Nobody covers their backside like an Aussie.
Australians don’t tolerate undies which get caught in unpleasant places or which fall apart quickly. Instead, we like well-made, reliable smalls from the likes of Bonds, which offer a high comfort factor, along with a good look.
Until recently, however, Australians who wanted something upmarket and special were mostly limited to expensive European labels. But for the past decade, Australian designer lingerie has taken underwear drawers around the world by storm.
“Brand Australia is clearly of interest at the moment internationally,” says Tanya Deans, marketing manager of Bonds, which exports to the UK and Singapore. She says Australian underwear appeals because it’s easy to wear. “Whereas European women will sacrifice comfort for looks, Australian men and women won’t.”
Jasmine Hickman, owner of Melbourne store Smitten Kitten, which specialises in up-and-coming Australian lingerie labels, agrees. She adds that local designers are also distinguished by their preference for natural fibres like silks and cotton, and for creating underwear that can double as outerwear. “Australians design things to be seen. It’s just so fashionable, you don’t want to hide it.”
Maybe it’s because, as you’ll see, Australian designers have a lot to flaunt.
“Smell that,” says Sean Ashby, waving a pair of undies.
Ashby is holding the world’s first ginseng-impregnated underdaks, designed to keep a bloke fragrant and energised. He looks pleased as he takes a sniff of his own creation. And why wouldn’t he be? Undies have been good to Ashby, turning him from an unemployed beach bum into the head of an enterprise that covers butts in 75 countries (plus an oil rig). Yet the passage to aussieBum has been strewn with disappointments.
First there was his unemployment problem. Ashby had left marketing to join the fitness industry, only to discover he couldn’t get back into the profession. “No-one wanted a bar of a person who had decided to leave work and become a personal trainer.”
So he headed for the beach, only to be disappointed once again. “Every year Speedo would make the Aussie cossie, the 100% nylon swimmers. In 2000 I went to buy my swimmers, and they said Speedo had stopped making it.”
Sitting dolefully on the beach in his new Lycra swimwear, Ashby decided to resurrect the nylon cossie. “I’d make the swimwear, sell it and go to the beach in the afternoon. How hard could it be?”
He sunk the $20,000 he’d saved for a home deposit into the scheme and soon had three bags of swimwear and some appointments with retailers. Every one of whom said his product was sub-standard and old fashioned. Nothing daunted, Ashby decided e-commerce was the way forward, and built himself a website. It was 2001, the year of the great tech wreck.
“Whenever anything failed was when I usually stepped in,” says Ashby.
In desperation, he sent his swimmers to media outlets around the world and was rewarded with one tiny paragraph in a suburban London newspaper. But that one paragraph kicked off a global phenomenon. “I came down one day and there was one order. It took me two hours to pack it. Then it went to two orders a day.”
Today, the aussieBum website gets more than 1,000 orders and 40,000 unique hits a day and its products are sold in department stores across the world. And aussieBum remains proudly made in Australia, which is unusual in an industry that mostly outsources to China.
“We’ve proven that you can manufacture in Australia and be successful at it,” says Ashby.
Now the aussieBum offices hum with the sound of building work, as the converted warehouse expands further. Already there is a staff gym. Soon there will be a café and even a television studio, where Ashby plans to film an aussieBum reality television show. On the main floor, staff fulfil orders.
“Everyone who started in the company started packing, because that was all we could afford,” says Ashby. “From there they recognised their own talents and abilities. A person who is packing today will crunch a deal tonight with a German who can’t speak English.”
So packer Claire Delzechi ended up running international PR. Packer Vincent Chao negotiates with fashion magazines in Taiwan. And these days the packers pack more than just swimwear, because Ashby branched into underwear the morning he couldn’t find a clean pair. “I thought, how hard could it be to make underwear?” he says. “So I made a pair.”
Being the extrovert he is, Ashby went for colour. Reds. Greens. Oranges. Vibrant patterns and designs. Nothing like the blacks and whites that blokes have traditionally been offered. The orders came pouring in. And then came the big breakthrough: the Patriot, an undie to be worn with pride.
“The waist band says it’s the property of England, or the property of Ireland or whatever,” says Ashby.
But the waistband is only part of the appeal. Designed by Ashby’s partner Guyon Holland, the Patriot also lifts and separates, making the wearer look bigger in front.
