Are You Being Served?

The Real Problem with Melbourne Fashion Retail


When stylist Aaron Love moved to New York to become a Personal Assistant in 2011, he fell in love with the stores on Fifth Avenue. Unable to resist the gravitational pull of their wares he would use any excuse to cross Central Park to drop some cash on the Upper East Side. For Love, who has worked as a stylist for Rikki-Lee Coulter and managed stores for Rhodes and Beckett as well as Herringbone in Melbourne, the gig as a PA wasn’t that lucrative. But lean times didn’t stop the urge to shop.

“I walked into the J-Crew store. I wanted to buy a tie. It’s only a $100 sale. As soon as I walked in the door this guy walked up to me and said ‘you look flustered can I get you anything to drink?’”

The salesman proceeded to take Love downstairs and talk him through the collection, from the ties to the shirts to the bespoke shoes.“He doesn’t care whether I’m buying the tie or not."

"He wants to show me what they’ve got, educate me on the range and he knows because of the level of service that I’ve gotten from him I’ll come back."

"And look I’m still talking about it now.”

Manhattan has a long tradition of retail, so it’s no surprise that stores there are doing it right. In Australia competition from online stores is often cited as making a significant dent in the profits of physical retail spaces.

“I read so many articles saying that bricks and mortar are suffering because of online,’ says designer Lisa Barron, “Can you stop saying that? It’s not true,’” Lisa says of the articles. And she’s right.

New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that retail spending online in 2013 for items below $1000 are only 4% of the total, much less than previous estimates. People are always going to be enticed by a bargain, especially during tough economic times. Compared to other western countries the Global Financial Crisis hardly grazed Australia. Businesses felt the squeeze but on the whole Australians have been able to maintain a high standard of living. Australians still have cash in their pockets. So why are local retailers still doing it tough?

One factor is the way Australians are using their money. In September Crikey’s Bernard Keane pointed out that big-ticket items such as iPhones and gaming consoles are purchased online and in store. Once people make such a purchase their purses seal for a period at the expense of other retailers.

Paying shop overheads compounds this problem. Stores in the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs are in the world’s top 10 most expensive retail spaces, with Sydney coming in at 5th and Melbourne ranked 8th. Walk through the CBD and you will see empty shop fronts. The situation is worse on the city’s inner urban high street strips.

Jenny Bannister ran a successful fashion label from 1976 to 2009 and is still regarded as a local icon. In person Bannister is a walking fashion statement, with big blonde locks that tumble from her head and a black t-shirt that bears the letters ‘LSD’ in silver.She brims with information, citing several factors for the current state of the fashion industry, not least of which is over regulation by the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.

Bannister says she was forced to close down her business after unions prohibited designers from employing licensed subcontractors who worked from home without paying them entitlements.

“In ‘04 I got a letter from the TCFUA saying you can’t (employ the subcontractors) anymore. They’re ‘out workers’. You’re going to have to treat them as a full time indoor factory worker,” she says.

Due to the seasonal nature of the fashion industry she found it difficult complying with a regulation that stipulated that contractors be employed for a minimum of 20 hours per week all year round. This was compounded by a fear of breaching complicated union regulations that attracted a fine of $10,000 each. The ensuing stress caused Bannister to close her doors. Despite her renowned effervescence, she admits it damaged her.

Lisa Barron agrees that the TCFUA made things tough. Barron has managed to keep both her Armadale and South Yarra stores open. However the advent of a city store in 2009 was not successful, despite a corporate customer base that spends five days a week in the CBD. When Barron asked her clientele why they weren’t shopping in the city store, she discovered that they preferred to shop on High Street on the weekend.

“There’s a lot of bargain hunters in the city. They loved the product but the price wasn’t right. That mid market thing just works really well in the strip shopping centres in the suburbs,” she says.

