Online fashion retailer Black Milk shows how to forge new global “spice routes” through a devoted fan base
Black Milk has grown from making leggings on a kitchen table in Brisbane into a global community with its own culture
Jennifer Post is a stay-at-home mother, living near Los Angeles, who loves to buy clothes from Australia. She also runs a Facebook site and organises a fan club of other young women in Southern California who love to buy the same clothes. They’ve created a friendship group that meets regularly in Los Angeles and, now, each year in Las Vegas.
Based in Brisbane, Black Milk is one of the fastest-growing Australian clothing companies you’ve never heard of, selling more than 1000 garments a day, promoted by 80 private Facebook
sites set up by its customers. Only five years old, it is an online-only business, selling nylon and lycra clothing such as leggings, swimsuits, skater skirts and T-shirts, featuring characters from
Star Wars, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of The Rings, TheHobbit, Adventure Time andDCComics. It has never spent a dollar on conventional advertising, riding the internet and social media boom so popular with its 20- and 30-something customers, whoare sokeen for eachnewrange that company founder JamesLillis calls themSharkies. While someAustralian retailers bemoan the rise of online retailing, Black Milk has built up a thriving business selling its clothing around the
world, all made in its own factory in Brisbane.
“I have come to be known at my kids’ school as ‘that mom with the awesome leggings’,” says Post, who is proud to be known as a Sharkie. She has bought many pieces of Black Milk clothing including leggings featuring characters from The
Matrix films and Star Wars as well as swimsuits, a cape, a catsuit and a skirt. “The BlackMilk clothing allows me to stand out when I want to make a
statement reflecting my own personal interests, like
my Star Wars and Harry Potter pieces,” she says.
Founded on a kitchen table in 2009 by New Zealand-born Lillis, Black Milk contains many lessons for other Australian clothing retailers. Lillis was a “serial entrepreneur, mostly with failed business ideas” looking for a new outlet when he decided to turn his hand to sewing. He sold his CD player at his local Cash Converters to buy a sewing machine. With only a few dollars left, he could not afford buy silk and cotton, so he bought nylon lining at $2 a
metre and used it to make himself an ill-fitting shirt. As he taught himself to sew, the father of two girls fell in love with stretch fabrics and became obsessed with the idea of making leggings for women, a fashion craze that was then taking off.
He had little success selling his products in local shops but demand took off when he began to talk about leggings in a blog called Too Many Tights, which soon gained the attention of young women around the word who were keen for more exciting leggings than plain black.
“I wanted to create a community of women who were a little obsessive about legwear,” says the 37-year-old Lillis, from the Black Milk
offices in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, above a luxury car dealership. “I went online and that’s where we have been ever since. The internet made a big difference. Girls started emailing me saying: ‘I saw this on your blog. Oh my goodness, I have to have it’. And it was like, ‘OK, cool’. So I would make it and send it.”
Within months Lillis was making the clothes on his kitchen table around the clock, with wife
Linda rushing to the post office to send them off to customers in Los Angeles, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Scotland, South Africa and Brazil. He was soon joined by CameronParker, an advertising executive who helped with the company’s website and Facebook pages and is nowhead of marketing. An early success was an eye-catching legging and top that featured a design of human muscles and bones which got attention on the internet.
From the start, Lillis communicated directly with his Facebook-generation, ecommerce-savvy customers, creating a growing community of
I have come to be known at my kids school as ‘ that mom with the awesome leggings ... Black Milk clothing allows me to
people such as Jennifer Post who were looking for something more exciting than the usual cheaply made shopping mall fare. If they wanted a swimsuit with a cat on it, they got a swimsuit with a cat on it. “They said ‘Can you do longer
leggings?’ ‘Yep, fine, we will do it with longer legs’,” Lillis says. “The girls felt like they had real ownership because they were calling the shots.”
The business took off. “The girls were happy and the business started getting bigger and bigger,” Lillis says. “Linda quit her job and came and worked with me. We started making more and selling more, making more and selling more, then we started getting a really devoted fan base.”
Manufacturing locally, Black Milk was able to respond instantly to demand and did not have to tie up capital in large orders with an overseas manufacturer. The $70-plus garments were much more expensive than the made-in-China versions sold in discount retailers, but thanks to their quality and the designs that plugged into popular cult followings, an avid fan base grew.
Lillis encouraged customers to take “selfies” in their Black Milk clothes which they would post on Facebook and on the BM site. He was keen to create sites where girls could share their love of stretch clothes in an atmosphere that was safe and had no sleazy overtones. Instead of anorexiclooking fashion models, there was suddenly a communityof real-lifecustomers, proudlyshowing their friends what they had bought on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media sites,
“You see girls of different heights, weights, ethnicities and even guys who rock in their BM,”
says 24-year-old Jessica Kate Tweed, a consultant in an accounting firm in Auckland, who bought
her first BM garment, a Star Wars swimsuit, in 2010. “Within the Facebook groups and on the fan page, people are quick to shut down any body shaming. I’ve seen girls who are size six and size 16 look equally as gorgeous in their BM. I also know a girl who wears a hijab with her BM.”
