Monday, April 14, 2008

Go ask Alice: The real McCall on babies, branding, Bali and why she's not doing AFW

Fashion Week may have a great show lineup but of course you can’t win em all – and regular AFW headliner Alice McCall is sitting this season out. Instead, McCall is opting for lowkey showroom presentations over the next two days in Sydney. Fully Chic can share the next best thing to a show: an exclusive preview of McCall’s ‘High on Rebellion’ SS0809 range which is high on 60s Mod,‘80s pop, the designer’s signature pretty-girl party dresses, shirtdresses, intarsia knits, zippered leggings, boho deluxe beading inspired by her baby’s astrological birth chart and a covetable, oversized, Blondie-nosed bag called ‘Rip Her To Shreds’.

That’s not counting a ‘Thank God For The Salvos’ T-shirt with a fascinating back-story. The shirt features an image from a genuine, and apparently only recently-retrieved, 1979 Salvation Army poster which depicts McCall herself as a child model, barefoot, empty plate in hand - and wearing a floral smock dress. All profits from the T’s sales go back to the charity.

And that’s not the only reveal. In this Q&A, the designer mentions that a line of Alice McCall sunglasses and a New York Fashion Week show are just around the corner….

So why aren’t we seeing Alice McCall at AFW?
Alice McCall: I think that as far as Australia goes we’re covered with our stockists and now what we are doing is managing those accounts. And we do that more on an internal level rather than needing to do Fashion Week. But as far as overseas goes, we want to grow and it’s sort of one or the other: doing a Fashion Week overseas, or doing one here.

You have done London Fashion Week before.
Yeah – we’ve done it three times and always with great success.

So where else might you show?
September – I think we are going to do the US. We’ve got a sales agent in the US now and there’s momentum building. And it seems like it’s the right thing to focus on over there. Whereas in the UK we’ve got the Top Shop [capsule collection] thing and that’s a collaboration that’s ongoing.

New York Fashion Week in September?
Yes. In a month it will be 100percent confirmed but that’s what we’re doing.

On-schedule or off-schedule?
It’s not on-schedule at the moment.

You launched at AFW five years ago and you have done it every year since then.
Every year and it’s always been fantastic and I’ve always really enjoyed it. But I think what’s happening with our business at the moment is, we’re doing bigger-picture projections and focusing on long-term goals. I’ve done one [year] before where we’ve done Fashion Week overseas and in Australia in the same year and were overstretched. And as a result, I don’t think either one of them was the best we could do.

A lot of resources are required for an international fashion week.
Yeah – I’m a mum now so I’m much more level-headed and you’re practical and you understand you need to plan things. It is exhausting doing a Fashion Week, particularly overseas. And I think it’s really important, particularly when you’re not just the new kid on the block anymore. You get to a stage – and I think it probably is the sort of four-year mark – where the expectations are higher. You can be a commercial label that follows fashion trends and be safe. Or you can be street-y and cutting edge and I think we’re probably in between those two. I really want to evolve as a brand. And the next time that I do a fashion show, I really want to be acclaimed for it.

This AFW is interesting because there are several labels coming back to show after having focused their marketing budgets overseas for a few years.
I think it’s about change. Particularly in the fashion industry where everything is forever evolving and changing. Whether you’re from the UK and you’re coming back to Australia or you’re from Australia and you’re going to the UK, it’s about something new and exciting. So either you need to evolve your own label or you need to change where you’re showing. So each to their own. Particularly in this climate there’s a lot of competition. I think there’s a lot of new labels and you’ve got to offer something new. There’s a difference between when you’re a new label and having hype – to having longevity. And I’ve really learned that.

How do you leverage that hype with running a business and trying to take that brand to the next level?
I think it’s back to range planning and having a sound business structure. That’s got to give you longterm, that’s going to keep you afloat. There’s a lot of talent out there, there really is. But the longevity comes with a sound business planning. As far as hype goes, I think it’s a good thing to do collaborations… I think it’s a balance. We’ve just done Alice McCall for Sunsilk. That’s a very commercial collaboration and it’s absolutely fantastic. Commercials are going to be at the cinema and in all the magazines. But then you want to do sort of cutting edge things as well. You do your sunglasses, working with cool stylists… You need the balance. You need the commerciality and the cool factor.

How far away are Alice McCall sunglasses?
Right around the corner.

