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

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Story Glenda Kor­po­raal Pho­tog­ra­phy Ed­die Sa­farik

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

stand out

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.