The Melbourne Cup carnival may be underway, but with COVID-19 keeping the crowds away, the headwear sector — usually booming at this time of year — is still missing out.
In Victoria, groups are now able to gather to watch the races at events at their local pub, or at picnics or garden parties. But Melbourne milliners say those events just don’t warrant the fancy headgear that a trip to Flemington does.
Rudolf Ladyzhenskii owns and runs Cupid’s Millinery in Murrumbeena with his wife Marina Vexler. While Ladyzhenskii tells SmartCompany he’s seen a few people purchasing hats for the racing season, it’s been nothing like his usual October trade.
When they’re celebrating at home, people just don’t go to the same effort, he says. And, with restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne only relaxing last week, “people are not ready to party yet”, he adds.
“They didn’t have time to prepare.”
Elsewhere, milliner Jill Humphries tells SmartCompany she would typically sell about 300 hats in the run-up to the Melbourne Cup carnival, including custom and bespoke orders.
In October 2019 alone, she sold 139 hats, she recalls. This October, she’s sold just five.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced her to close down her physical store.
This crisis has been “incredibly traumatic for milliners”, Humphries says.
“We are such a bespoke and niche industry.”
The Melbourne Cup is a big event on the calendar. But, racing events all over the world have also been cancelled, from the Kentucky Derby to Royal Ascot, meaning there has been less scope for international sales too. Obviously, there’s been no international travel allowed either.
“From March onwards, the impact has been just rolling,” Humphries says.
She’s even considered getting a second, part-time job, “because the business at the moment is not viable”.
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It’s been much the same story for Cupid’s Millinery. Ladyzhenskii has effectively written 2020 off as “a whole year down the drain”.
While he’s sold a few pieces online, both interstate and internationally, it hasn’t been enough for the business to remain viable.
He has, however, been able to make use of government subsidy programs including the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme.
And, given this business has been around since 1963, he’s not expecting to see it fail now.
“We will hold up. There’s no doubt about that,” Ladyzhenskii says.
“We’re pretty resilient in the way our business is structured.”
In fact, the downtime has given the business owners a chance to do some of the things they don’t usually have time to. They’ve remodelled their showroom, for example, he says.
With Melbourne Fashion Week coming up, Humphries is also receiving some support from the City of Melbourne. She’s going to have a pop-up shop in the Emporium shopping complex, where she can make and display her hats, and hopefully make some sales.
But, this is the third year of hardship for the independent hat milliner.
Last year was tricky because of scandals rocking the horse racing industry, she says.
“That did have a slight impact.”
And in 2018, a factory behind Jill’s house burned down, leaving her without a home for some of the most crucial business months of the year.
“I figure that next year has to be a good one,” she says.
Bring on 2021
This year, businesses may have missed out on the Spring Carnival fashion boom, but both Humphries and Ladyzhenskii are confident in a rebound for 2021.
When Melbourne’s bars and restaurants reopened for business last week, they were flooded with excitable city-dwellers embracing the opportunity to get out and about.
When big events such as race days are allowed again, it stands to reason people will embrace them too, with even more enthusiasm than usual.
Ladyzhenskii notes that Cupid’s clientele is typically mid-to-high earners. They’ll be spending about the same amount next year, he predicts, but there may well be more of them.
“I think more people will go and celebrate,” he says.
“The Melbourne Cup carnival is such a special thing,” Humphries adds.
“It gives people an excuse to get dressed up and put a hat on — people don’t have those events to attend very often anymore.”
Any event where friends can get together, drink champagne, dress up in amazing outfits and enjoy the sunshine will always be a winner, she says.
“The moment they can, people are going to really embrace it.”