Australians buy a lot of swimwear, underwear and shorts. They have a passion for them.

This came to mind in recent intellectual property and business development project work for a client with a swimwear brand with growing export potential.

What explains this Australian passion? Moreover, what explains Australia’s success in the commercialisation of this type of apparel? The answer tells us a lot about the importance of national brand perceptions and national market size.

Evidence of the passion

"billabong-red-hot-chili-peppers"Consider three exhibits as evidence of Australia’s passion for activewear.

As EXHIBIT A, if you are an Australian reader count how many items of swimwear you currently own. Then add the number of shorts. Quite a few of both we’d expect.

As EXHIBIT B, consider the history and present reality of the sector.

Sydney was the home of the world’s largest selling swimwear brand – Speedo – until its sale to foreign interests in the late 1980s. The Speedo sale is part of a much larger tragic late 1980s business destruction story. As the swim events at the Beijing Olympics illustrated, today Speedo is a bigger brand than ever, worn by swimmers internationally.

A new generation has filled the Speedo gap.

The Billabong, Rip Curl and AussieBum brands have spread to export markets. Their merchandising prowess is remarkable, extending well beyond the core products of surf, ski and activewear. "aussiebum_man"

  • Billabong, a listed company, had net profit of A$176 million to 30 June 2008, on revenue which rose 10.1% to A$1.35 billion.
  • Rip Curl, a privately held company, had a net profit of A$14 million on revenue of A$419 million.
  • AussieBum, also privately held, has headquarters in Sydney. Launched in 2001 with A$20,000 (source: Wikipedia entry), there are reports online its revenue is A$20 million. It strongly pushes online marketing and sales and claims exports form 90% of its revenue.

While we are on big numbers, roll out EXHIBIT C. This evidence is the tens of millions spent to associate Australia’s best know celebrities with swimwear, lingerie or underwear brands:

  • Elle Macpherson Intimates (Elle Macpherson),
  • Bonds (Sara Murdoch, Pat Rafter, Michael Clarke),
  • Tigerlily (Jodhi Meares),
  • Love Kylie (Kylie Minogue),
  • Annabella by Delta (Delta Goodrem),
  • Quake (Ian Thorpe) [FOOTNOTE 1], and
  • Davenport (Stephanie Rice).

New Zealand is in synch, with the Auckland-based Bendon Ltd having taken Elle to centre stage in the underwear game. Ragtrader reports that “Bendon, which recently celebrated its 60th birthday, operates a network of 22 Bendon Lingerie stores across New Zealand and Australia with a further 12 in the Middle East. Its brands, including Elle Macpherson Intimates and Stella McCartney Intimates, are stocked across the UK, the US and other international markets.”

Explaining the Australian passion for activewear

If Exhibits A, B and C prove the passion with activewear, what explains it?

Australia has a proud record in the commercialisation of activewear. This is founded on a number of key pillars.

  • Brand image linked to national origins. Australian businesses have a good feel for trade marks and branding for swimwear, shorts and other “small wear”. The gear is as Australian as stylish clothing is French or Italian, just compare and contrast the national uniforms worn in the Opening Ceremony at the Beijing Olympics by Australia verses those of France and Italy. For further evidence see images on websites linked in this post. In some cases linking brands to national origins works. [FOOTNOTE 2]
  • Sizeable national market. On the coasts where about 90% of the population live, Australians worship the Sun with long-established beach leisure activities. They buy swimwear regularly, typically have several pairs, and feel they are making an identity statement wearing it (ie it’s not a generic commodity outfit).
  • Outsourced manufacture. Local manufacture of active wear declined dramatically over recent decades. To survive Australian brand owners outsourced. For example, only about 1% of the about 25 million shorts purchased per year in Australia are made in Australia. [FOOTNOTE 3]

Success in IP commercialisation in Australian apparel

For Australians being casual is an iconic state. If the Australian dream remains to own your own home, it is often preferably while wearing swimmers, shorts or leisurewear.

Successful intellectual property commercialisation is often about finding something suitable for your circumstances and then building on it. Success in the apparel business in Australia has often been achieved by building on Australia’s national and international image and on what Australians love to wear the most.


[1]  TFIA Business Services Pty Ltd (commercial division of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia Ltd) – The Australian Market for Mens Shots 2004-05 quoting data sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

[2] A brand and its brand message can be helped or hindered by associations with its national origins. The way in which luxury brands leverage on their national origins is discussed on pages 106-108 in the book, Luxury Fashion Branding: Trends, Tactics, Techniques by Unche Okonkwo (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2007). Okonkwo provides the example of Salvatore Ferragamo (Italian), Yves Saint Laurent (French), Donna Karan (American), Yoji Yamamoto (Japanese), and Jimmy Choo (British). Perceptions about national origins are often pushed with some brands even when they never originated from a particular country or when ownership is sold to an entity in another country. For example, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Versace (all originating from Italy) have their Italian image maintained by their French conglomerate owner, LVMH.

[3] In 2003 interests associated with Ian Thorpe were involved in a successful brand protection action for “Torpedo”, a well-known nickname for Thorpe. See Torpedoes Sportswear Pty Limited v Thorpedo Enterprises Pty Limited, (2003) 132 FCR 326; (2003) 59 IPR 318.

Noric Dilanchian