DESIGNS FOR LIFE
FRUSTRATED BY A LACK OF CHOICE AND SPOTTING A NEED IN THE MARKET, JODHI MEARES HAS FOLLOWED HER FIRST SUCCESSFUL OUTING, TIGERLILY, WITH A RETURN TO ‘STRETCHY THINGS’ – THIS TIME IT’S YOGA AND GYM WEAR.
Necessity is the mother of invention. The phrase may date from the 1500s but it is spot on when it comes to the very contemporary Jodhi Meares. The successful entrepreneur, now 47, started her two companies simply because she could not find what she was looking for, so she created it herself. First it was swimwear, with Tigerlily, when at the age of 25 she struggled to find anything she wanted to wear to the beach. Now, it’s sportswear: The Upside was born because Meares had a similar problem in the yoga studio.
“I was spending a lot of time in New York and practising yoga more deeply than I had been in years because I had more time [after selling Tigerlily], and I could see this huge gap in the market,” she tells WISH. “I could see other people looking for things too, because there was nothing there.
“It was just so obvious it was keeping me up at night. Half of me was thinking, oh God, not stretchy things again [after Tigerlily], but it was such a strong vision, so I thought: I am going to have to do this. I came home, put the band together again and we just started.”
At the same time as Meares was looking for something more fashionable to wear to yoga, she noticed that people were appearing in workout gear in the most unusual places – in situations outside of the gym where such attire had not previously been seen as appropriate.
“All the most beautiful women in the world are in New York City, because that is where all the big modelling agencies are,” says Meares, herself a former model. “At the time they were wearing black leggings and putting Balenciaga boots on and they were going for a drink. It was a really unusual phenomenon.”
It was the start of the trend for women and men to don “activewear” – or the even more dreaded “athleisure” – for non-exercise pursuits, wearing it to brunch, shopping, to the office and even out to dinner.
“I really don’t like that word [athleisure],” Meares confesses. “The language around the movement is so horrific.” The terminology may inspire ridicule (Meares has actually hired a team of writers to come up with a better way to describe her wares but so far she’s not having much luck), but the trend is a significant one and has swept the world. And it means that The Upside had global potential from day one.
The Melbourne-born Meares, who spent most of her childhood in the surf hamlet of Merimbula in southern NSW, launched The Upside’s first collection in 2013. It included yoga legwear, running shorts, tees, tanks and jackets, and pieces made from leopard and paisley prints, which sold out immediately. The collection was first stocked in Rebel sports stores, but it was soon apparent that the fit wasn’t quite right.
“I think it was probably too fashion-forward,” she says. “They had done a really good job but we belonged in David Jones, which we are in now, as well as Selfridges and Net-a-Porter. We belonged in a more directly fashion market.”
The Upside is now in its fifth year and Meares has not looked back. She employs 18 staff at her office in Paddington and 10 at her three stores in NSW. The label is stocked at Harrods and Selfridges in London and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, as well as in New Zealand, Germany, the US, Dubai, Singapore and Canada. Matchesfashion.com and Mode Sportif have joined Net-A-Porter on the online front.
“The big idea was having something that was technically really well thought out and highly fashionable,” Meares says. “I think we are the best in the world at that, and that is what makes us different.”
Prints have always been close to Meares’ heart; it was the key to Tigerlily, and it is what sets The Upside apart from the competition. Anything with a leopard
or camouflage print still sells like hotcakes, she says.
“Those prints are important to the DNA of this company. For me, paisley, leopard, camo – they are part bohemian, part rock and roll, part beach. They are all the things I love in life. They are staples and there is something classic about them in their own way.”
Meares has kept her family close to The Upside, with her ex-husband, billionaire James Packer, owning 40 per cent of the business (Meares declines to answer questions about him) and her sister Sophie Morgan in charge of sales and marketing. When WISH visited her office in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, she was accompanied by her rescue dog Soda Pop as well as her sister’s dog, Lottie. Both dogs, especially Soda Pop, dominate and interrupt the photography session and our conversation as much any toddler would: trying to chew electric cords and heaters, stealing make-up equipment and getting into people’s bags. “That is naughty,” Meares scolds Soda Pop when he goes after another cord. “You are going to electrocute yourself.”
After settling the various dogs, Meares takes WISH on a tour of the lower half of the warehouse, where The Upside is set to expand after initially occupying just one floor. Her office will be downstairs, as will a new space for her design team. “It has grown quickly,” she says. “It is just about keeping up and trying to support the team, because they are going a million miles an hour.”
Meares says the business has grown faster than Tigerlily did (she sold the latter for $5.8 million in 2007 to Billabong, which in turn sold it in 2017 to Crescent Capital for $60 million). This is mainly due to online sales and the rise of social media.
“The world is smaller and it is quicker to get to market now,” Meares says. “And there are so many markets opening up. The growth in wholesale overseas has been huge. It is now 50 per cent [of our business] and will be 60 per cent pretty soon.” She is now looking to take The Upside beyond sportswear and into other kinds of clothing – in fact, she wants it to take on the whole wardrobe.
“It’s a big, big vision for the company,’’ Meares says of her 10-year-plan. “I cannot give too much away because a lot of it is under wraps and is going to take a long time. But the next thing is launching The Upside Beach. And we think that is as important as sport. I look around what is currently available in that space, but there is still a lot of room for us as I don’t love what I see.”
To be launched in September and available in-store by October, the range will include swimwear, kaftans and cover-ups. “It’s a bit 70s rock’n’roll meets SaintTropez,” Meares says of the first collection. “It’s about the beach for me; I am not really a poolside girl. And if it’s beach, it doesn’t have to be cut-off denim shorts. It’s about taking really beautiful glamorous shapes and pulling them down and wearing ratty Converse [sneakers] with them.”
Besides having grown up in Merimbula, Meares lived in Hawaii for a few years before settling more permanently in Sydney. She knows the beach like she knows the yoga studio. “Lifestyle businesses are the things I love,” she says. “It is different from direct fashion; it is a different space. And I know it because I live it. It’s not just what I do, it is how I live.”
“It’s about the beach for me; I am not really a poolside girl. And if it’s beach, it doesn’t have to be cut-off denim shorts.”
The Upside’s collection for women and men is surfing the activewear wave.