#856 Commoners Alike – fashion for the masses

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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Comments

  1. says

    “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.”

    Most disingenuous comment of the year or is this guy that stupid? Chinese immigrants in Penrose are protected by New Zealand’s labour laws, human rights act, health and safety legislation, ACC scheme. And so on.

    Interesting that he cites American Apparel, the anti sweat shop brand, as an inspiration.

  2. Kate says

    This is so cool, I have been waiting for a label like this in NZ. Totally a gap in the market that has been waiting to be filled.
    Great article Isaac.

  3. John. says

    Cam from Area 51 is already creaming his pants over this label and thinking of ways he can overcharge people and reap maximum profit. Won’t be at a ‘good price point’ if he stocks it.

  4. says

    great post isaac. The range looks great – ive been so excited for this ever since Jae told me about it a couple of months ago.

    i really hope its a hit(how could it not be, such a good concept). And hes the nicest guy.

  5. Anonymous says

    Gen,

    New Zealand isn’t immune to sweatshop like conditions, I’d be prepared to wager that there are plenty of makers in Auckland paying less than minimum wage to illegal immigrant workers.

    When it comes to NZ made it seems
    that everyone likes to talk the talk, but not many people are prepared to back it up with their wallet.

  6. Gen says

    You really think so? You think there are people in NZ earning 64c an hour, the average manufacturing wage in China? I really doubt it. And if there were the employer could be shopped to the department of labour which isn’t exactly an option in Shenzhen.

    I’m not on a crusade for ethical manufacturing. There’s lots of Topshop in my wardrobe and that sure wasn’t made in fantastic conditions. I just think this guy’s self serving justification for using sweat shop labour is total bullshit.

    Also if I’m going to buy a white linen shirt made in china I’ll go to country road (in 1988).

  7. gen says

    Fair enough. With stringent enough quality control I’m sure the quality wouldn’t be an issue. I don’t know what the Chinese immigrants in Penrose call had to do with it though.

  8. Anonymous says

    Great start to a cool range .. Seems NZ people are haters .. Try be nice and pointing out the good in people and encourage people to get out there and do things .You will live a way happier life . Most people throw stones from afar but don’t actually do anything themselves .. It is not easy to create something from nothing and give it a go .. New Zealanders are known for the tall poppy syndrome .. Lest take pride in New zealanders trying to make way in a internationally competitive market .. It someone is doing well .. congratulate them ..

  9. Anonymous says

    Great start to a cool range .. Seems NZ people are haters .. Try be nice and pointing out the good in people and encourage people to get out there and do things .You will live a way happier life . Most people throw stones from afar but don’t actually do anything themselves .. It is not easy to create something from nothing and give it a go .. New Zealanders are known for the tall poppy syndrome .. Lest take pride in New zealanders trying to make way in a internationally competitive market .. It someone is doing well .. congratulate them ..

  10. John says

    More goddamn tall poppies talk. it’s complete bullshit. You can’t make a single negative comment in this excuse for a country with out some goddamn hippie saying, oooh tall poppies lets support everyone and hold fucking hands. People are more than entitled to not be wowed by what this guy has produced. Simple as that. Doesn’t mean it’s tall poppies.

  11. John says

    Isaac whats your opinion on this guys clothes and all this other shit. Would be good to hear your opinion for once instead of you just reporting on stuff.

  12. gen says

    Could not have put it better John. After being away from NZ for quite a few years I am surprised at often how this tall poppy rubbish comes up, whenever some well founded criticism occurs. There are lots of great NZ success stories that are celebrated. There is also quite a bit of shit that is celebrated just because it’s from NZ.

    For example I haven’t seen much criticism of some of the frankly abysmal rags that paraded through the tent at Halsey St last week.

  13. Anonymous says

    to john and gen…
    To be frank …… the tall poppy syndrome DOES exist….
    you dont have to like what this guy is doing but for goodness sake…..say well done and friggin get over it….
    its new zealand…we are too small not to support each other…

  14. GM says

    in snobsville there is all the gucci and prada you can imagine…..but for most of us…..commoners alike is pretty cool and something most of us can actually afford!

  15. Anonymous says

    i like. fits a gap in the market here. will be interesting to see if he manages to keep the prices low. lots of nz designers start their ranges well priced and hike them up when they become ‘famous’. i wish him all the best. with the market as it is, it’s great to see something new and positive.

