Turn over the label on any item in your wardrobe and you’re most likely to see a ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ tag staring back at you. Even an expensive price-tag doesn’t guarantee a genuine Australian product; the high-end designers are also producing their garments offshore these days. Dressmaker and designer Irene Makis is one Greek Australian determined to change this.

With over 25 years of experience in the fashion industry, Irene started up the Academy of Dressmakers in Sydney three years ago as a way to encourage, educate and nurture local talent. One of the greatest problems currently facing the Australian fashion industry is a depleting skill set in the technical area, Irene says.

“The industry lacks machinists and dress makers. The old technicians are all retiring and graduates coming out of the current design colleges are not being trained well in construction,” she says. “When we started the academy, we wanted to focus on the technical aspect not just design.

To produce a good design, the core is in knowing how to construct.” While there are plenty of fashion and design schools in Australia, many lack holistic approaches to dressmaking, Irene says. “A lot of manufacturers, especially in the bridal industry, are finding these young kids coming out of other institutes are all watching Project Runway but they don’t know how to construct,” she says. “Being a garment technician or production assistant, you need to know where mistakes are if a pattern comes back incorrectly, you need to be able to identify that.”

As more work is created offshore, jobs in the Australian fashion industry are dwindling but learning construction opens up a lot more doors, Irene insists. “Designers coming out of colleges haven’t got money behind them to start a label straight away, and design jobs are few and far between. But if you can not only produce your own samples, but be able to work in various companies as a machinist and work your way through the company, then you’re open to a lot more opportunities,” she says. The Academy of Dressmakers focuses on core skills and is one of the only design schools in Australia offering an alterations course, Irene says.

“There are lots of jobs in bridal alterations, but very few know how to do them. We did a national study and quite a few places are closing down, not because they don’t have the business, but because they haven’t got the employees. Unfortunately Australians don’t want to do labour, very few of them anyway, especially the young ones.” While a portion of Australian labels still support the local industry, the trend remains to produce offshore, Irene says.

“Supre produce here, Cue produce garments here now, but even Alex Perry produces his ready-to-wear range overseas in China, and that’s what we are competing with.” Irene, a graduate from University of Technology Sydney with a Bachelor of Design, Fashion and Textiles, started sewing at a young age, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother who were both keen seamstresses.

“I officially started sewing in year seven; I used to make things for my friends. When I was 18 and in college, I started working in the industry and actually getting paid for it,” she says. Irene’s relish for creating 1950s-inspired garments stemmed from a penchant for old movies.

“My whole passion was MGM movies; I wanted to be able to make all the clothes that I saw on the screen,” she says. Naturally a speciality in bridal and formal wear followed, where Irene had her own business for 15 years. This year the designer, along with five of her students from the Academy, entered her own creation in the Tessuti Awards taking place in Sydney and Melbourne. The results of the awards will be announced at the end of this month.

Irene is also planning to launch her childrenswear label, specialising in communion and christening wear, next year. The Academy of Dressmakers, which has taken in over 400 students in the past three years, is currently in the process of merging with another training institute. This will mean a new approach at launching the program next year, including an increase in online courses, Irene says. She adds that her courses are designed to prepare students for the professional arena. “Our certificate four is different from TAFE, it’s more hands on; you have to complete 34 garments in a year, whereas in TAFE you only do 12,” she says. “It teaches you time management, which is a skill you’ll need to go out looking for work. These are skills that you can travel with, that you can take anywhere.”

For more information on the Academy of Dressmakers, visit www.dressmakingacademy.com.au