THE REAL McCALL
STARTING AS A STYLIST, ALICE McCALL SAW FASHION FROM THE SEAMY SIDE FIRST BEFORE LAUNCHING – AND NEARLY CRASHING – HER OWN BRAND. NOW THE LABEL IS SUCCEEDING AND IS ONLY GETTING BIGGER.
About a decade ago, Alice McCall almost lost it all. Just a few years into creating her own fashion label, the Australian designer was being stocked on the shelves at Barneys – then pulled off them. Her inexperience in running a business meant it all came down as fast as it went up: there were late deliveries, margins not big enough to make a profit. She was forced to borrow $1 million to survive. But survive she did, and in a tough industry littered with failures, McCall is celebrating her 13th year and hitting the accelerator on national and international expansion.
“It is our time,” she tells WISH in her offices in Sydney’s inner south. “The minute the brand hit the ground [in 2004] it was successful, and that was great but I was a one-man-band back then. I nearly fell down, the business nearly fell down, but now we are a fully-fledged brand and I am hungry for the growth of that brand. And the reason why I am hungry is because I love what I do.” McCall opened her 12th store nationally last month and plans to open in Los Angeles within the next 18 months, with hopes for one shop in Melrose and another in the city’s downtown area. She also has eyes on New York.
And then there is online. There has been a 40 per cent year-on-year growth in online sales and McCall finally has her first – and substantial -- order from Net-APorter for her Resort 2018 collection after a few seasons of being in discussions with the online luxury giant. “That was wonderful,” she says. Not to mention the orders from celebrities like Beyoncé to Kylie Minogue to Katy Perry and up-and-comers like Emma Roberts. McCall was in the process of finalising a bespoke order for 14 styles for Beyoncé at the time of the WISH interview. “They come back to it,” McCall says of the celebrities around the world who wear her clothes. “If they wear it once, they come back to it.”
And this means a lot to McCall, who started as a stylist in London in the 1990s. She has been behind the scenes in the fashion industry and seen all its artifice – has been the one using bulldog clips to fit a dress perfectly on a model, who then puts on her “real” clothes to go home. McCall knows the difference between high fashion and reality, but wants her clothes to encompass both.
“It is about authenticity,” she says of the celebrities who come back to her brand and actually wear the clothes beyond a one-off photo shoot or red-carpet appearance. “That the women love the clothes, want to
keep them, want to keep wearing them -- that is really important to me.”
McCall’s first gig as a fashion stylist was at UK Brides magazine. She was covering a six-month maternity leave contract and could not believe she was working in the same building as British Vogue (both published by Condé Nast). She was 19 and had come to London from Melbourne after being rejected by RMIT University. That did not deter McCall, who was drawn to fashion from a young age thanks to the influence of her mother, also a fashion designer.
“I was always at mum’s sewing machines with her, helping make little dresses for my dolls,” McCall says. “And I had the most wonderful dress-up box, with mum’s dresses from the 1960s. My mother was a big collector of Issey Miyake, of all his mechanical knits, of Gaultier 1980s power suits. I was also drawing fashion models, looking at fashion magazines, tracing the models or drawing it freehand.”
This experience of being surrounded by all her mother’s fabulous clothes also informed not only the way McCall went from being a stylist to a designer, but the design process itself. Her dress-up box led to a love of vintage and McCall spent many years collecting pieces while living in London and making them her own: making tops out of vintage silk scarves, cutting up 1950s dresses and adding appliqués. It was in the late 90s when her styling (and paying) career took off and she scored a gig at MTV Europe, in charge of dressing all the presenters for the then hugely influential music channel. This led to an opportunity to style an Australian singer whose career had “blown up” overnight: Natalie Imbruglia. “The shoot was in two days and I said yes, I would love to. So I went and did that job,” says McCall. “Things went nuts really quickly and Imbruglia’s Irish manager said, can you take a walk with me? – we were in a supermarket – and she said, we need a full-time stylist, can you come on the road with us? So I was with her for a year, as stylist for that album.”
This gig led to others; requests to style Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and even Destiny’s Child. McCall saved every cent and in 1997 bought a house in London. But it was still difficult being a freelancer in that city, especially in the winter months. “I can’t deny it was up and down,” she says. “The jobs didn’t roll in and there were times when I was really counting my pennies. I bought a bloody house that needed a hell of a lot of renovations, in Hackney; it didn’t even have a proper toilet system. I was in knee-deep; I got burgled by these gypsies who I thought would help me. Having to cold-call to get work, wondering what was going to happen next.”
