Combine an experiment with stretch fabric in a Brisbane kitchen and a blog about tights, and you get one of Australian fashion’s biggest success stories. Say hello to Black Milk Clothing.
Four years ago, Black Milk founder and designer James Lillis met with a bunch of fashion industry experts. He was told the brand needed to do catwalk parades and get stocked in certain stores in order to “make it” and be considered cool. Lillis’s decision to buck the trend and remain an online-only retailer who manufactured in Australia provided much amusement for the fashion pack. But today, as the brand sells more than 1,000 items per day, Black Milk is having the last laugh.
Black Milk famously began out of Lillis’s kitchen. He traded his CD player for a sewing machine at a local Cash Converters and bought some nylon lining, which he used to make himself a shirt.
It was around the same time that leggings were becoming a staple in every woman’s wardrobe. Lillis sharpened his sewing skills, began experimenting with stretch fabrics and decided to start a blog, called Too Many Tights. His brightly coloured designs found an audience online, where women were looking for an alternative to plain black leggings.
Lillis did the market rounds in his hometown of Brisbane, attended a few fashion events and experimented with pop-up stores. For 18 months, he recalls, “it was slow going, literally working out of a kitchen, putting through two to three orders a day. And then it just exploded.”
Rapid online growth
As orders started to flow in from all corners of the globe, Lillis’s
wife, Linda, quit her job and came on board. Cameron Parker, an
advertising and marketing executive, also joined the team, having met Lillis via a friend. The pair shared ideas around social media, and one of Parker’s first tasks was to establish Black Milk’s hugely popular Facebook page and to overhaul the eCommerce store.
“When I came on board, the website was one of the big things we changed,” says Parker. “At that time, everything was hand-done,
even writing the Australia Post labels and letters. There was no automation, the website was not well branded, it was just transactional. So, I focused on doing the website – which we still have today – and bringing it all together from a social media point of view. We integrated the selfies from Instagram, set up Shopify, got an IT team together and automated our systems.”
The flexibility of being an online-only retailer
The community Lillis cultivated through his Black Milk blog began to grow. Sales and popularity followed. The brand embraced the two-way dialogue that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter provided, to the point where their collections were – and still are – heavily influenced by customer requests and feedback.
“A lot of our designs come from that relationship with the customer,” says Parker. “We know within seconds of doing something on social media, or selling online, what’s doing really well. We have the flexibility of going online when a new collection is launched and within two hours knowing whether we need to ramp up or slow down production on key items. That’s so valuable to us and has been really important to our success.”
Also important to Black Milk’s success has been the Shopify platform. “Thank god for things like Shopify which, for a business that was run out of a kitchen, made things extremely affordable to come up with a good system,” says Lillis. “Within 12 months, we went from selling a couple of thousand dollars worth of clothes a month to hundreds of thousands, which meant we then needed to develop an additional backend system to handle it.”
Matching systems with business growth
Black Milk now employs 180 staff and operates out of three premises in Brisbane. The business has just moved into a brand new head office, which will double as a showroom for new collection launches.
“It’s as close to bricks-and-mortar as we’ll get,” says Parker. “We’ve always wanted a concept-store-style showroom, because we have a lot of events and a really big Queensland community.
“Before a launch, we have a VIP night for sharkies [the nickname for Black Milk fans], and they come in and try it all on and that generates a whole bunch of content that spreads on social media, such as how an item fits or feels. Sharkies are basically our sales reps that go out there and tell everyone around the world how it fits, because they’re the ones who tried it on first in Brisbane.”
The business is also about to launch a new enterprise system, which Parker says will help take Black Milk to the next level. “We’ve grown so much, we can’t rely on our internal systems anymore,” he explains. “We’re really looking forward to improving our processes and efficiencies, and being able to pull reports when we need to, which at the moment is extremely difficult.”
Cultivating a global market
What has come easily to Black Milk, as an online-only retailer, is growing an international fan base. Thanks to its dynamic social media presence, and the power of sharkies, the brand is hugely popular in the US. A distribution hub is soon to open in downtown Los Angeles, and Lillis has handpicked a local to head up the team. “We like to have everyone be part of the family,” he says. “The people that work for us live and breathe the brand, and it’s really important to our success.”
Black Milk’s Head of Sales and Marketing Cameron Parker shares his thoughts …
… on being an online-only retailer
“In the early days, we stocked in the occasional bricks-and-mortar store, but we realised fairly quickly that wasn’t going to work. We don’t have a margin the whole time because we manufacture in Australia, so why restrict yourself? We can make a lot more money online because we can sell to a global market, 365 days a year, without a middleman.”
…on standing out
“From a product point of view, Black Milk was unique. No one else around the world was focusing a company solely on crazy, intense, loud-printed swimsuits, leggings and dresses. Having something unique was part of why we were so successful. Now, there are copycats everywhere.”
“We started in a kitchen, making everything ourselves. When the profits for a pair of leggings came back, we invested that directly into the company and bought more needles and more elastic to make three pairs, sold them, then used the profits to make 12 pairs, and so on. We’ve never had any capital investment; it’s been very organic.”
Tools and resources
Black Milk Clothing sells leggings, swimwear and dresses in a unique range of designer-printed fabrics.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees, and not of Australia Post.
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