I first met Jae Mills about fourteen minutes into a Trelise Cooper show at the Town Hall in 2004. He was 21. We chatted while leaning against the back wall – he was from Gisborne and had moved to Auckland to study fashion design but was throwing it in for a junior role at Huffer. I was terribly jealous that they’d given him his own business card, and wildly impressed to hear that he’d designed a pair of shorts for their summer collection. Within a year he was designing the whole lot.
Fast forward five years, a stint as head of menswear at Workshop Denim, and a spell overseas, and I’m rifling through the first collection of his new ontrend-but-well-priced basics line Commoners Alike. It’s housed at PUBLIC LIBRARY, the PR and Sales agency tucked away in the back room of Black Box Boutique in Surry Crescent, Grey Lynn, where Jae also works as store manager. Compared with the other racks lining the walls, his is the picture of minimalism – it holds ten pieces; four unprinted tee shirts, two linen shirts, two cardigans sans buttons, a pair of cotton pants and a wool zip-up double breasted jacket. All are black, white, grey or navy.
“It’s the bones of a wardrobe,” says Jae, “but I think within that there’s a lot of scope to get quite creative. You can still make some interesting pieces. But my vision is to keep things quite simple and not have too strong an aesthetic. Not be too now. Fashion goes up and down but I want to go through the middle. Go classic but with a twist.”
The collection is small but concise, and it’s all in the details. The tee shirts are enzyme washed to make them feel years old; the jacket works whether it’s fitted or oversized due to its narrow shoulders; a giant statement pocket hangs off the front of the linen shirt and two of the tees. Every garment is unisex. Each piece has that sexy promise of boyfriend wears it at night, girlfriend wears it the next morning. But best of all, it’s cheap.
“Commoners Alike was basically created to fill a middle tier in the market – ontrend fashion basics at a really good price point,” says Jae. “It would be difficult to launch a conceptual brand given the state of the market and I think the market is responding to the recession. I’ve been thinking about this for years – designing really affordable ontrend fashion for people.”
When Jae Mills says affordable, he means affordable. Prices range from $69 for the tee shirts to $350 for the jacket. It’s more expensive than Hallensteins and Glassons, but comparable to Country Road, Barkers and MAX. Nevertheless, it still has that ‘I bought it in a boutique’ look.
“I wanted to give it a fashion feel at a good price point, a boutique look with quite an edgy feel. I’ll always try and give it a hand finished feel. A lot of the washing is done post-make so it has a really lived in, aged feel.”
To keep prices low, Jae engaged a firm in China to manufacture Commoners Alike. It’s something many smaller New Zealand designers steer well clear of for reasons of principal, but for Jae it was a no-brainer.
“People are misinformed about China and New Zealand – you go out to Penrose and have a tee shirt made and most of the workers out there are Chinese immigrants. Manufacturing in China has allowed me to achieve a really good price point at retail. I think that can be a bit sad for some people but I think that as long as the quality is there and you’re not pulling the wool over their eyes and selling them something at a high price when it is made in China and making a whole lot of margin, then it’s okay. I think it’s about integrity.”
Jae is ambitious. Very ambitious. He cites American Apparel, Zara, H&M and Topshop as reference points for the direction of his business. Ontrend fashion at a good price point. Sounds simple doesn’t it. But it’s a huge gap in the New Zealand retail market. We don’t have those fast fashion companies that grab a trend and replicate it in store within a 28 day turnaround time. So the ten milion dollar question is this: how do you take a boutique styled brand like Commoners Alike and make it accessible to the masses?
“Certainly that’s a concern,” says Jae. “I don’t want to run before I can walk. I’ve created pieces that I want to wear for my personal tastes, but I want to diversify the product as I go forward. I didn’t really want it to be derived from a strong reference point. I’d like it to be worn in lots of different ways by lots of different people. I think as time goes by the business will have tiers, like a core line with all the basic tees in various colours. It’s going to take a while to figure out what the real sellers are. I just want to focus on getting the commercial pieces right. It’s certainly not a super mainstream brand, I would never want it to be. I want to be able to wear it, I don’t want to walk down the street and look generic, I wanna be quietly screaming. (Laughs.) Not loudly screaming.”
Over the past week, Jae has shown the collection to ten boutiques across the country. The response has been strong and he’s expecting orders to roll through in the next few days. I tell him I’m still struggling to see how he can expect to turn a boutique brand into a mainstream major. Here’s his plan.
“The price point is low, the margin is good so I think that the volumes will be high. I don’t want to focus on seasonal ranges, I want it to be a stock service programme. The way that I’ll look to move units will be on a reorder basis so the product will be available at all times. If shops have sold out they can say ‘Jae, can I have x more units’. But it’s really at the infancy stages. The timing’s been good with the state of the economy, price point is more and more important. People have responded well to the price point, the styles and the position. I think there are lots of really good brands in the market and that’s awesome but people overlook the simple stuff. I think it’s timely and I think people have been needing a simple basic product for a while now.”
Then he pauses.
“I’m not professing to be the greatest designer, I just want to do the simple things really well.”
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