What happened next changed everything. McCall had started to sell her own creations at boutiques around London and one day Kate Moss’s stylist, Katie Grand, bought a few pieces. Moss was photographed by Hello magazine in one of her designs. “That was my crossover from styling to design,” McCall says. Next was a brief stint at London streetwear label Buddhist Punk where the 20-something designed a whole collection that ended up in the windows at Liberty’s. “It was a real pinch-me moment when I was walking down Bond Street and there were my four designs in the windows. It was like, I am good at this, and I love this!”
McCall then met Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke through mutual friends while on holiday in Europe in 2003. She hit it off with the duo and they “shipped” McCall and “her stuff” back to Australia so she could work as a designer for their label Sass & Bide. “I did a year with those girls and I learnt an awful lot. Not about business strategy as it wasn’t my business, it
“It was a real pinch-me moment when I walked down Bond Street and there were my designs in the windows.”
was more about creativity and vision and brand DNA,” McCall says. “But I felt a little bit like a caged bird because I am really not very good working for other people 9-5, it doesn’t suit my personality. We all felt that, so I did one year. And on New Year’s Eve in 2003 I decided I was going to start my own label.”
Within five months of making that decision, McCall had shown her first collection at Australian Fashion Week and had been picked up by David Jones. She started with a bang. Then came Barney’s and then it almost all came undone. “I remember going in there, seeing Alice McCall, the name, next to Marc Jacobs and other names in fashion, but we didn’t have the foundations right yet, in year three, to maintain that longevity,” she says. “We hadn’t become a brand yet. We were just a fashion label. And that got taken away from us because of late deliveries and other problems. I had no understanding of margins and strong foundations, of strategic planning, price point demographics, and I learnt because I almost lost the business in year four and five. I can say that openly because it is a hard business, and people have idealistic views of having a fashion brand.”
McCall admits she wasn’t making any money on her products despite them selling very well. “So I had to take this loan – and it was a loan of $1m,” she says. “I think it is good for people to know this. It took me three years to pay that back and I paid back every cent. Now we are in a really healthy, profitable place in the business and it is very good. It is through hard work and knowing what I am good at and employing the right people and honouring those people and investing in their wellbeing.”
McCall has a team of 90 staff and recently hired a general manager, Robert Moore, to help grow her business, with a focus on the international market that now makes up almost 50 per cent of her orders. She has also made a conscious decision to “step the brand up a notch” and make it more premium but without alienating her core customer: the young women who may buy a playsuit or a dress for an event. “There is no way I could suddenly do an all-black evening gown, it wouldn’t make sense,” McCall says of the new direction. “The brand evokes pastel colours and dreamy Marie- Antoinette-type images. I always talk about Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette [as an inspiration], or Neapolitan ice cream. I mean this resort collection is called Bon Bon, it is a Parisian sweetie, all pastel and yummy. And we will always do that because it is Alice.”
McCall is instead focusing on a few luxury pieces for each season. For her Resort 2018 collection, it was an ostrich-feather jacket that retails for $3000 – significantly above the usual $320-$480 price point for her playsuits and dresses. This piece was inspired by a vintage jacket of hers. “It was a Christian Lacroix jacket and it just had the same [ostrich feather] detailing, but just on the cuff,” she says. “I thought, my god, I know I am working on a runway show and that is going to be absolute heaven on a runway so we developed that.”
McCall’s move to elevate the brand has already paid off: it is the Resort 2018 collection that Net-aPorter has finally snapped up. She is in a good place both personally and professionally. And after 14 years, she shows no sign of running out of ideas or getting sick of designing. “Never,” she exclaims, laughing, when WISH asks her that question.
“I love it too much. I have always loved dressing up other people. Women dress up in our brand, in my designs, to have a good time, whether it is their 18th or getting engaged or New Year’s Eve. I feel like I create keepsakes. It’s making people happy through my creativity and I get a lot of joy out of that.”
“It is a hard business, and people have idealistic views of having a fashion brand.”
On the runway with Alice McCall’s Resort 18 collection at Fashion Week in May
Models backstage at the Resort 18 show at Fashion Week