Tweed, who administers a Black Milk Facebook site aimed at women in Southern California, was alerted to its Star Wars products when she was reading a popular blog called Geekologie. “I now own 200 pieces of BM, mostly purchased through the store but also some from
eBay and the official ‘Black Milk Clothing Swap,
Sell and Buy’ Facebook group.”
It was BlackMilk’s first generation of products
inspired by Star Wars characters that generated a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers for LucasArts, the Los Angeles-based company
initially associated with filmmaker George Lucas and now part of the Disney empire. Instead of backing off, Lillis approached the Lucas organisation seeking to produce clothing under
licence. A deal was done allowing Black Milk to produce a range of clothing using the Lucas-owned characters. Inspired by the success of that deal, the company signed another with Hollywood studio Warner Bros last year to produce a range of Harry Potter clothing, which it released last August. Late last year it also released a range of clothing featuring the cartoon Adventure Time and earlier this year it launched products based on characters appearing in DC Comics, owned by Warner Bros.
Tall and fit, wearing a sleeveless shirt, Lillis looks a little like an AFL player. His shirt bears a “Sharkies” logo and he speaks with missionary zeal about his products and his passionate cultlike customers who are now a part of his life.
“We created this kind of quite manic community which I loved and continued to love,” he says. “Some girls had to buy everything we made and they would start collections. We let girls behind the curtain so they could actually participate in the brand. Then when we had release day [for a new product range] girls would be waiting at their computers to buy everything as fast as possible. I felt like I was swimming in the ocean, surrounded by sharks. So we started calling the girls Sharkies and it stuck. The shark has become the symbol of our company.”
The girls would be waiting at their computers to buy everything as fast as possible ... So we started calling the girls Sharkies
When The Deal first spoke to Lillis late last year, he was busy organising the company’s fifth birthday party, an event that would bring together several hundred Black Milk customers from around the country to Brisbane — at their own expense — all keen to meet the company’s founders, and each other. Near the top of the stairs to the office is a dummy wearing Black Milk Lycra clothing and a blue plastic shark on her head. The birthday event included a tour of several Black Milk offices around Brisbane, the factory where the clothes are made, visits to a disco and theme park Wet’n’Wild with guests offered blue cocktails called Sharktinis.
While the business is transacted online, meetups IRL (in real life) are an important part of the Black Milk culture. Cameron and Lillis now travel regularly around Australia and the world, meeting fans everywhere from coffee shops and restaurants to park benches. Black Milk’s American customers were so keen to meet eachother they organised a gettogether in Las Vegas in 2012 which attracted more than 100 women. Parker and Lillis decided they had better turn up as well and it has now become an annual meeting they call Sharkiecon. Some 260 attended last year and there are other Sharkiecons planned for other locations around the world.
“Try explaining to your partner exactly why you have to go and meet upwith a bunch of people you met on the internet, none of whom you have ever met in person, all for the love of wearing pretty nylon clothing,” says Post. “It was amazing and we instantly bonded.”
Black Milk’s rapid growth recently attracted the attention of PayPal, the online payments system used for many of its transactions. PayPal invited Parker to speak at a conference in Sydney last October, which was attended by federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and developed a YouTube advertisement featuring the company as a poster child for global online retailing. “Black Milk represents the spirit and the entrepreneurialism of ‘new’ retail,” says PayPal Australia chief executive Jeff Clementz. “Social media and payment platforms are inherently global and do a good job of removing physical and cultural boundaries.”
Clementz argues that Black Milk, with turnover growing at double digits, year on year, is an example of “modern spice routes” developed by consumers spending online, developing new patterns regardless of geographical boundaries.
Parker says Black Milk has never seen itself as part of the fashion community in Australia which means it is not bound by constraints. “We are outside the box. People laughed at us when they found out we were making crazy leggings and we were manufacturing in Australia.”
Black Milk now employs more than 170 people in Brisbane, having put on more than 100 over the past year. It recently bought a $5.75 million office building in the trendy Brisbane suburb of Newstead for its new headquarters but Lillis says that it won’t be big enough for all its staff.
The company employs staff to manage its Facebook site and website from early morning to late at night to respond to questions from customers and to tap the mood of its fan base.
“Some days we will literally go on Facebook and say, ‘Hey girls, what’s your favourite animal?’ Lillis says. “They will say: ‘We want unicorns’ and we will say ‘Fine, we can do unicorns’.”
Black Milk is expanding its product range into clothes formen and plans a big push into gymwear, which Lillis thinks is a potentially large market for fun new designs. “We are going to create the best gym wear in the world,” he says modestly.
He travels so much he is thinking about opening up a travel agency. Lillis says the business has grown so fast he “lives on the edge of a nervous breakdown. We work incredibly hard. It has been more than four years and it has really been around the clock. You wake up in the morning and you are dealing with issues and you go to bed and you are dealing with issues.”
Post says part of the attraction of Black Milk is being able to interact with the company as well as fellow customers. “With other brands, they are just another storefront in a deep sea of shops in the mall,” says Post. “I prefer to swim with Sharks!”
Black Milk’s international following of Sharkies, clockwise from top: Warsaw, Edinburgh, Las Vegas and Los Angeles