BACK TO BASSIKE
SOMETIMES IT’S ALL IN THE NAME. WHEN TWO FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES SPOTTED THE GAP IN THE MARKET FOR WELL-DESIGNED CLOTHING YOU CAN THROW IN THE TUMBLE-DRYER, THEY DECIDED TO MAKE IT HAPPEN.
Bassike (pronounced “basic”) was hatched in a ramshackle fibro beach house with a stone fireplace overlooking Palm Beach. It was there, amid visiting wildlife and uninterrupted views of Barrenjoey Lighthouse, that Mary Lou Ryan and Deborah Sams decided to create a line of beautifully designed and beautifully made clothing for women and men that could be worn every day – basics, in fashion-speak.
“We were locked away in our own little world. It was a very creative space and it was fun,” says Sams of Bassike’s first real office. “It was so nice not to be distracted by what everyone else was doing ,” adds Ryan. “We could just really focus on the product and how we wanted the brand to be, so we spent a lot of time working on that. We really immersed ourselves.”
That was 12 years ago. The pair are now about to open their 10th store, they have more than 100 employees, they work in a custom-designed office space in nearby Warriewood (with no more unexpected entrances from possums or snakes) and they are about to expand further with their eyes focused on the US. The clothes they designed in that “divine time” in Palm Beach have become their signature pieces – white organic cotton jersey T-shirts – and are all still available today.
“It was about creating wardrobe staples, essentials that you could wear with pieces that you already owned, that were classic, quality,” Sams tells WISH of their original aims. “[They were pieces] that you could machine wash, tumble dry and wear every day. It was about wearable fashion as opposed to buying the $800 dress that you could wear once to a wedding. That was our whole concept; everyday clothing that was useful but also beautifully designed and of a beautiful quality.”
Sams and Ryan met over 20 years ago while working as buyers for General Pants Co. They were the new girls on the block at the head office in Sydney and instantly became friends. Sams, who grew up in Whale Beach, had been exposed to fashion all her life as her father worked at AMCO Jeans in product design. “Whale Beach was an idyllic place to grow up. It was very quiet. I grew up surfing,” she says. “From about the age of five I was quite aware of what I wanted to wear. I had a favourite apple dress and I would pull it out every day. I think fashion is the sort of thing that gets in your blood. So it was always a dream for me to pursue a career in fashion.”
Sams started in the industry by working in retail, first at Esprit in its heyday and then at Marcs with legendary founder Mark Keighery. She worked for five years on the retail floor before starting at head office and working as an assistant buyer and then jumping ship to General Pants. Ryan had a similar career trajectory, but in Melbourne. She also grew up loving fashion, devouring magazines, but never intended to make a career of it.
“It wasn’t really a conscious decision, I fell into it,” Ryan recalls. She also started at ground level with an administration job at Witchery. “I worked in various jobs that led me to a buyer’s assistant role, which was a great opportunity. At that stage I had no experience so I pretty much learned on the job. I learned the trade from the ground up.”
The pair worked together at General Pants for a number of years before Sams left to go to Sydney denim label Ksubi. It wasn’t long before Ryan joined her – by then they were inseparable work spouses. At that point, they “had grown up a little bit”, according to Ryan, and were ready to look forward and consider what they wanted to achieve in the future.
“We spoke about doing something together,” Sams tells WISH, sitting next to Ryan amid their latest collection. “And then the opportunity presented itself to design and come up with a new cotton jersey concept.” It was a washable organic cotton jersey, a material that had previously only been around in an expensive dry-clean-only form that wasn’t highly wearable. This one could be washed and tumble-dried. “We knew we had a product that was unique and no one had been playing in that space when it comes to organic cotton jersey in a contemporary way.”
So the pair decided to take the leap, leave their secure jobs and take a risk on what was a “bit of a pipe dream”. It was a scary time for all involved. “But once we designed the fabric and we had it in our hands, we knew we had something quite special,” adds Ryan. They worked out of Sams’ home before moving the business into their falling-down beach house. After designing the initial key pieces, they received their first samples in December 2006. It was not what they expected.
“We had a few production problems in our first delivery, as you do,” says Sams, laughing about it now with Ryan, many years on. “The actual shrinkages we put on the garment were incorrect so everything came in a bit oversize, actually quite oversized. But it turned out to be more a positive than a negative because once we put the garments on, we found the look of the brand: seams were twisting, we had our raw hems, our chain-
stitch back neck. It was the Bassike DNA. All those little details that we still have on our cotton jersey today were actually in our first collection.”
The pair used their network of contacts – built over their careers as buyers – to show their designs to highend fashion boutiques across the country, from Elle in Perth to Cactus Jam in Melbourne. “These retail stores would import a lot of designer brands and they would do beautiful pants and tailoring and they had nothing to pair it with,” says Sams. “The cotton jersey was the grounding they needed in their store. We would often wear a pair of beautiful Dries Van Noten pants and wear it back with a Bassike T-shirt and that is sort of how the high/low-concept trans-seasonal product came about.”
Their first delivery was three months late but it was worth the wait as it sold out immediately. About a year and a half later, they opened their first pop-up shop in Avalon, also in the northern beaches, despite being warned not to – it was smack bang in the middle of the global financial crisis. The pair did not listen.
“It was a pop-up store that is still popped up today,” Ryan says of what became their first permanent retail store. “It was a great opportunity to present the brand in its entirety and really that was the start of us opening up multiple retail stores, because we got the sense that people wanted to come into our space and shop the full collection.”
Sams and Ryan then began slowly expanding Bassike’s offering, driven mostly by the fact customers wanted more than the cotton jersey T-shirts. “They wanted to buy denim so different opportunities came about,” says Sams. “We were introduced to a denim maker from southern Japan, from a place called Kojima” – a small town in Okayama that is the heart of Japan’s denim industry – “through really good friends of ours. We also had this opportunity to work with the bespoke denim factory, which has 14 machinists. They produce the most beautiful denim and so we took that opportunity and we are still working with them today.”
The duo went on to open stores in Sydney, their first Victorian store in Hawksburn in 2012, and their first international store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, in 2015; they plan to open their first Queensland store in Brisbane by the end of the year. And now they are ready to go bigger in the US.
“We would like Bassike to become more of a household name in the US, like it is in Australia,” says Sams. “So we have a focus on the US, we have one store there, in Venice Beach and that business is doing well and we are seeing a lot of growth there. We are not trying to take on the world, but we are looking at different pockets and different markets where we feel the brand translates well. California is a no-brainer, climate-wise and the way people dress, and it’s not that far away.”
It seems that after 18 years of friendship and 12 years of owning a brand together, they are unlikely to get sick of each other any time soon. “It just works. We are lucky as partners. We share decisions every day and you really have to trust and respect each other,” says Ryan. “We also used to be flatmates,” adds Sams, laughing, “If you can survive that, you can survive anything.”
“We are not trying to take on the world, but we are looking at different pockets where we feel the brand translates well.”
Deborah Sams, left, and Mary Lou Ryan