Hidden in the heart of the ever-transforming Melbourne CBD, a sole surviving shirt factory whirs quietly on, its inner workings virtually unchanged since the 1960s. Barely signed, the Little Lonsdale Street factory is located opposite 1000 Pound Bend, but its vintage-wearing, latte-sipping patrons are mostly oblivious to the untapped goldmine just across the street.
Phillips Shirts is practically groaning under the weight of its own history. Hundreds of reels of vintage fabrics are stacked under hundreds and hundreds more in a brightly coloured kaleidoscope, an image that echoes shelf after shelf and towers right up to the high factory ceilings. At first look, it seems like the life work of a compulsive hoarder. But on closer inspection, a sense of order slowly becomes apparent. On one wall, all of the fabrics are striped; another is all checks; another patterned prints; then simple block colours. As your eyes adjust to the sheer mass of it all, you notice that barely two rolls of fabric are the same. Each reel was carefully purchased and set aside for the day its specific purpose would arrive. This has been the way here for five decades. Crumpled paper tags scrawled with handwritten order notes and faded red stamps reveal their country of origin. Switzerland. France. Italy. West Germany.
A step back in time, the factory is a rare living relic of Melbourne’s booming rag trade of the 1950s and 60s, an industry that allowed many post-war European immigrants to flourish in their new homeland and one that eventually contributed to the city’s entrenched fashion culture.
Phillips Shirts is a classic immigrant story. Two Jewish Czechoslovakian migrants, Philip Phillips and Alex Peterfreund, built the business from the ground up with limited English, boundless determination and plenty of elbow grease. In 1952, the two friends started out cutting shirts on their apartment floor and as the orders stacked up they committed themselves to working 18-hour days for the next seven years. They bought the Little Lonsdale space in 1958, where the shirts are still manufactured today. Both the original owners have since passed away, but its clear their legacy lives on.
Inside the cavernous factory, the hum of sewing machines competes with the crackle of a radio that needs tuning. Fluorescent lights hang over the worktables at odd angles. The wooden floors are scuffed and littered with peels of fabric cuttings and wandering thread. Buttons have fallen between the cracks of the wood. Here we find Markar and Rosa.
Markar’s grey hair flops into his glasses as he concentrates on his chalk lines, carefully marking out the sections of the shirt. The white powder stains his fingers. He has been doing things exactly the same way as when he started working at Phillips Shirts 30 years ago, drawing and cutting stencils all by hand back then too.
Although she feels comfortable behind her sewing machine, Rosa is shy to have her photo taken, worried that her picture won’t come out right. She started working here as an eager 15-year-old, making tea and cleaning tables for two years until she was finally allowed to get on the machines and learn sewing. Forty-one years later, Rosa is now head machinist at the same factory. She’s sewn shirts here the same way for decades, as the city transformed outside her window.
The factory and its workers exist in their own undisturbed bubble, but the increasing pressures of the economy and foreign competition can’t be ignored forever. It’s a deep sense of loyalty that has kept the factory going all these years – from the persistence of the owners, to the devotion of its workers and a simple dedication to the way that things have always been done.
Fortunately for us, what remains today is an absolute treasure trove of unworn designer shirts leftover from decades past. There’s hours of fun to be had with the dizzying display of psychedelic paisley, Hawaiian florals and Austin Powers-style ruffled shirts.
And as if we weren’t already like kids in a candy store, the factory has just started offering a customised shirt service, allowing you to choose your own design and material from the enormous vintage archive.
The factory is a bizarre time-slip in the centre of our CBD, but it’s living proof that local, quality manufacturing in Melbourne still has a heartbeat, and hopefully, a future.
274 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Wed to Sat 10.30am–3.30pm