To have been in a fashion business for 10+ years takes more than luck & timing. As with most success stories, it’s the sheer hard work & consistency happening behind the scenes over a long period of time that make it grow. This month for the final design interview for 2017, I’m speaking with Amanda McCarthy, the founder of the label Leonard St. Her pioneering spirit saw her create her own job after returning from work in London, rather than trying to find one in traditional fashion.
The evolution of Amanda’s label, has taken her from wholesaling to retailing, from one store to four, being stocked by Anthropologie in the USA, meeting and working with her husband in the business, and starting & raising her family of two girls in between. It’s a testament to her ability to keep showing up every day & acting on her ideas as they present themselves. What I love about Amanda’s story is the way she well and truly gave herself permission to do things differently in her career, right from the outset. She saw an opportunity that played to her strengths, and continued to let her fashion skills & creative voice evolve. With a degree in fine arts, her artistic appetite for the quirky & fresh, now grace the textiles her clothing is made from.
It’s been a pleasure getting to know Amanda through her support with my styling work, and I’m delighted to bring you her story as the final interview for 2017.
LOUISE: In terms of your business and your product choice, what drew you to start your clothing label?
AMANDA: I didn’t really have a big plan. I’d just returned from working in London in wardrobe buying, styling and sourcing in film, with some freelancing as well. I couldn’t find a role that would translate the experience I’d gained in the UK. All of that knowledge was fresh in my mind, and I didn’t want to lose it.
I was frustrated, so I decided to do my own small collection of 70’s frocks and put them on consignment in stores like Alice Euphemia & Dollhouse. I was trying to identify a product in the Australian market that didn’t exist yet, but was still valid in a London market, which happened to be print dresses. It was a reaction to coming back to Australia and seeing that street style was still dominant. There were certainly higher end designers, but there wasn’t much in between. I was trying to go for a price point in between. Feminine and interesting, but not mainstream.
LOUISE: How long did it take for your business to get going?
AMANDA: I started wholesaling after about a year of consignment, and then continued that for another 2-3 years. I found I was losing the joy though, because I loved the process of seeing who bought my designs. With wholesale, you pack it up, ship it off and you don’t get to see the joy of who is buying what.
I continued working part-time at the same time as running my business, and then it reached a point where I had to make a decision about it’s future direction. I realised I had to give it my all if I wanted to see it grow. That decision prompted me to open my first shop in High St, South Yarra, just around the corner from Chapel St.
LOUISE: Did you have anything in place financially before setting up your store.
AMANDA: Not really. I had the consignments and wholesale customers, but I never paid myself throughout that time. And even when I did open the store, I had to pay staff, so it was a little while before I could take an income. But I loved the store, and it was really rewarding and I really enjoyed it. It helped me refine the collection.
I was very passionate about it, and worked late with long hours, but I really enjoyed it. And as much as I felt the financial pressure, I was so determined to make it work.
LOUISE: How did things progress after opening your Windsor store?
AMANDA: Well, that was 12 years ago now, but I had the Windsor store for about 3 years before opening Gertrude St, Fitzroy. I fitted out the Gertrude St store, with my brother’s help, while I was pregnant with my first daughter, which was 8.5 years ago.
Soon after, I did a pop up in Melbourne Central, but decided on Flinders Lane as a better city location, with street frontage. The Flinders Lane store closed earlier this year after 7 years. Neighbourhoods change, and you need to constantly ask yourself if it’s still the right fit.
We’ve now opened in Carlisle St, East St Kilda, which I think will be a good home for a few years to come. It’s an area that’s in a growth phase. We’d like to open in Sydney, but we’re conscious of the demands it places on us, especially with family. We’ve had a practise run with Adelaide, in running an interstate store. There was a lot of online interest from Adelaide, which is what prompted us to open there. I think if we had a store in Sydney, it would be just the right amount, and I know we’d have clientele up there.
LOUISE: In looking at production and design, do you think design informs production, or do you feel it’s the other way around – where the technique of what you can do influences what your design becomes.
AMANDA: That’s a good question. I think design informs production. Whatever cloth you’re using, it’s going to dictate what you can do, whether you print it, or wash it, or pleat it. But it goes both ways as well, and once you’ve developed your handwriting, it starts to inform your design. Once you’ve got a certain look, it’s nice to do things differently. Ultimately you also need continuity with each collection, or your customers will be confused.
LOUISE: For me, as a curious observer of the industry, I think you’re well known for your prints. Are there any other trademark pieces that you’re known for or that you try to include in your range?
AMANDA: I think the clean plain pieces are as popular as the print. The linen that we’re using at the moment is something people really love. The loose overalls, the pants and culottes are the perfect anecdote to the print. They’re fabrics I know really well. I want to be able to produce something I’m confident in, so using the base cloths I know are important, because I know how they wash and wear, and I’m offering a product that I’m happy with.
LOUISE: So how do you go about choosing your fabrics?
AMANDA: I can source my base cloths in Bali, and I have the ability to individualise with print or colours as I want. I like to do these things myself as opposed to buying from a fabric supplier, which anyone can do.
Occasionally I’ll include fabrics in the collection from outside sources. This season I threw in a lurex and it’s nice to have those highlight fabrics. But I went for a colour that wasn’t mainstream. I did green & that worked with the collection. It’s one foot in earthy and another foot in evening wear, so it worked.
