Nicole Trunfio helps Peter Alexander celebrate 30 years in fashion.
AS PETER ALEXANDER CELEBRATES 30 YEARS IN BUSINESS, SUPERMODEL NICOLE TRUNFIO HELPS PUT A STELLAR TWIST ON SLEEPWEAR
There is only a small part of Peter Alexander that wants to tell his haters to “suck it”. When he started his designer pyjama business in 1987, aged 23, at his mother’s dining room table with a $3000 loan from his father, people told him it was a crazy idea. They asked him what the hell he was doing. Who was going to spend money on pyjamas?
As it turns out, a hell of a lot of people. So many, in fact, that his eponymous sleepwear company is celebrating 30 years in business this month. The brand recently opened its 103rd store within Australia and New Zealand, and recorded sales of $89.1 million in the first half of last year.
But while the reigning Pyjama King could rub his success in the faces of those who doubted him, Alexander chooses to remain humble. “There are certain people throughout my career who have been really nasty to me, but we have to change our ways to rise above it all. In the past 10 years, negativity in the world has just grown, and I don’t want to add to it. I would never put anybody down,” he says. Instead, “I would say to the naysayers, don’t clip people’s wings. You should never tell someone they ‘can’t’.”
While the naysayers didn’t manage to pull him down, Alexander admits he was nervous when he started out. He’d struggled at school, wasn’t interested in fashion and didn’t know how to sew or draw, let alone run a small business.
“It was tough because I stuttered a lot as a kid and I had a learning disability. I remember crying with my dad when I was 19 because I didn’t know what to do in life. I said to my dad, ‘How can I succeed? I can’t even spell,’” he recalls. “And my dad said, ‘That’s what secretaries are for, son.’”
It was during a stint working at Sportsgirl that Alexander noticed a gap in the market. Women only had
a choice between “Little House On The Prairie virginal nighties” and “femme fatale negligees”. In an attempt to find a happy medium, Alexander came up with man-style pyjamas in ladies’ prints.
After his initial success with a catalogue-based business model, Alexander’s biggest risk came five years in when he wanted to expand. “Dad said on his deathbed to never put my mum’s house on a mortgage,” he recalls. “Well, we did. I needed about $100,000 to grow the business and Mum said she was happy to mortgage the house. I was terrified, and we had some pretty close calls, but we survived.”
The gamble paid off. In 2000, Alexander sold the business to the Just Group for a sum between $3 and $5 million, staying on as founder and creative director. At the time, he didn’t feel like he was handing over his baby because it had grown into a terrible teen. Unable to handle the pressures of running a big business, he believes he sold it at exactly the right moment.
Despite his success, Alexander says he doesn’t have a secret formula or think of himself as an entrepreneurial genius. Instead, he insists, most of it comes down to luck and says he has stumbled his way through. “We thought the business would go under a lot of times, but it kept surviving,” he marvels. “I always say I’ve been successful because I was at the right place at the right time, and made some really bad decisions that turned out to be good.”
One of Alexander’s “hiccups”, as he calls them, was the closure of his US stores in 2009, following the global financial crisis.
“It hurt my ego more than anything else,” he says. “I’d been successful at everything and this was something we tried, but it was just the wrong timing.” While the experience was humiliating for him, Alexander still looks back on it positively and sees it as a reality check.
Ultimately, the highs outweigh the lows. Alexander has spent much of his time in business pinching himself, and can reel off a tally of monumental achievements like a shopping list. Highlights include working with Kylie Minogue, being the first commercial brand allowed to shoot on the set of Sesame Street, appearing on 60 Minutes and having Crown Princess Mary of Denmark shop at his store. Although, Alexander was most “tickled pink” after seeing paparazzi shots of Britney Spears walking out of a store with Peter Alexander bags. “This is the gay boy in me speaking,” he says with a laugh.
Alexander was equally happy when the brand let him loose to design the 30th anniversary capsule collection, which he describes as a “little capsule of nonsense”. Featuring sequins and faux fur, his latest loungewear collection is not to be worn to bed, but is perfect for pyjama parties.
Australian model Nicole Trunfio is the face of the 30th anniversary campaign and flew in from New York to be part of this exclusive shoot for Stellar. With serious business aspirations of her own, she admires Alexander’s longevity in a fickle industry. “Peter has built such an incredibly strong brand that is instantly recognisable. As a young entrepreneur, I look up to him so much,” she tells Stellar.
Posing next to Trunfio, who’s also 30, Alexander admits he hates being in front of the camera and jokingly sucks in his stomach. “I’m a very private person, yet I have to be the public face of the business. It is part of the job, because I called the brand Peter Alexander, but it’s not natural to me; I am not [happy being] the centre of attention. It’s a skill I’ve got, I can turn it on and do it, but naturally I’m a quieter person. I’ve been on so many TV shows and had so many interviews, but I still find it awkward,” he says.
This privacy extends to social media; Alexander isn’t on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. “As I’ve got older, I’m a lot more conscious of sending out positivity rather than negativity, that’s why I rarely read social media,” he says. “I just figure if I have to listen to all the good, I have to listen to all the bad.”
The biggest lesson he has learnt over the years is that happiness comes from within. “I always thought, ‘If I was a millionaire, my life would be perfect’ – it’s not. Success might make you more comfortable and buy you nice stuff, but if you can’t find happiness within yourself, that’s going to be irrelevant,” he says, before quickly adding, “I sound like a wannabe spiritual guru – but I’m not!”
“DAD SAID ON HIS DEATHBED TO NEVER PUT MUM’S HOUSE ON A MORTGAGE. WE DID. I NEEDED $100,000 AND MUM SAID SHE WAS HAPPY TO MORTGAGE THE HOUSE. I WAS TERRIFIED... BUT WE SURVIVED”
Peter Alexander top, $60, peteralexander. com.au; Strateas Carlucci shirt, $742, strateascarlucci.com; Sandro Paris skirt, $360, (02) 9327 3377; Rochas slides, $808, farfetch.com; stylist’s own socks