Inside the business of fashion
When you think of made-to-measure tailoring services, you probably conjure up images of a bygone era: sitting with a tailor in luxurious leather button-studded arm chairs; selecting from a range of fabrics and considering every thread – from large cuffs to pocket squares. At Oscar Hunt in Melbourne’s CBD, that old world experience has been replicated to suit the modern man.
It’s the way a retail experience should be, but does it make financial sense to run such an elaborate operation in 2016? Yes, says Chris Edwards, Oscar Hunt’s general manager. Edwards and his team established the business in 2010 after seeing an opportunity to provide discerning gents with a quality experience.
He admits that affordability isn’t their first priority. ‘We don’t want to be a cost leader,’ Edwards says. But he’s also aware that charging exorbitant prices will drive customers away. ‘We’ve made it our mission to source unique fabrics and offer them at a competitive price point,’ he explains.
He’s not talking about competing with the likes of Topshop, though. Instead they’re competing with high-end designers. The team is importing luxury fabrics – some French cloths can cost $200 per metre. Factor in the production prices, staff, the retail space and it seems to be a wildly impractical business model.
'We’ve made it our mission to source unique fabrics and offer them at a competitive price point.'
But the business is thriving. So what’s the secret? Edwards says relationships matter. Solid supplier relationships help their buyers to negotiate the best price for their materials, while their people skills keep the clients coming back for more. An additional advantage of the made-to-measure market is the lack of unwanted product. ‘We don’t hold stock and because of that we pass on a lot of the savings to the end client,’ he says.
They stitch the fine details including buttons, lapels and shoulder in Australia, but Edwards says manufacturing components of the garments offshore enables them to keep costs down. He cites local designers such as Josh Goot, who manufactured in Australia, and retailed at a price point that was ultimately unsustainable. Goot went into voluntary administration in 2015.
According to Professor Ruth Rentschler, chair in Arts and Entertainment Management at Deakin University, financial nous is something many creative people lack. ‘If you can’t do the financial stuff yourself, you need to have someone you trust to do it for you, but you do need to be able to read the balance sheet, otherwise you can be hoodwinked,’ she cautions.
Clea Garrick, owner of independent fashion label Limedrop will celebrate 10 years in business in 2016 and says she’s learnt a lot about the importance of balancing creativity and cash flow. Garrick argues that while runway-style aspirational pieces don’t always make sense financially, they can help to sell the brand’s philosophy of fun. ‘The balancing act comes into play when designing a collection: looking through the numbers and forecasting the future demands,’ she says, but adds that independent fashion designers can’t be too conservative. ‘I’m still willing to take risks on new things – that’s what fashion is all about.’
'I’m still willing to take risks on new things – that’s what fashion is all about'
In the time Garrick has spent running a small business she’s learnt to create foundation product lines that sell on an ongoing basis. But she scatters collections with bolder one-off seasonal pieces, too. Unique, well-priced accessories are also essential, providing an affordable entry point for many shoppers. ‘The Australian-made vegan Limedrop nail polishes that we launched last year are a hit,’ she says.
Garrick believes it is possible to run a successful fashion business online, but she wouldn’t give up her presence in Melbourne’s Cathedral Arcade. ‘A physical space allows us to engage our customers and welcome them into our brand. Our quality fabrics are best seen in person and tried on,’ she concludes.
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