The fashion game is not an easy one to play – the rules change with each season – but for Nicholas Van Messner and Bridget ‘bird’ McCall, it was never a spectator sport.
The pair met at an early-20-something birthday party, both tertiary equipped and industry-veteraned respectively – Van Messner, a graduate of fashion design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and street couture label Maiike; McCall, a seasoned photographer and stylist – and it seemed like, well, the done thing.
Eight years on, the Melbourne-based label LIFEwithBIRD is now an international presence.
To secure a break and get off the bench, the pair were savvy – they started small with a line of leather bags, all the while dreaming big.
“At the time, no one, honestly, was giving a beautifully hand-made, hand-crafted products,” says Van Messner. “Everything was cheap imports from China, Indonesia, you name it. We thought there’s a real hole for that. It was sheer, sheer hard work that we knocked on the right doors and got it into the right boutiques and that was really how it all began.”
In the bag
Positioning was key to building the brand. Van Messner recalls cold call after cold call, as the pair worked their way through a list of their dream stockists.
“We were really fortunate from day one to be supported by people like Belinda Seper.” This support, in turn, opened the door to other big-name stockists.
The jump from a simple accessories line to a collection was an ambitious one, but proved an integral part of the label’s growth.
“We had a fantastic stockist list with the bags and we had a real opportunity to broaden our product range,” says McCall. “It had always been our focus to have a clothing line.” The bags, she explains, were a means to an end.
Still, it was a case of slowly does it. The pair started off with a capsule range, designed to sit alongside the bags in the boutiques they stocked to. This proved a strategic move in that their buyers didn’t have to commit to a whole range and a capsule range was almost always positioned alongside the bags in-store.
“They’re already stocking you, you already have their support, so it’s not that far a stretch,” says Van Messner.
After “doorknocking” to ensure the perfect stockists in the US, LIFEwithBIRD now hangs on racks in Japan and most of South East Asia.
Despite their success, the label’s growth hasn’t been without its challenges – the global financial crisis hit the fashion world, hard, and proved the downfall of many a label. While the Australian industry was largely cushioned from its effects, the same can’t be said for those in the rag trade overseas. Smaller orders, tighter purse strings and bad debt “are all very real issues” the pair have had to face.
“A lot of people don’t understand that fashion is probably one of the only industries where you produce the product and you give it out on credit terms,” says Van Messner. “There’s a lot of pressure on our business. We run our business really well – it’s taken us a long time and we’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we now know how to run it.”
“Predicaments” like the recent downturn really “put pressure” on business, says Van Messner, and it’s key to have strategies in place to minimise risk.
”With the international markets, we definitely had to tighten the reigns a lot and make sure that we were covered with credit applications and all sorts of different guarantees and upfront deposits,” he says. “These are things that have been taken for granted over the last 20 years, and now if you don’t really tighten those reigns up, you’re going to really over expose yourself.”
But strong business systems have given the pair the confidence to handle any challenge that is thrown their way. “Everything’s running smoothly and like clockwork – we’ve got really good systems in place to make sure that happens,” says McCall.
On the home front, LIFEwithBIRD has branched into retail – opening a flagship store in Melbourne’s iconic GPO. And despite the challenges associated with this new frontier, McCall says the venture – to date – has proved to be a success.
“It’s a very different operation to running a wholesale business,” says McCall. “We’re really, really happy with the results. Retail is definitely a very different focus for our business.”
Van Messner says the retail has provided yet another platform for growth and canvassed unheralded levels of promotion.
“Our whole collection is now visible to the public, it’s not just a small cross-section that buyers choose to stock in their own stores,” he explains. “We really have this greater focus on our product and our brand.”
And, Van Messner says the wholesale side of the business has “really picked up” thanks to their new retail presence.
“Our sales are noticeably increasing and we’ve had a lot of PR over the last [year or so]. We’re getting, I reckon, 60 to 70 per cent of the people that walk through the door have never heard of LIFEwithBIRD. The scope for that kind of promotion is really something that we couldn’t have tapped into before as really a wholesale business.”
The venture has also been a benefit to the business’s cash flow. “It’s really positive for us to have a regular cash flow,” says McCall. “It keeps the momentum of the business going, which is something new to us.”
The retail and the wholesale elements of the business allow them to gear for growth. “Focusing on retail is really key with Australia having such a booming economy in the global scheme of things,” says McCall. “But we don’t want to neglect any of our export markets – they’re going to bounce back over the next year or two and we’re going to be right there where we left off and make sure we capitalise on them coming back.”
Working hard for the money
And, the duo wouldn’t trade these lessons of the last eight years – both admit if they had their time over, they’d do it all, exactly the same.
“You’ve got to fall down to pick yourself back up, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes,” says McCall. “We started when we were so young – that was a real positive because we actually didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”
“We started with the only capital that Bridget and I had saved up and, for the first years, we both worked four or five other jobs,” recalls Van Messner. “I think that we would have liked to have started with more capital,” he laughs, “but that wasn’t an option. I mean, that’s an obvious, but that probably would have made it less pressurised in the first couple of years. But it probably made us work harder as well.”
“We have taken some more risks because we had less to lose really,” says McCall. “As in, both starting young and just giving it your all."