This fiercely mod­ern fam­ily com­pany has al­ways forged ahead. Can Cue re­ally be 50? It can!


Chloe Gray holds up a navy crepe jump­suit, ta­pered at the an­kles, with ar­chi­tec­tural pock­ets at the hips. You’d never know it had a for­mer life as a kicky 70s linen num­ber. A 90s waist­coat has mor­phed into a sum­mery hal­ter top with match­ing wide-leg cropped pants in yel­low-and-white deckchair stripes. A slip dress, orig­i­nally from the same era, has been pepped up with a new print. Only an 80s logo tee be­lies its his­tor­i­cal ori­gins, but given fash­ion’s cur­rent pen­chant for ironic kitsch, this piece also feels right for now. Just tuck it into the high-waisted pen­cil skirt, a best-seller that de­buted in 2006.

“Go­ing through the archives, I was look­ing for things you’d hap­pily slip on to­day. We didn’t want it to feel retro or vin­tage,” ex­plains Gray, who is Cue’s head de­signer, of the cap­sule col­lec­tion that’s been adapted from the brand’s back cat­a­logue in cel­e­bra­tion of its 50th an­niver­sary. “The idea was to make it com­pletely mod­ern.”

This, she says, was achieved with ease. “Fash­ion is cycli­cal, isn’t it? It was about se­lect­ing the pieces that feel fresh again.” Af­ter that, bar a few slight tweaks, the task was mostly to reimag­ine fab­ri­ca­tions, so that pieces orig­i­nally de­signed in dif­fer­ent decades hang to­gether as a co­her­ent whole.

“I re­ally think they do, don’t you?” chimes in Cue’s re­tail brand man­ager Kate Bie­len­berg, who re­mem­bers some of these styles from the first time around. Bie­len­berg has been with Cue for 25 years. “We’re like fam­ily,” she says sim­ply.

While many fash­ion houses be­gan as fam­ily af­fairs, few can lay claim to that to­day. The com­pany is still pri­vately owned. Founder Rod Le­vis re­mains at the helm, while his son Justin Le­vis and daugh­ter Me­lanie Le­vis are both ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors. Gray, now 30, got her first job at Cue when she left school. She went on to study fash­ion, then re­turned as a ju­nior de­signer. For­mer creative di­rec­tor Debi Rolle started at Cue in 1980 and only re­cently re­tired. The de­sign room is full of bright young things fresh out of col­lege, but they all get to learn from the com­pany’s col­lec­tive wis­dom (which in­cludes the Veronika Maine brand). And since Cue en­tered a part­ner­ship with his epony­mous com­pany in five years ago, Dion Lee is also part of the group (although the de­signer is now head­quar­tered in New York).

Le­vis says it is this mix that makes what he calls “the Cue magic. We’ve al­ways been

home-grown, and we’ve al­ways been dif­fer­ent and se­cure in our point of view. If we were chas­ing the mar­ket, as the other main­stream brands do, we wouldn’t be where we are to­day.” The morn­ing of our in­ter­view, there’s a story in the Aus­tralian about three Aus­tralian fash­ion names mark­ing sig­nif­i­cant an­niver­saries: Oro­ton (turn­ing 80), David Lawrence (40) and Cue. “The oth­ers have fallen in and out of favour, failed and been rein­vented over the years,” says Le­vis. “Con­ti­nu­ity is our se­cret.”

“Cue was born in 1968 when our cus­tomer was a groovy kid. In the 70s she was more so­phis­ti­cated; that was when women started en­ter­ing the work­force in a new way. In the 80s, she was in the ex­ec­u­tive area, power dress­ing. Cue makes in­cred­i­ble suits. We grew with women in so­ci­ety. It’s been an evo­lu­tion.”

Not that he was averse to a bit of revo­lu­tion back in the day.

A Swing­ing Six­ties fash­ion fix­ture, he opened his Syd­ney bou­tique, Le­vis’s, in

1965. Along­side hip

Aus­tralian de­sign­ers like Norma Tullo, Prue

Ac­ton and early Carla Zam­patti, he stocked the Lon­don Look, im­port­ing Mary Quant and us­ing fab­rics by Ossie Clark. Not that he likes to dwell on such things.

“Fash­ion was silly in the mid-60s: very short, with lots of frills,” says the man who has lit­tle pa­tience for look­ing back. Mod­ern is his mantra. Don’t men­tion half a cen­tury, eh? (“Do me a favour? Don’t go on about the birth­day,” he will urge as I take my leave.) The word cue means a sig­nal for ac­tion. “Start,” says Le­vis. “Go!”

And yet a mile­stone an­niver­sary does lend it­self to re­flec­tion, as Gray and Bie­len­berg, ar­chi­tects of the Cu­rated cap­sule, un­der­stand. Le­vis de­fers to their de­sign wis­dom. “The rea­son we thrive is the peo­ple, the in­no­va­tion,” he says. “Re­spect­ing the creatives. Re­spect­ing every­one who makes our clothes.”

Cue is ac­cred­ited by Eth­i­cal Cloth­ing Aus­tralia, and still pro­duces the ma­jor­ity of its gar­ments in New South Wales, us­ing mak­ers it has built re­la­tion­ships with over decades. That’s remarkable in 2018, when most brands de­sign lo­cally but pro­duce and even sam­ple ev­ery­thing over­seas. (Smaller in­de­pen­dent de­sign­ers are the ex­cep­tion: it’s the only way when you can’t reach the min­i­mum quan­ti­ties set by off­shore fac­to­ries.) Most larger brands – and Cue has 65 stand­alone stores, plus an­other 61 shop-with­in­shops in Myer, mind you – have long since aban­doned ‘Made in Aus­tralia’.

Le­vis con­cedes that lo­cal pro­duc­tion costs more – in or­der to keep their pric­ing com­pet­i­tive, they cur­rently make around 30 per cent of styles in China, things like knits that are dif­fi­cult to pro­duce here – but says he’s com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing in Aus­tralia. Apart from the ben­e­fits of sup­ply-chain trans­parency, it keeps them nim­ble. “It means we’re quicker from de­sign to re­tail floor. Zara is very fast: we need to be quick to keep our cred­i­bil­ity in the cur­rent con­text. Mak­ing lo­cally means also we can pro­duce small runs [and] try things out in se­lected stores to see how they go, be flex­i­ble.”

What’s next? Tech, obvs. “Did you see we’ve just rolled out shop­pable screens in our stores?” en­thuses Le­vis. “And we have 30-minute click-and-col­lect: did you know that? It’s fan­tas­tic. There’s so much hap­pen­ing with dig­i­tal. What’s next? We look to the next 50 years.”

“The rea­son we thrive is the peo­ple, the in­no­va­tion. Re­spect­ing the creatives. Re­spect­ing every­one who makes our clothes”

Left: Cue top, $200, and pants, $250. Right: Cue dress, $380. Reliquia ear­rings, $269.

Cue top, $200, and pants, $250. Tif­fany & Co. ear­rings, $990. Thomas Sabo hoop ear­rings, $119.

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