Having been buoyed along by hype, inevitably people do criticize you. And they are just opinions at the end of the day, which often vary widely. However you did cop one particularly bad review last year after your AFW show. It kind of summed up the general frustration with the season’s interminable babydoll and smock dresses. Did that factor at all into your decision not to show this time?
At the time I sort of brushed that off. But if you look at it, I think hype’s a word that you absolutely need to attach to fashion and Fashion Week. And at the end of the day a story needs to be topical and it either needs a really positive spin or maybe a negative spin. And I think I did feel that. It’s by no means the reason why I’m not showing at Fashion Week, it’s actually more about growing our brand overseas 100percent. But you know, I think that there is a lot of that in Australia, that negativity. We do talk about the Tall Poppy Syndrome and it does exist. I’m more driven than ever at the moment. I’ve had my baby, she’s six months old and now I’m onwards and upwards. I’ve got my amazing team and I think that the next time we show it’s probably going to be the best show we’ve ever done. Perhaps it gives you more drive. Let’s hope it does.

Marc Jacobs gets bad reviews. Every designer gets bad reviews. From memory one particular dress was singled out – a blue dress with acid lime and silver inset detail. I just have to ask: how did that dress actually go commercially? Did you sell it?
Oh absolutely. We did sell it and quite a few girls wore it out to their 21st birthdays. And had the best night they’ve ever had. I got that comment back.

What is your advice to young designers who are hoping to secure their ‘15 Minutes of fame’ at AFW?
Have a business plan. I remember my first season, I think we picked up over 100 stockists and it was like wow, wow, wow. But if you look at the bottom line, look at your margins, really. Look at the back end. Because the front end, when you’re doing these shows, it is seriously your 15 minutes of fame. But make sure you’re getting a sound margin within your business on at least 50percent of your product.

The other thing I’m not sure newbies who have never run a fashion business, let alone any business, grasp, is that beyond coming up with great product and getting great orders – you have to get paid. Many in fact don’t get paid.
Well that’s exactly right. It’s tough out there. Really, you’ve got to consider yourself as the middle man when you’re the designer. Because you’re paying the producers for the production and then you’re waiting for money from the retailers. So you’re really stuck in the middle, forever chasing money and paying for product before you actually get it and then delivering product when you don’t get paid sometimes for over 90 days.

Or indeed, even in some cases 12 months. So what’s the five year plan for Alice McCall?
It’s really about growing internationally.

Are you feeling any pain with US orders at the moment, as some have mentioned?
We’re not feeling it I have to say. We exceeded our sales budget last season.

You have always been a dress queen. Are you seeing the interest in the dress waning?
No – we went through the baggy dresses and sack dresses and now we’re seeing things that are much more figure-hugging as a trend in general. The dress, the jean… they’ll always be there but it’s really silhouettes that change I think.

So will we see Alice McCall back at Australian Fashion Week?
I wouldn’t say no to that.

Your partner in crime and life [Bali-based Australian designer Nicholas Morley] doesn’t feel the need to show at it.
I think we’re both a little bit left-of-the-middle really. And he’s off-schedule and that suits him to a T. He’s in Sun Studios and on Thursday night [24th April] so he’s in a way, opening.

How much of the year are you spending in Bali?
Nearly half. About 60percent here, 40percent there. We’ve just nearly finished our house. It’s absolutely beautiful.

There’s quite an Australian community over there.
There are lots of Aussies over there. On the fashion level, on the surfing level. Some of the best breaks you get out there – my boyfriend is surfing every morning and every night. It’s six hours away and it’s not too stressful. We’ve got a design studio there. We don’t do any production there any more. But it’s so amazing for creativity.

Just on collaborations – any chance of a Morley McCall fashion collaboration?
You never know. When we paint we call it “Nice McCorley”. [A combo of] Alice and Nick and McCall/Morley. We do a couple of oil paintings over a bottle of red wine. So who knows. We’re definitely creative together.

So what, you might actually exhibit the paintings?
I think it would be a good idea, yeah. There’s already been expressions of interests in as far as buying our paintings.

And [their baby] Wilde Rose Morley McCall – any spark of fashion talent evident yet?
Absolutely. She’s got these little hands that are like an Indonesian dancer’s. She’s definitely creative.

What about Alice McCall stores? They’re aren’t any.
It’s all about brand-building and I think that definitely does come into the equation. So, you know, watch this space on that one.

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