From the source: Alex Cleary, Alpha60

Alpha60BIO: Alex Cleary

Alex Cleary is director at Melbourne fashion label Alpha60, which he launched with his sister Georgie Cleary in 2005 at the National Gallery of Australia’s Vivienne Westwood retrospective. The label now operates 12 boutiques across Australia in Melbourne, Sydney Perth and Queensland, although the brand continues to work from a small creative studio in Collingwood.

Alpha60 has had solo events at Australian Fashion Week and L’oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival, two nominations in the Tiffany and Co designer award and showrooms in Paris and New York as well as its designs added to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

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Inside Retail Weekly: What have been some of the highlights of 2017 at Alpha60?

AC: We’ve continued our expansion of retail and we opened new stores in Claremont in WA and Newtown in NSW – it’s really been about finding places in the market that suit us. 

We’ve worked out that we’re pretty much an inner-city brand, we don’t work well in the suburbs or small towns. We resonate well with an arty or design-focused crowd. Our customers are hard to define by age because they range from 17 to 70 – we’re at an interesting end of the market.

I think we’ve reached our goals of retail in Australia and covered them, so we’ll sit on those 12 stores for a little while.

IRW: What retail goals does Alpha60 have overseas?

AC: We’ll be looking at those in 2018. Obviously, we sell online and we sell to a lot of tourists here, particularly in Melbourne CBD, Sydney CBD and the Gold Coast and we have found our Asian market is really strong. It makes sense in that our design aesthetic aligns well with that Japanese look, even though it’s not something that we aim to do. Asia is probably our next goal. We’re just about to launch our dot cn website so we can operate in China from China and we’ll launch that in the next month or so.

It’d be hard for us to sell to China from here and ecommerce is super different over there. It’s wildly good and very mobile-focused, even the website design is so different – it’s just big and loud and not as subtle as the things we have here, so it’s a challenge in how we translate what we do over here into the Asian market. The product’s the same, but how we communicate to get it across is quite different.

We’re investigating social media platforms in China at the moment. We’ll have a multi-platform approach to all of that, focused around Alibaba and WeChat – it’s so phenomenal. WeChat is like throwing PayPal, Facebook and Ebay into one platform. It’s just incredible. I was over in China a little while ago and amazed by how frequently it’s used by everybody to pay for things. It’s just a whole new phenomenon that we haven’t cottoned onto here. I think 90 per cent of ecommerce is done on mobile in China. We were in cafes where you couldn’t pay with money, you needed to have WeChat. You couldn’t even pay with a credit card! It’s a big tech step that we’ll need to catch up with soon.

IRW: Apart from China, where else are you looking for international expansion?

AC: We’ve got a distributor working for us in the US – we started wholesaling over there this year. We’ve decided to to be choosy with the markets we enter and we’re starting small, we’ve got 20-30 accounts for this season in the places we wanted. It will be a slow rollout, but the US is easier for us to understand [than Asia]. We get that market and we know how it operates. It’s easier, but we’re happy to take that as a gradual build and make sure we keep our brand presented in the way we want. Our distributors are based in New York City, but we’ve got stores from Texas to Canada.

IRW: You and your sister Georgina started Alpha60 as a small studio brand 12 years ago, and now you’ve got 55 staff, 12 stores and overseas distribution.

AC: When we first started, we didn’t even plan for this to develop into a brand. It was really a hobby for us. One evening, we made a printed shirt at home for me to wear. Then one person wanted a shirt, so we made another. Then five people wanted one, then it turned into 50 and 100 and we kept rolling from that. After awhile, we decided maybe we should create a brand and it went from there.

But for the first two years, it was very much a hobby. It was interesting because we didn’t have commercial pressures or constraints on us to develop in any which way. It gave us a chance to find our feet and develop organically.

IRW: What’s it like working with your sister so closely?

AC: It’s awesome. We’ve really had businesses since we were eight and 10 together. We grew up on a farm, so we were selling flowers on the road, then potting up camellias and selling those. We made and sold muffins, pot pourri, skateboards, Christmas cards, bon bons – all sorts of stuff. We did a couple of markets in primary school and made $500. We just thought we were the king of the kids.

It took awhile, but it evolved into us having our own business together. It’s good. It’s a real symbiotic relationship in that we encourage each other, but what we both add to the equation is quite different. I’m director and she’s creative director -– it all overlaps in the middle and we meet somewhere and 70 per cent the other way.

