How Australia’s Image Went from Crocodile Dundee to $39 Hand Soap

A fashion boutique on Collins Place, Melbourne, Australia, in an area known as the “Paris” end of Collins Street, famous for luxury shopping and beautiful architecture. Credit Ying Ang for The New York Times
A fashion boutique on Collins Place, Melbourne, Australia, in an area known as the “Paris” end of Collins Street, famous for luxury shopping and beautiful architecture. Credit Ying Ang for The New York Times

Back in the 1990s, Australia was a little bit daggy. Even that word — Antipodean slang for unfashionable, which in its initial meaning referred to the dried droppings on a sheep’s rear end — now seems quaint, a byproduct of a simpler era, when Magic Eye pictures kept kids entertained for hours and internet was dial-up.

Nowadays, however, Australia is an Instagrammer’s dream destination. Between the global ubiquity of avocado toast, ever more elaborate latte art and a proliferation of luxe-bohemian fashion labels selling the promise of endless summer, living as they do down under has become hashtag goals for many millennials.

How do I know this? I’ve spent most of the 21st century outside the country I was raised in, and over that time, I’ve witnessed the way Australia is talked about change in a subtle yet significant way.

In 2001, when I first moved away, the major cultural touchstone for Australia abroad remained Paul Hogan. “That’s not a knife. That’s a knife” has become one of those indelible movie lines, but it didn’t seem very relevant to the country I’d come from. “Crocodile Dundee” was 15 years old by then. And I didn’t have the heart to tell Americans quoting it that far from being a nation of outback adventurers, around 85 percent of us lived in cities. My dark secret was that most of the people I knew had never uttered the word “crikey.”

These days, Brand Australia has caught up with the country’s urbanized reality. Whether or not they made the connection, upwardly mobile shoppers around the world have most likely consumed one or more of the following, all arguably with antecedents in the bougie back streets of Sydney or Melbourne: Designer denim. Good yogurt. Fashion-forward swimwear. Very expensive hand soap.

That last one is a useful example of Australia’s image overhaul. Aesop’s Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash costs $39, and its brown-and-cream packaging can be spotted in well-appointed bathrooms the world over. (Tokyo alone has 13 Aesop stores. More than one of them are legitimate architectural landmarks.)

Founded by a Melbourne hairdresser, Dennis Paphitis, in 1987, Aesop gained a steady international following in the ensuing decades for its cerebral, pared-back approach to skin care. Not until 2009, though, when the company took back control of its global distribution — including vetting every restaurant and cafe that stocks its soap — did its sales escalate into the stratosphere. (Mr. Paphitis has since sold Aesop to a Brazilian cosmetics company.)

Along with Edison bulbs, Mason jars and appetizers served on planks of wood, Resurrection hand wash became an integral aspect of a pretty restaurant aesthetic. It’s soap, but it’s also shorthand for sophistication.

Like Aesop, the other brands that have altered the way the world sees Australia mostly reside at the top end of the market. Twenty years ago, Australian fashion abroad mostly meant surf gear; now high-end brands like Zimmermann appeal to a very different beachgoer — Beyoncé, for instance, who has often worn its whimsical creations.

The Australian cafe explosion is well documented; chains like Bill Granger’s in Britain and Asia, and Bluestone Lane in the United States have raised the standard for mass market coffee and successfully made the case for breakfast as a social event.

And although Yellow Tail dominated the cheap-wine market in America for a decade from the early 2000s, the past few years have seen more expensive Australian wines gain a foothold, contributing to a growing notion of Australia as a gastronomic mecca. There’s a reason the René Redzepis of the world rave about native ingredients like Tasmanian abalone, lantana blossoms and pink peppercorns.

But even as the version of Australia sold abroad starts to look more nuanced, the real Australia is becoming increasingly myopic. Thanks to the mining boom and a strategic realignment with Asia over the past three decades, we’ve become very, very wealthy. At the same time, our politics have grown increasingly small.

We’ve turned into highly discerning consumers, eager to spend on evermore beautiful homes, wardrobes and experiences. Australia today is country, continent and concept store all in one, filled with exquisite, expensive items for an optimized life.

You’d think with all that extra cash floating around we could have become a kind of super-Sweden. (Or at the very least, New Zealand.) Our politicians not only have failed on the “vision thing”; they’ve also ignored existing problems.

Take the case of our environment: This year alone, the precious southwestern wilderness of Tasmania has faced catastrophic fires during its driest January on record; in the northern city of Townsville, there have been unprecedented floods; and up to a million fish have died in the Darling River.

Then there’s our policies toward some of the most vulnerable. Australia has enjoyed 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth, yet successive governments have done little to improve health and education outcomes for Australia’s First Peoples. And there has been a bipartisan refusal to adopt a more humane policy on refugees under the guise of deterring people smugglers.

Amid all this, our current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is gearing up for a federal election, likely in May, by focusing on keeping electricity prices low, whipping up fear about transgender kids and safeguarding religious freedom when no one seriously thought it was at risk. Not exactly inspiring.

Australian companies have successfully packaged up and exported a sunny, laid-back lifestyle, but we’ve never looked less like our self-image. Perhaps, with household debt at an all-time high, we don’t even feel that rich. But the fact is we are. Australia is no longer a daggy sheep station. As of last year, according to a Credit Suisse report, we’re vying with Switzerland for the title of richest people in the world. There are lots of companies that have been clever enough to capitalize on this good fortune. When will our government show the same sense of imagination?

Amelia Lester is an Australian editor and writer based in Japan.

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