It’s the same with velvet – which has been on trend. But again, I went for a very particular colour palette, being teal & dusty rose so it helped give something outside the expected. It’s important however, to execute the pieces in simple cuts, with these types of fabrics. It’s more involved though, as you’ve got to test the fabrics & make sure they are wearable.
LOUISE: I’ve really noticed there are more and more labels making product in Bali, which is relatively new in terms of a manufacturing location. What’s your experience been like?
AMANDA: When I was looking for a factory in Bali, I went to a lot I wasn’t comfortable with for whatever reason. There are many factories in Bali, but you do need to keep a very close eye on quality control too.
We started out doing a small line with a factory that we built a good relationship with. And now we have our own factory, that only produce Leonard St, and the manager moved across to now manage it for us. Sure, there are benefits, but it’s a commitment from our end too. It means we have to supply him with enough work so he can provide enough work to his staff. And he has to commit to providing us with exactly what we order. So far though, it works.
With prices in China going up quite rapidly, and being exposed to volatile economic conditions due to fluctuating demand, Bali can seem like a less pressured landscape to make product in. The demand is not so high, so the pressure is not so high. And it’s a nice place to go. Culturally, though, it’s a bigger difference in terms of how they work. China are more efficient.
After a couple of years of wholesaling, I did do a little bit of production in China and worked with an agent. She took me to see the difference between sweat shop manufacturing and the factories we were using. You could see the piece work sewing in little garages where they get paid by the unit, not by time. I felt really lucky to be shown the difference. She really taught me so much in understanding what to expect from a supplier and how to work with them.
LOUISE: What 5 words would you use to describe your brand?
AMANDA: Fresh, quirky, practical, bright, happy. I like to think our brand is fun. It’s nice to do something silly sometimes. Everyone in fashion seems to take themselves so seriously, but you ultimately buy something because it makes you feel good. And you want something you can relate to, sometimes a bit nostalgic or even evocative.
LOUISE: It’s interesting you say nostalgic, as I can see the influence of costume in your collection, because I know your career has involved costume in the past. Your shapes show elements that can identify certain eras. Do you keep your eye on what’s happening trend wise?
AMANDA: I do keep an eye on it, but I’m not obsessed with it like I was when I first started. I think it’s really important not to do what everyone else is doing. There’s no point when you’re a small independent label trying to rip off what high street are taking from catwalks. You need a point of difference.
Even if I do get inspiration from what I see, I will end up translating some of that into my designs. When the sample evolves, I have to ask myself, ‘is that Leonard St, is that what my customers want to buy, is it what they want in their wardrobes. Will they stand the test of time?” So ultimately, I end up not necessarily producing pieces that are trend based. Even though I use words like ‘quirky and fresh’, Leonard St is also quite classic.
I think what’s out there on mass is increasingly boring, and uninteresting. So, we’ve got to offer something that’s the opposite of that.
LOUISE: What do you love most about what you work on?
AMANDA: I always love seeing samples when they arrive from the factory. I love bringing the prints and shapes together. I love seeing the screen printing happening. And I love the screens themselves and the hand process involved in that. We do screen printing, not digital. I recently worked with a friend of mine who’s an illustrator, and she does this amazing line work, with felt tipped hand drawing. We both studied art together, so I asked if she wanted to collaborate on a design. And so the bird prints are what people can buy in the Summer collection. I’m so happy with the final result. When you see the imagination of the design & idea come to life, it’s the best.
LOUISE: You talked about ethical before. What will you never compromise on?
AMANDA: At the moment, I really enjoy working with people I like. So I would never compromise working with someone I didn’t like or a situation I wasn’t comfortable with. I don’t think you have to, and you want to feel good about what you’re doing. So even the little choices you make, you realise how empowering they are. Years ago I decided I didn’t want my product wrapped in plastic at the factory, so we don’t do that. The individual pieces don’t come wrapped in plastic.
LOUISE: So how is it wrapped at the factory? Because 90% of industry wraps every piece individually in plastic.
AMANDA:. The box has a sheet of plastic lining, and then the 50-60 garments are folded in the box, and the plastic is wrapped around that full batch per box. It doesn’t get damaged during transport.
And then I collect those pieces of plastic and take them back to Bali after they’ve been delivered to Australia to re-use. What a basic decision. Why it’s such a big deal, I don’t know. Why would you want all that plastic polluting the environment.
At first the factory didn’t understand, and they’d put batches of 10 garments per plastic bag to package up together. But I had to re-explain – just no plastic.
LOUISE: Where to next?
AMANDA: I’m happy with what I’ve got. I mean we would like to expand to Sydney, but I’m conscious of over extending myself. I’ve got 2 kids, and I’ve got to be realistic. I want to be happy & healthy as a priority. I’ve learned from experience not to be a workaholic, as I used to be. Right now, we’re in a good place.
3 Things with Amanda
What was the first piece of significant clothing you bought yourself?
A Zimmerman suit – very 90-s , long line coat with a big collar, and pencil skirt in a pastel check!
When you shop for yourself, what other labels do you wear/ like when you’re not wearing your own designs?
I love buying art, prints, woven wall hangings, shoes and jewellery. I work with clothing so much I don’t buy it very often, my wardrobe is in an ongoing state of flux, with samples going in and out, I’ll wear print reject and samples all the time! I went overseas recently and had a great time buying some new pieces for myself. I like the crazy fashion of China and bought a crazy leather bomber jacket I’m excited to wear when the temperature drops….
What’s one thing people might not know about you?
I’m happiest at the beach