It’s taken me a couple of seasons to get my head around the Little Brother for Barkers deal. I’ve mentioned this several times before, but just to reiterate, I worked for Little Brother for two years (2003-2005). Little Brother for Barkers is a profit share setup – Murray Crane designs the collections and owns the company, but Barkers produces and sells the clothing. The first two seasons were conservative. Plain shirts, a couple of hoodies, a casual blazer, some slim pants. The Little Brother offering, but a dumbed down version of it. Now in their third season of a six season contracted deal, this collection is a step forward on the previous two. There’s still the traditional Little Brother emphasis on shirting, pants and coats, but this time around knitwear and denim have been added to the offering. Coats have quilting details; knitwear has contrast bands around the cuffs, plackets, vees and hems; and shirts are made up in crazy (sometimes over the top) patterns. It’s starting to look like what Little Brother might have been, if they’d had access to offshore manufacturing and a huge retail outlet. And the best bit – the most you’ll pay for a piece is $399.
I sat down with Murray Crane and Zac De Silva about a month ago to discuss the new collection, the direction forward, why New Zealand men still favour black and the lessons they’ve learned so far.
ISAAC: We’ll start with a few simple things. How many pieces are in the collection?
MURRAY CRANE: I think there’s about twelve in store. It’s a little bit bigger than it was last season.
ISAAC: So you’re definitely taking a few more creative risks, you’re pushing the boat out a little bit more this season?
MURRAY: Yeah, a little bit more for summer. I think what we’re finding is that the pieces that are more distinctive are actually the ones that are selling better, which is good. I think we possibly played it a little bit safe in the first season with some of the shirting colours, and we found that the plaids and checks and the prints were the thing that were getting interest.
MURRAY: No, it’s not.
ISAAC: So this is what’s selling? (Holding up a boldly patterned shirt.)
ZAC DE SILVA: I don’t know. The plain colours last winter, we did a blue and a black, but they didn’t really move, and we felt they were maybe too close to what Barkers already did. The truth is we haven’t done a shirt like that, have we?
MURRAY: No, but I think that sums up the whole reason why we had to change the way that we were producing. We’d sell ten black shirts a week when we had our own stores. The likes of a brand like Barkers are doing such a better job of producing those basic items. It’s a whole different way of making clothes to how we produced clothes for ourselves. Even producing your own knitwear and getting your own colours and your own prints, the minimums are just prohibitive here, so a bigger scale gives you the opportunity to be able to do this.
ISAAC: Does this more conservative male customer “get” things like the quilting details on jackets? Do they get the trims on knitwear? Do they understand this stuff?
MURRAY: I don’t know if they understand it or realise that it’s a fashion trend, but I think we have quite a good way of disguising it. It’s not too challenging and it’s not too out there. Yes, it’s got quilting in it, but it’s still a good shaped jacket that’s practically warm and it’s not in a strange colour and it’s something that they can see the value in when they buy it, which is always going to be what we try to do with Little Brother.
ZAC: I think in the knitwear, the edging is so subtle that if you’re a Joe Bloggs, you won’t even notice it.
MURRAY: It’s been quite challenging, but it’s really rewarding. I think this season is really strong and I hope that with the knitwear, we do get it out to as many people as we can because I think it’s really saleable product and it feels nicer than a lot of the other stuff that’s out there. What we’re trying to do with everything is that it needs to be of a standard that we would sell it ourselves, I guess. With their knitwear, we could quite easily have put it into our old stores and sold it, and sold it for a lot more than we are through Barkers. If I’m looking at that garment – that’s a $225 jumper – that’s what you could easily sell it for. It’s selling for $150. There’s a noticeable difference in price and I don’t think we’ve compromised on the quality at all. One thing I think we are doing with Little Brother is I think we are showing up some of the other brands that are making offshore like Workshop.
ISAAC: Certainly Hallensteins.
MURRAY: Hallensteins not so much because I think they are pricing things for what they’re worth. I think with the likes of some of the other High Street brands… If you look at the likes of Area 51 or a retail store that’s bringing in other brands, there’s more margin on it and they’re selling for a lot more, even though they’re basically very similar. I think we’re getting it into the store at a good price, and we’re selling it at a good price, not being greedy with our price points.
ISAAC: Who is the Little Brother for Barkers customer? Do you have a typecast kind of guy in mind when you’re designing it?
MURRAY: I think that’s one of the challenges that we face – It keeps changing.
ZAC: There’s the classic Little Brother guy but also there’s this whole new shopper – the Barkers customer who hadn’t seen Little Brother. I think it appeals to both the styley, exclusive guys, but also to the more mainstream as well.
ISAAC: Also I think a store like Little Brother would have been quite intimidating to walk into for a lot of guys, but Barkers isn’t intimidating to walk into, so it gives those guys an opportunity, especially at a lower price point, to go in and dip their feet into the brand.
ZAC: I think the good thing is that, whilst Murray said we do pretty big runs, the truth is that given we’ve got shops throughout the whole country, there’s still a very low probability of actually seeing someone else wearing the same thing, so the cool guy can be happy that he can go to a party and not see someone wearing the same thing, but also the other guy who was a Little Brother guy, he’s still happy because the cut and quality are still there.
ISAAC: I guess now that you’ve got this greater audience, you can push trends now as well, can’t you?
