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

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