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.