MURRAY: You’re always going to be appealing to 5% of the population with some things that you do, and if you’re onto it too early… It’s the same with Crane Brothers and suits. We did waistcoats and vests at Little Brother about five years before anyone else was really doing them, and we really struggled with them. When I was designing for Zambesi Man, we did flat front pants, and people looked at them and went “Oh I don’t know about that! They’ve got no pleats on them!”. That’s what we do. You’re always pushing it. Now everyone that we sell flat front pants to comes into the store and we’re going “What about a pleat?” and their eyes just start glazing over. They just go “Well I only just started wearing flat front pants” five years ago and now you’re telling me I have to wear something else! All that stuff, you’re always doing it, and that was always the frustration with Little Brother – that when you’ve got two stores and you’re in a very small population and you’re appealing to 5% of the population, it’s hard to make it work continually because the people that matter love it, but you still want a guy that works as an electrician in Onehunga to come and go “I really like that shirt. I want to buy it”. You have to do that in New Zealand, and it’s no different anywhere else in the world.
ZAC: Yes. Black, black, black, black. It’s ridiculous. [to Murray] Has it always been big for you?
MURRAY: Yeah. New Zealanders like wearing dark colours. Navy, I think, will have its day.
ISAAC: Does Navy work very well for you guys?
ZAC: It has worked well in the past. We think it’s changing. We didn’t even do navy last year. This year we reckon it has moved on.
ISAAC: That’s really interesting that you do say that because it is a very conservative customer here in New Zealand, but doing navy is a risk. That’s amazing.
ZAC: It’s beautiful but it’s a struggle to sell. I’d wear it, but you’ve got conservative guys, and the reality is that so many guys are dressed by their women. Women wear the pants for most couples. We’ve got to change that.
MURRAY: Ironically, we haven’t done a piece of black knitwear because it gets lost.
ISAAC: It was interesting to me when I saw that detailing on the knitwear, because that’s the sort of thing that a woman would notice. A guy might not notice the difference.
MURRAY: That’s what sets it apart and gives it a bit of a signature.
ISAAC: The thing that was really interesting to me about black was that if you’re a white guy, navy blue looks a lot better on you than black does, so I don’t understand why everybody wears black.
DUNCAN: You go into a Barkers store – I watch what orders are going on online – it’s incredible the proportion.
ISAAC: I guess because you guys are so large you really have the potential to educate the customer, but at the same time it’s a risk too. I guess that’s what Little Brother is doing.
MURRAY: New Zealand men are not excessive shoppers. They’ll want to buy one jacket and one piece of knitwear and one pant. They don’t have ten jackets and three overcoats, five blazers, ten pairs of pants and 30 shirts. Every piece they buy needs to be able to perform as much as it can in as many different ways as it can. That’s where black probably does give more practicality.
ISAAC: I think the success of the union of Murray and Barkers, is that you can push these really tailored pieces which are practical and sell them at a price point that is going to appeal to the mainstream man. If you can do that and sell it, that’s a huge success because guys will start looking at how they’re dressing, and spend money on that rather than spending it on something else.
ISAAC: Have you guys got an end on the relationship?
ZAC: We have a three year agreement. This is our third season.
MURRAY: We’re half way through in a few months time.
ZAC: From a Barkers perspective, we’re pretty happy. We think we can continue working together.
ISAAC: So after three seasons, what was the biggest lesson that you’ve learned?
MURRAY: Probably just what we’re producing, being confident enough to do the things that are a little bit more distinctive. The minimums are still quite low. Not to be worried about things not working because you just end up dumbing things down so much that you end up with a pretty mediocre product. You’ve got to be prepared to take a few risks. Barkers is a big established brand and people go there looking for certain products, so you kind of don’t want to give them more of what they are expecting to find there. You need to be moving it forward and slowly changing it. I think that’s the nature of what we offer Barkers as a brand as well. That’s probably something that’s changed for me since I first started, and understanding that part of the market because it’s a lot more technical and dependent on data and promotion. I want to know about that, but I need to know from these guys… I just want to do what I want to do, but it is important to know that you are doing the right colours and you do have all your bases covered, which I think is the success of a good brand, really. You need to sell it.
ZAC: For me, there have been a couple of learning points. The first one is not being too out there on the range, but not being too conservative.
ISAAC: The first run was quite conservative?
ZAC: Yeah. It was safe. The truth is who knows how this shirt [Little brother Multi-Print], as an example, is going to go? I hope it goes well but we’ll have to wait and see.
MURRAY: It could be a screaming success or an absolute failure.
ZAC: It’s going to be one or the other. It’s not going to be in between. But that’s testing the boundaries and that will be good for us to see for summer, because I’m actually working on summer now, so we’ll get a few weeks and if that does well then we’ll get some out-there shirts like that for summer. That’s been a meandering evolution of what should it be to appeal to both the Little Brother customer and the Barkers customer. And the other thing we’ve learnt is that for us to maximise the potential of Little Brother within Barkers, we can work better with Murray in terms of utilising Murray more as well. Internally and externally.
ISAAC: Externally in the branding?
ZAC: Because we haven’t actually done much with Murray and Little Brother. We’ve done plenty of good things but I think we can utilise Murray more, and we plan to do that a lot.
ISAAC: Murray, how do you feel about relinquishing creative control on things like the shoots?
MURRAY: I’m fine with it. It would be nice to have a complete package, but if the design of the product is strong enough, it shouldn’t affect it. The Lookbook is always going to be a commercial document to sell product. There’s not a lot of, no disrespect, creative input that goes into it when photographing the clothes.
ZAC: It’s about making sales.
MURRAY: That’s what these guys do really well.
*Little Brother lookbook credits.
Photographer: Jeremy Toth
Stylist: Jake Leenen
Models: Albert and Louis Flint
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