“The Patriot is now the number one selling underwear in Selfridges [in the UK],” says Ashby, adding that it’s not just the undies that appeal, but also the personality behind them. “The reason why people buy Australian is because when we put our mind to do something, we do it, but we also manage to have a laugh.”
The Patriot clearly taps into a deep male need. Anyone who thinks size doesn’t matter should consider that within a month of its launch, the Patriot had sold more than 50,000 pairs. That kind of success is nothing to sniff at.
One night in 2004, Kay Cohen started chatting to the nice man parked next to her, at her apartment in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. Soon she was telling him all about the lingerie brand she was thinking about creating.
“He started asking me good questions, like ‘have you structured your company’?” she says. “I said ‘no’ and he offered to give me a hand.”
Cohen had worked in lingerie for 20 years, first as a designer and then in senior management with Berlei, Bendon and Triumph. Justin Davis-Rice, who had worked in the IT investment sector, was working on his golf in the wake of the IT crash. But he had crucial skills in negotiating and raising capital to contribute.
“He was going to become a silent partner,” says Cohen. “That only lasted a few weeks.”
Cohen’s idea was to create couture lingerie that not only looked good, but which had was properly fitted, supportive and comfortable. So she instituted a process of testing and re-testing every garment, mostly on employees. “We have everything from AA to E cups within this group of 15 women,” says Cohen.
Today, Pleasure State creates lingerie that’s edgy, fashionable and created with painstaking attention to detail, from the corsetry to the discreet crystal detailing on every piece. That’s because Cohen aimed at the international luxury market right from the start.
“When you’re selling expensive products you will sell less of them which is why we went immediately to the global market,” says Cohen.
The combination of beauty and quality with comfort was a winner. Pleasure State took off so quickly that Davis-Rice had to go full time within four weeks. The brand now sells in more than 23 countries, including Russia, the UK and the USA. Davis-Rice won’t discuss the company’s finances, but after it had been in business for only two years, The Australian Financial Review reported its turnover was in excess of $20 million.
Pleasure State also does well locally. Davis-Rice says one of the best decisions they made was to partner with both David Jones and Myer department stores, rather than choosing one over the other. He says the decision they got wrong was not thinking too small when creating the back-end systems.
“On day one we were being as conservative as possible,” he says. “We put in a low level accounting platform.”
Davis-Rice says the cost of upgrading to a system that trades in multiple currencies, much less one that can also cope with the different sizing regimes in force across the world, was substantial. Apart from that, there are no regrets.
Cohen says that what stopped her going into business for herself earlier, was the belief that she had to have all the answers. “One day you realise that what you don’t know, you just make up.” Today, she only employs people who are willing to improvise. “I find that’s where you see how extraordinary human beings can be.”
Julie Lantry says she recognised the need for decent pyjamas and lounge wear after she’d answered hotel doors once too often. “I wanted to design things you can answer the door in and feel like you’re not caught out,” she says.
So in 2001 she began began creating her own lingerie and sleepwear range. “I’d always loved lingerie and beautiful, sensual fabrics,” she says.
Lantry had studied at the famed East Sydney Fashion Studio before designing for a range of Australian fashion companies, including Table Eight and Zimmerman. Today, she has her own store in Sydney’s Double Bay, and also sells to more than 40 major stores both nationally and internationally, including to upmarket London store Fenwicks. Not only that, but celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Lindsey Lohan have worn her range.
Lantry puts her success down to her fabrics. “I tend to use mostly natural fabrics for comfort. Lots of silks, chiffons and cottons,” she explains. She adds that her styling is “a bit fun, a bit alive, and all about the colours.”
Lantry also has drive. One of the best decisions she ever made was to exhibit at the Salon International de la Lingerie trade fair in Paris, where the world’s lingerie buyers converge. “The first two times were great and there was a good response,” she says. “We picked up some new accounts.”
In February 2007, she hit the jackpot when Jane Buckley, buyer for major English fashion chain Topshop, came past and looked at her designs.
“All I know is that when Jane came back from Paris, she said how beautiful the collection was and that it was the highlight of the whole show,” says Syreeta Hirst, assistant buyer for Topshop.
Lantry went on to create an exclusive collection, Bulb for Topshop, sold in Topshop’s flagship London store. The range included knickers, slips, camisole sets and satin robes. Lantry says that Australian designers are offering the world a new way of looking at things. “We offer comfort, but also aesthetics and different detailing. While my customers are very fashion conscious, Australians are very much for comfort.”
This article first appeared in Virgin Australia Voyeur inflight magazine in 2007.