ACCESSORIES DESIGNERS FROM DOWN UNDER ARE THRIVING ON FAST-RISING EXPORT SALES.
Byline: Patty Huntington
While Australia’s first fashion wave unveiled talents such as Collette Dinnigan and Akira Isogawa, a new batch of export-focused designers here is trying to make their name with accessories.
“It’s a new area for Australian designers,” said Hayley Allen, the 30-year-old founder of Skipping Girl, which made its debut in Barneys New York in January. “The fashion market’s been flooded, but no one’s really gone into accessories that heavily or been known just as an accessory brand. I’m trying to be careful and not diversify too much, because I think if you remain focused on one thing and do it well, you’ve got longevity.”
Allen has expanded her collection from the single tote that launched her label three years ago to include net and crocheted flower handbags, cotton knit totes, beaded zip purses, bangles, hair clips, printed T-shirts and notebooks. But that bright, tight-weave plastic bag with the snappy graphics and plastic-coated rope handles remains the firm’s bestseller, accounting for 70 percent of Skipping Girl’s $500,000 to $1 million in wholesale business. Entirely hand-woven, the bags were inspired by those Allen spotted villagers carrying during a vacation in India.
“They don’t have a name — they’re just bags the women use for their day-to-day shopping,” said Allen. “I brought back 10 for my girlfriends.” Allen updated the Indian original with longer handles and a slightly different shape. One pattern featuring a little girl skipping rope inspired the company’s name and logo, both of which were designed by Allen’s husband, an art director at the Australian surf brand Mambo.
The “Skippers,” as they’re referred to in-house, retail from roughly $20 to $35 and are now offered in small, medium and large sizes, with new graphics, colors and patterns added each season. Last year’s versions featured cherries, hearts and stars; this summer, lollypop and street-sign prints prevail. Allen is also introducing the bags in a laminated cotton in addition to the signature tight-weave plastic. The company churns out 2,500 Skippers a month, up from 400 at the design’s inception.
Initially, Allen’s bags were bought by leading Australian fashion swimwear brand Zimmermann for the latter’s flagship boutique on Oxford Street, one of Sydney’s hippest fashion strips. Now, she’s expanded the company’s reach to 100 doors in Australia, including the 16-unit Beach Culture chain, whose stores are scattered throughout eastern Australia’s airports and tourist destinations.
Though Allen is in discussions with the 30-unit David Jones department store chain to develop an exclusive Skipping Girl line for the store, she has eschewed other such venues. “We sort of felt that selling to a department store wasn’t really our thing. We didn’t want to flood the market.”
Exports account for a third of business. Since signing a U.K. agent last year, the line has been sold to Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Urban Outfitters and the seven U.K. Mambo stores. Expansion has to be monitored carefully, since production is limited. “Every bag is hand-made and takes a day to finish,” said Allen, adding that the firm has expanded the assortment with T-shirts boasting the Skipping Girl icon or a single cherry or apple graphic, along with other bags that can be made in larger quantities.
Melbourne stylist Mindy Mason was working on a photo shoot for an Opera Australia ad campaign when she stumbled across the idea for her Spencer & Rutherford brand. “The model’s hand just got lost in her long, black dress,” said Mason. “So we thought adding a bag would really break up the picture.
“I looked all over Melbourne in search of an ornate, Old World bag,” Mason said. “I knew exactly what I wanted, but it just wasn’t out there.” Instead, Mason crafted the bags herself, using a few yards of a limited-edition, antique French striped material in lace, fringe and bead embellishments and curlicue gold frames.
“The client loved it, the model loved it and all of a sudden I had this idea,” said Mason, who made another three bags out of the remaining fabric. While she kept the original — now displayed encased in glass in her office — the last of that initial batch was snapped up by Michael Jackson during his 1997 Australia tour.
Three years later, what Mason calls her “heirloom” line — 100-plus styles in whimsical brocades, English tapestries, retro floral prints, toiles, silk damask and now leather and tweed — is selling to 250 doors in 22 countries.In 2000, Spencer & Rutherford racked up nearly $2.5 million in wholesale sales, which have increased 500 to 800 percent over the last two years.
The best-selling style is “Twiggy,” an elongated silk evening purse with ribbon, beading or braiding detail. Entirely hand-made in Mason’s Melbourne atelier, the bags retail from about $150 to $250.
There is also “Mademoiselle,” a 50-style, Asian-sourced diffusion line which retails for under $50, and a four-piece PVC Spencer & Rutherford luggage line inspired by Fifties-style hatboxes. For the Australian fall 2001 collection — which hit Australian stores in April and will arrive in the U.S. and Paris in July — Mason is unveiling 10 styles of Spencer & Rutherford shoes, all designed to work with the bags.
The handbag and luggage lines have been available in select Japanese stores, including Isetan and Shiseido boutiques for a year. U.S. accounts include Fred Segal, Henri Bendel and Ice Accessories. Seventy percent of total sales are from exports.
Surprisingly, Mason said, Spencer & Rutherford is better known outside Australia. She cites the example of a single Saint-Tropez speciality store — Mission Accomplie — which orders greater volumes than any department store chain in Australia. Although Mason says Australian department stores recently doubled their orders, a first order for an international boutique could be 10 times the first-order volume of an Australian boutique. “You walk into Fenwicks in London and our bags sit next to Gucci, which is just absurd. They’re such different bags!” she said. “But women love beautiful, feminine things. At the end of the day, you put a pretty pink floral bag in front of them and they melt.”