08 November 2015
by Mark Hawthorne

Jessica Mauboy's shoes highlight commercial world of Melbourne Cup

Jessica Mauboy breaks silence on anthem no-show

A miscommunication with the styling team is cited as being behind Jessica Mauboy's Melbourne Cup Day anthem no-show. Vision courtesy Seven News Melbourne. They were the shoes that stopped the anthem.

A branding spat between the Victoria Racing Club and singer Jessica Mauboy may have sparked the infamous national anthem no-show on Melbourne Cup Day but it was merely the climax of a series of sponsorship rows that simmered during this year's carnival.

Underpinning Australia's most famous horse race are several contracts covering commercial and sponsorship deals, including a 32-year-old partnership between Myer and the VRC. It's this contract that is being linked to Mauboy abandoning her commitments, after a pair of shoes from a rival store was in danger of breaching the agreement between the racing body and the department store. Under the terms of the agreement, worth $1 million a year until 2018, the VRC is prohibited from allowing other retailers, including Myer's chief rival, David Jones, from being associated with the Melbourne Cup.

Fairfax Media has obtained a copy of the contract between Myer and VRC. It singles out the retailers banned from being linked with Flemington and the Melbourne Cup. These include Just Group, which owns the brands Just Jeans and Jacqui E, Specialty Fashion Group and "any business trading as David Jones, Target, K-Mart and Big W".

The weeklong sponsorship feud was sparked last Saturday, Derby Day, when vitamin giant Swisse paid actress Hilary Swank to appear at its Birdcage marquee and do one photo shoot.

Hilary Swank at Victoria Derby

The Hollywood star arrived wearing an outfit by designer Christopher Esber, who is stocked by David Jones. The VRC and Myer vetoed a picture of Swank holding the Melbourne Cup trophy, but the ramifications of that outfit choice rolled on for days.

As a result of the fashion faux pas, the VRC and Myer also stopped the publication of photos of Swank that had been due to appear in News Corp papers on Sunday.

The VRC had agreed to Swank being photographed on the main straight at Flemington holding the Melbourne Cup but the actress chose to wear the Christopher Esber outfit – presumably at late notice – rather than one by designer Toni Maticevski​ that had been approved by Myer.

The Herald Sun is a sponsor of the Melbourne Cup carnival, and agreed to pull the picture at the VRC's request, leaving the newspaper forced to find a replacement front-page picture.

Model Ashley Hart, who appeared for Swisse across the carnival, was chosen on short notice and a picture was arranged. But the VRC and Myer also vetoed that image. "Ashley Hart was wearing Dolce & Gabbana, which is a David Jones brand," said a Herald Sun source. "In the end we had to use a picture of [Myer ambassador] Rachael Finch, and go and shoot Ashley Hart again. Then that became a shitfight because Hart is sponsored by Just Group, and wouldn't wear Myer."

Hart eventually appeared on the front page of the Monday paper wearing an outfit by designer White Suede, which is stocked at Myer.

Ash Hart at the Swisse marquee on Oaks Day.

It's a tangled web, but welcome to the commercial world of the Melbourne Cup.

Certainly Mauboy's entourage should not have been surprised by events on Cup day. The singer was booked months ago by the VRC to sing the national anthem before the Cup. As a Target ambassador, it meant her wardrobe for the day had to be approved by Myer.

Minutes before she was due on stage, Mauboy was forced to abandon the gig, to be replaced by her backing singer, Nadia Aya.

For nearly three days, speculation about the cause of Mauboy's no-show centred around her choice of outfit.

On Thursday, Mauboy confirmed that a styling issue, seemingly over her choice of footwear, resulted in a disagreement between her team and the VRC, which caused the singer to suffer a panic attack.

Myer denies any involvement in the incident. "Myer was not made aware that there were any problems in the lead-up to the Australian national anthem on Melbourne Cup Day until it was reported by media on the morning of Wednesday, November 4," a spokeswoman for the retailer said.

But the week of dramas off the track has highlighted the power of the big backers of the spring carnival.

Victorians spend about $52 million on fashion for the races in the weeks leading up to the carnival, more than the total economic benefit to the state from the Formula One Grand Prix ($32 million).

Myer's deal is $1 million a year for the race plus $85,000 a year in gift vouchers and prizes. It pays a further $850,000 a year to build and fit out the Birdcage marquee. But the contract also keeps Myer's opposition out.

With such lucrative deals in place, the VRC defended its position this week.

"The VRC values, respects and supports the very important commercial partners who make a vital contribution to the successful running of the Melbourne Cup Carnival," VRC chief executive Simon Love said. "In many cases this involves exclusive rights and the VRC seeks to protect this exclusivity."

The problem for Love is that the onus is on the VRC is enforce the contracts. Listed on page 10 of the Myer deal is a section titled "no promotion of competitors". It states the "VRC must use all reasonable endeavours to ensure no competitor or any of its related bodies corporate has or represents any association with the sponsored events".

Whether is was reasonable to ask Mauboy to change shoes minutes before she performed remains open to debate but many in the fashion industry are wondering if the VRC's enforcement of the policies has gone too far.

"I do wonder," said one of Melbourne's leading fashion industry players. "If Donatella Versace came to the races, would the VRC make her wear a Wayne Cooper frock?