  16. Anonymous says

    I am concerned as to when it became the norm to pay 69 bucks in NZ for a t shirt made in China……. when did we all become okay with this?

    Bassike in Australia have been running with the same design concept for a few years now, however they proudly support Australian made…. so I feel okay about paying more.

    China is a manufacturing goliath who kills the economic viability of local manufacture, and we must resist this.

    China and its cheap labour prices are part of why the world is in recession.

    Always buy Locally made when you can.

    All the companies actually listed as reference points do not actually use China as a primary manufacture, ironic ?

    Philip Green (owner Top Shop) has been steering away from China in the last few years & prefers to manufacture in North Africa / Europe and India, more & more is being manufactured closer to the UK as they can afford.

    Zara is Spanish & manufacture in primarily in Spain, Portugal, North Africa & a small amount of China.

    American Apparel all USA cotton & Manufacture.

    And H & M, North Africa / Europe and use China the most out of all the above.

    Grow a conscience, look at labels & reject Chinese made when ever possible.

  17. says

    Last anon – http://cocoperez.com/2009-09-30-american-apparel-loses-1500-workers

    Ok so what did I think of the clothes?
    I think the pocket tee shirt and shirt are some of the coolest summer pieces I’ve seen in a long time. The jacket was perfectly cut and looked really good on. The cardigan is really not my type of thing – I’m not big on layering or softly tailored tops like that.

    I’m probably not the target customer for the brand but I would definitely buy the shirt and the tee.

    Happy John?

  18. gen says

    Not really sure why that link is relevant Isaac. Sure AA looks like it’s been hiring illegal worker but they are presumably paying them American minimum wage & affording them all the benefits their legal workers get. So it’s hardly exploitation, and not really that shocking given their well publicised stance on US immigration laws.

    As for the range – it looks okay, but pretty uninspiring. Actually reminds me a lot of the H &M sister brand COS in the UK. Is this the angle he’s going for?

  19. Anonymous says

    Hopefully it doesn’t breakdown like that Bassike trash. I sneezed last week and my tee fell apart. Nothing compares to Robert Gellers basic range…..Japanese made.

  20. MC says

    This guy hasn’t even started selling his line and already he is being picked to bits. Good on him for sticking his head up and giving it a go I say. He may be successful or he may be a failure but at least he has the balls to do something himself.

    Well done and good luck.

  21. Anonymous says

    It’s interesting to read the two comments about Area 51. Lets get the facts here being a loyal customer of this store. Area 51 has been trading for over 9 years now and was the 1st store to stock Ksubi and many other brands. May I also add that Area 51 supports and backs so many key NZ labels such as Huffer, Lonely Hearts, Cybele, Stolen Girlfriends Club, Kate Sylvester Menswear, Standard Issue and soon to be Commoners_Alike.

    Now that’s a store I like to shop at and support.

  22. Anonymous says

    To all those people having there say on manufacturing in China have you travelled the world and been to countries without social welfare systems, if you don’t work you dont eat its that simple. Also did you know that most factories workers get housed and feed three times a day equate that into a salary or NZ wage package. Why is manufacturing in India or any eastern Eurpoean or African country better than manufacturing in China.

    Can you please tell me why we in the west always think our way of living is better the the east’s who have been living there way of life alot longer than ours!!!!!!!!

  23. says

    Jae, The collection looks amazing! Well done! Cant wait to see something in the flesh. As you know Im not the sharpest or hippest to latest trends but your stuff is up my street. Its like Tzara meeting Yeats meeting Ian Curtis at one of your favourite bars.

    Ignore the bs from the critics as cited above. Whether you have two, ten or fifty pieces of clothing made in China youre still supporting a global trade disequillibrium. I mean: where are your socks made? And your shoes? Your neat neck ties? Clothing, moreover, is one only one example. Reformist, piece meal arguements in regards to global politics are null and void the moment absolutes are wielded.

    Keep up the good work Jae. All the best. Let me know when your colection is available.

    Kindest
    Tim Player
    RAIN DOGS BOOKS

  24. Anonymous says

    can commoners alike get their website up and running please
    and coming 2010 doesn’t help as its nearly 3 months into 2010!
    cheers!

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