Though the suburban strips are still popular with shoppers, expensive rent and negative gearing arrangements mean shopfronts sit empty for long periods. Barron says that while older people still shop on the strips, young people need to support them to remain viable.

“I’ve watched Kiralee Johnson close down, and Lisa Ho closed down. If it doesn’t turn around and young ones don’t come back into strip shopping (the shops will) be gone,” she says.

Both Bannister and Barron agree that some stores in Melbourne have an issue with customer service. Bannister tells me about an awkward encounter with an exuberant salesgirl at the Sass and Bide store in the GPO shopping complex.

“She said ‘You look great today!’ and I said ‘well what do I look like on other days then?’ That’s not how you talk to people. They need to be trained.”

Bannister’s candour is disarming. She relates several anecdotes of poor service in Melbourne: of staff who know nothing about the product, and others sitting behind the counter playing on their phone. “I don’t know whether it’s because their Mum did everything for them, or if they were raised in a shopping mall,” she says.

Lisa Barron spends much of her time on the floor building relationships with her ‘clients’. The feedback she receives from these relationships is evinced in her designs. “After 30 years of being in the business, I hear what women want.”

In person Barron is open and empathetic. It’s not hard to see how these qualities have facilitated her success. Barron elicits a kind of trust that would draw anyone uncertain about fashion into her store. When training staff Barron says she leads by example, though she admits that much of it comes down to X factor.

“You can (show) your methods of how you like things to be done, but it’s something that just is born, I think,” says Barron. Given that she attracts regular repeat business it seems Barron has nailed the art of finding the right staff and supporting their professional development. “As a retailer I want to make it a great experience.”

Aaron Love agrees. “Shopping should be an experience. You should walk into a store and you should experience something that is going to be really memorable so that you walk around and go ‘wow, that was amazing.’”

It’s that experience, the X-factor, that Barron mentions that still attracts people into a retail space.

When fashion designer Alexi Freeman worked in retail at DKNY Fifth Avenue avenue he had a colleague who was so skilled at reading body language that she knew if a customer was filling in there for five minutes or there to spend serious cash. It was an invaluable skill in a business where your pay packet depended on commission. “She got headhunted,” he tells me.

Product knowledge was also important at DKNY. “We’d have sales staff trainers come in for each collection and tell us about each piece. They’d literally give us adjectives to use. I still remember she was stroking this, it was like she was making love to this, leather jacket and she was saying ‘look how buttery soft the leather is’. It was quite sensual.”

Freeman works out of a studio in Fitzroy and sells to a number of Melbourne boutiques. He is unconcerned about union regulation of his business. “I trust (my manufacturer). I’ve worked with her for years and years she’s really by the book.”

Freeman is lucky. Not all designers have those boutique relationships necessary to deliver their product to the public. Bannister tells me of one boutique that might take two dresses on consignment but prohibit them from being stocked in any other store. “That’s just like saying ‘get a day job.’”

“I think those young designer cooperatives are a really good idea, where young designers get together and share a shop,” says Barron, citing the educational value of gauging the public response to your product: “That can teach you so much.”

Online shopping is relatively new and designers are incorporating it into innovative business models to circumvent the overheads of having a store. Jewellery designer Lia Tabrah sells her O.T.T range online, with her Collingwood studio doubling as a showroom. She notes that pop-up stores are becoming increasingly popular. “I rely on word of mouth, press such as printed magazines and local papers, online publications and blogs,” says Tabrah. “Social media such as Facebook and Instagram is constantly updated with new exciting designs and events.”

Though Bannister agrees that designers can make a living promoting their work online through sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, she thinks the lack of foot traffic for suburban studios is worrying. She has held meetings with the City of Melbourne’s retail strategist to discuss ways to make new designers more accessible. Part of Bannister’s vision is to instigate a dedicated fashion hub that provides a place for people to see local product.

“There should be a central place in Melbourne so when Anna Wintour comes to town she can go to one central place in the CBD and see the best stuff,” she says. 

mildred issue