IRW: You opened up your store Chapter House in the Melbourne CBD last year, which is quite a dramatic customer experience, with its high ceilings, stained glass windows and baby grand piano. Tell me about that.

AC: We’ve had a store directly downstairs from Chapter House for 10 years, but we found out at nine o’clock one night that the hall was up for lease when one of the staff mentioned it to us. We called the real estate agent and had the deal done by 11am the next day. The landlord, St Paul’s Cathedral, liked the idea of what we’re doing and even the fact that their church was being used in a modern way – it’s not a nightclub or anything – it keeps people coming through.

We actually had no idea what we were going to do with it. We thought to ourselves, ‘What can we do with it?’ We asked that question after we signed the lease, which was probably a bad idea, but it was too good an opportunity for us to pass up.

Taking on Chapter House was a way for us to reinvigorate the retail experience. Online’s so convenient that you need to add a lot more to the physical experience to make it appealing for the customers. There’s a lot to be said to being able to go in, try something on and receive nice service, so we wanted to expand that into an experience at Chapter House. When you walk in, you feel awe-inspired, the idea was to put a bit more spark into retail and make an offering you can’t replicate online. That’s been something that’s worked well for us.

We wanted Chapter House to be a shop that replicates that luxury experience, but without the price point. You can go in and there are large change rooms in a grand area, there are lots of mannequins you can walk around, we’ve got staff who can help style you and give you that personalised shopping experience, like you would expect in a grand boutique or a luxury store.

The downstairs store still operates in the same way and it catches people’s attention as they walk by and we send them up if they have more time. Chapter House is two flights up from the downstairs store, which is always a challenge in retail – it’s a hard thing to get people up flights of stairs or up a lift because they don’t know what they’re getting into and they feel uncomfortable.

That’s part of why we’ve been doing concerts, openings and art exhibitions, so we can utilise the space and more people know about it and they’re more comfortable when they come up. We’ve done different things up there. At the moment, there’s an art exhibition up there, we‘ve had bands and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra play, and US rapper Leaf perform in the past. We did a collaboration with James Drinkwater, an artist from Newcastle and he’s got his sculptures up there. It’s another point of interest and adds another step to the retail experience that you don’t get from or small store or online.

People in hospitality can have their bars and cafes upstairs, down laneways, in bunkers or wherever, but for some reason, that offering in retail is a bit more intimidating for people. Customers don’t know what to expect. You can just go to a cafe and have a coffee, but if you get to a shop, it can be awkward, people are a little bit intimidated, so it’s about us introducing them to the space in another way, like through an art opening. There may not be any clothes, but then they’re aware of the space so next time they’re nearby, they’ll walk up. Chapter House will only get busier as we go on and people are aware of the space.

Sometimes we have sales upstairs, but 50-60 per cent of the product does overlap with downstairs. In an ideal world, we’d have different offerings in the two stores, but we haven’t got the depth to do that just yet – that will be the future.

IRW: What are your thoughts on the current fashion retail landscape and international players entering the local market?

AC: We think it’s pretty positive, but we’ve had the luxury of being around for a few years now. There’s still plenty of retail to be had and people are still shopping. I think they’re shopping in different ways, but if you can give them the product and experience they want, even if with those tough factors in Australia – like rent, wages and retail confidence – there’s still plenty of room for good retailing.

At our Claremont store, Cos arrived and opened a few doors down and of all those international players, it’s definitely the most aligned with us. But we’re not really scared of it. The good thing is these overseas retailers get people out and shopping and they keep us on our toes. We have to make a product that we’re confident about and is better than theirs. It’s not really a problem for us.

IRW: Where do you hope to see the business this time next year?

AC: If everything goes right, that expansion into China will be a bit more aggressive. The ideal thing would be to open some stores overseas. NZ is on the cards, but for us, that’s a fairly safe bet. We have a customer base there and we understand the market – there’s good potential but it won’t blow up, but somewhere like Hong Kong, China, Japan or the US has potential to be a lot bigger, but it’s a lot scarier for us. We’d love to do something over there. The first step for us would be to have a shop in Hong Kong to just test before stepping into Chinese market and we’ll see how it goes – it’d take us 70 per cent of the way to China.

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