noticed a decline in quality in recent collections. She was inspired to take action when discussion around the report started on the Gorman buy/sell Facebook page, and members began asking the same questions she'd had for years.

"I wanted to know why Gorman and/or Factory X didn't respond when they claim to be so proud of their ethical standards," she said via email.

"I think, like me, people are just disappointed that a brand they have loved, supported and promoted for such a long time appears to have strayed so far from their ethical roots … So many customers are purchasing under the assumption that Gorman's ethical practices have never changed."

Gorman's first public response was an Instagram photo of Liao, a worker in Gorman's Chinese factory, who's quoted as saying he loves the label's colours, as though that quells ethical concerns. It has a faint air of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's recent "apology" video – forced and insincere.(red formal dresses)

The brand tagged the post with #whomademyclothes – a social media campaign for Fashion Revolution Week, focusing on ethical fashion. Despite claiming that they'd been planning for weeks to participate, Gorman only jumped on board after the campaign had ended and the questions regarding their ethics began. Judging by the angry comments, the post has raised more questions than it's answered.

When contacted for comment, Factory X's PR manager, Kara Brooks, replied with a statement confirming that the company did not participate in the study. She said that Gorman's customers have been misled, but did not expand on how, and rather than responding to direct questions regarding the brand's ethical practices, she pointed the query back to the online compliance policy.

Lisa Gorman has also released a statement promising that the brand will publicise audit reports in the coming months.

None of this has placated fans, with many boycotting the label altogether, and others vowing to only purchase second-hand items, until it provides the transparency they're after.

Gorman's demographic is not only fashion focused, it's also largely socially aware.

Student and Gorman enthusiast Katie Buddle has taken to her Instagram account, on which she posts about fashion, to inform her 6500 followers of the issues.

She said the strongest responses have been from fellow ethically minded students, who save for months to buy Gorman.

"When we want to make a purchase on a big-ticket item, we want to make sure it's going to last and that it's been made ethically," Buddle said.

"If they become transparent and honest about their manufacturing processes – that's literally all it would take for me to run off and buy a pair of Gorman socks."

Browsing the Gorman Facebook groups, it's not hard to see the rising discontent. Customers complain about dye running on $300 bedspreads when they're washed, inconsistent clothing sizes and stitching coming loose, and factory seconds and faulty items at the chain's discount outlets that often still have three-figure price tags, despite obvious imperfections.

In a recent study from Oxfam Australia, 89 per cent of consumers surveyed said they'd pay more for ethically produced clothing. Yet Gorman lovers are expected to pay exorbitant prices for garments that are reportedly decreasing in quality, and have no assurance that their money is going towards ensuring that the workers behind the scenes are treated and compensated fairly.

As a fan myself, it's frustrating that the company expects its followers' heads to remain in the sand, and condescending that when questioned, they deflect instead of providing concise answers. All the while, they continue to take advantage of brand loyalty to pocket fat pay checks for clothing that appears to be fast fashion quality at designer prices.

Over to you, Gorman.



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