Lorna Jane Clarkson tells how she built a global activewear brand
“I am a control freak! If you have a private company you have a lot of luxuries such as making your own decisions.” Lorna Jane Clarkson on the prospect of a public listing of her company
She may have started out as a dental therapist with Queensland Health in the 1980s, but Lorna Jane Clarkson has since gone on to win multiple awards and create the global multi-million-dollar Lorna Jane fashion empire. Along the way she has revolutionised women's sportswear, but the former fitness instructor happily admits to a few mistakes along the way.
How do you structure your day?
I always do the creative things first. I believe that in the morning you are most creative. That’s when I make sure I have the discipline to do the creative stuff such as designing, writing a book or writing for the website and our marketing campaigns. Report reading and attending meetings are left for the afternoon.
What do you fear?
Not having enough time to get done what I want to do. I want to make a difference. At 50 I know there is so much more I want to do. I want to inspire women to have a more active life. I want to make sure I have an impact.
What are your personal strengths?
Being in business for 26 years, I am really good at making fast decisions. I know my brand really well and I know the customers because I am a customer. I make decisions really quickly, which I can also put down to the necessity of time.
What would you tell other people starting out in business?
A lot of things: some people can be in business and be happy, but with a business like mine you should make sure you fully understand what you are getting into. You must be comfortable with change, you must want to grow, and you must learn to keep moving. Make sure you really love what you do, and make sure you are willing to keep moving with the marketplace.
What are the big challenges for retail companies given the power of the net?
With Lorna Jane we own our brand, our retail stores, and we own our web presence. When you have a brand such as Lorna Jane that has an authenticity you have the luxury not to be so worried about the cheaper rip offs. You cannot produce our product at a cheaper price with the same quality – it’s absolutely impossible. To me, the net is just a different way for my customers to shop. When she shops on the net she has to get amazing service, and the experience must almost be the same as the friendly service she gets in store.
What sort of demand was there for active leisurewear when you started in 1989?
None. Nobody believed in my concept. At that point Nike didn't even own a concept store, no activewear brand did. There was no focus on stylish activewear. People questioned whether I should leave my government job to start this business.
What problems did you encounter when you first established the company?
Back in the 1980s, I believed there was a retail category for activewear, but people who were not hard-core sports people thought I was crazy. The bottom line was if the concept didn't work, it didn't work. I am pretty determined – some would say pig-headed.
How do you cope with financial pressure?
I don't work well when I am under money pressure. I have seen too much happen to otherwise good businesses under money pressure. In my book, you make money first and then you spend it.
What is one of your best selling lines?
Anything in LJ Excel fabric. We developed it 24 years ago and it's still the leading technology. It is flattering and it has an eight-way stretch. We are also known for our tights. They are like shapewear built into activewear giving women a great silhouette. My sports bra with removable padding is also a best seller.
Did you ever think activewear would become such a global fashion phenomenon? Stella McCartney is now designing activewear for Adidas for instance?
Absolutely not. I never thought for one moment my business would be a global business. I was meeting my needs by designing fitness wear for myself, and was receiving a great response from people in the fitness classes I used to teach. As my business started to grow I thought to myself, “Oh, my god, you are on to something”. In 1991, a Malaysian woman came into our first Lorna Jane concept store in Brisbane and bought all the stock with a $25,000 cash cheque. She planned to on-sell it. For five minutes we (husband Bill Clarkson, chief executive officer of Lorna Jane) jumped up and down and then we realised we had no stock left. It was a really pivotal moment.
As a woman entrepreneur, was it difficult dealing with banks or other institutions when you started?
Very early on we sold our beautiful home in the Brisbane suburb of Paddington for $450,000 to finance the purchase of an old factory building in inner-city Fortitude Valley, just off the CBD. We needed a factory for the business. We renovated the factory and built a warehouse apartment and within two years the building's value shot up to $4 million. That was our collateral. We never had any problem with the bank. Having that building was a really good thing to do early on.
What business decisions do you regret?
In hindsight, we probably should have trademarked our padded sports bras. But, on the other hand, more and more women are benefiting from them. I am one of those people who tend not to look back. However, in hindsight and given the fantastic success we have had in the United States, I would have gone there two years earlier. We talked about it for so long and now the market is crowded globally. I would have liked us to have more of a stranglehold in America, but our business is
doing really well there.
Would you ever list the company on the
Australian Securities Exchange?
A public listing? I am a control freak! If you have a private company you have a lot of luxuries such as making your own decisions. I would never say never, but I can't see it happening. I don't think it's a regime my husband Bill and I would work well under.
What are your overseas expansion plans?
We have just opened our first store in Paris, and we are being stocked by Nordstrom which has 117 stores in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. The Nordstrom deal will introduce us to millions of Americans. Apart from the US, we are also pushing into Asia and further into Europe.
Now that other big name fashion brands are building their activewear lines how do you cope with the increasing competition?
It's a billion-dollar business. The market is becoming crowded, but we will be here while the market is crowded and while it is not crowded. Activewear is really fashionable. Many of the traditional fashion companies are getting into activewear. But they are just there while it's really fashionable. I think activewear will be an important part of the female wardrobe. Once it cools off the big brands will replace it (with something else).