Fashion may change, but some things never do. With her upmarket Australian children's label Fred Bare clocking up 20 years this year, co-founder and designer Fiona Sinclair said pink is still the biggest seller for girls and boys like action themes such as skateboards and bikes on their shirts.
They seem to be some of the few constants in the fast-moving rag trade, which has been turned on its head with international celebrity looks setting the pace even for childrenswear, and the global financial crisis and online commerce putting pressure on retailers, department stores and manufacturers alike.
The Sydney brand has not been spared. Its annual turnover has slid by about a quarter from two years ago as order volumes declined from the David Jones department stores and independent children's boutiques it supplies.
To recover ground, it is trying to increase sales through the internet and expand into new markets such as Asia and Europe.
Sinclair said Fred Bare had been "growing from strength to strength" despite the current economic setback. She established Fred Bare in 1992 and it's now one of Australia's most popular childrenswear labels with its trademark bear logo.
The designer and her partner Robert White, a fashion sales and marketing executive, decided they had had enough of copying the latest trends from Europe for their womenswear business, which made house brand, mass-market clothes for department store clients such as Myer Miss Shop and retailers such as Rockmans.
"Being a designer it was something that I didn't enjoy doing terribly," the 46-year-old said. "The creative brain needed something a bit more challenging."
There were not a lot of quality children's labels around at the time, she said.
"We knew we wanted something that had a bit more of a European flavour"; more luxurious clothes like the ones they would see on sourcing trips to Paris, compared to the basics sold in local stores.
Brainstorming over a long Easter weekend at their Redfern apartment, the couple and a designer friend, Elisabeth Cameron, settled on Fred Bare as a business name, a play on the word threadbare. They soon designed fabrics and set about creating their first collection, then contacted fashion buyers.
David Jones became the first big customer, with Myer following. An exclusive department store deal with David Jones was signed six years ago. The relationship now generates about half of Fred Bare's A$6 million ($7.6 million) annual turnover.
At the beginning, Fred Bare was just a side arm to the womenswear. After about eight years it was big enough to run as a standalone company. Today the label employs a dozen people at its Chippendale headquarters. Most of its production is done in a factory in Vietnam that it part-owns, with some 120 machinists sewing its 300-plus-piece winter and summer collections.
Asked about the biggest changes in the industry since starting out, Sinclair said childrenswear had become much more "fashion-forward" than 10 years ago, going for ever-shortening production cycles to embrace the latest celebrity looks in magazines and social media.
She criticised some of the competition which she thought had gone too far dressing children like little adults. "Kids should still be kids," said Sinclair, who has an 11-year-old son.
Yet with many parents looking for cheap deals in the tough retail climate, is there still place for an upmarket brand charging A$50 for a pair of girl's shorts?
Sinclair said there were always lower-priced items in the collection and the label may "not be going quite as crazy with expensive fabrics". But it was niche and would not budge on price, even as its key client David Jones had been pushing for wholesale price reductions from its suppliers.
To increase sales, the softly spoken entrepreneur said online will "probably be the biggest priority". Its web boutique, open for only a year, has experienced significant growth over the past six months and now generates about a quarter of overall turnover, she said.
The company is also looking to start producing winter and summer clothes simultaneously to tap markets in the northern hemisphere with opposite seasons. It is already in talks with stockists in Europe, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
"The world is becoming so much more global, so there's probably a need now to be doing two seasons at once," Sinclair said.
Looking to online and overseas, she said that "hopefully by the next 12 months we will be back on track and where we were. The rag trade is such a crazy place. It's always busy, there's never a downtime."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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