Melbourne fashion label Alpha60 has come to represent a lot of things over the years. Still fiercely independent, it rarely advertises; it doesn’t do celebrity “seeding”; and it’s a brother and sister duo who, now celebrating their 10th year in business together, still seem to actually really like each other.
Alex and Georgie Cleary were quite the entrepreneurs since well before launching Alpha60 a decade ago (the name is inspired by the faceless computer in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi classic Alphaville, a film about the struggle between logic and emotion).
“When I was around 10 we were already doing things like making tea towels, muffins, pot pourri, even skateboards to sell,” Alex says. “We grew flowers and sold them. By the time we were in our final year of high school we’d saved $4000.” They used the money to buy a transportable home, which they installed on their parents’ rose farm just outside of Canberra.
This mixture of creativity and business savvy has come to define Alpha60. When they launched the label in 2005 – the result of a hobby making T-shirts for friends that just kept selling and selling – they shared all duties. In the ensuing decade, however, Georgie, 38, has become recognised as the “creative’’ brain and Alex, 40, the “business brain’’ (if such things can be so neatly divided).
What began as a single store in Fitzroy eventually became a local mainstay and a byword for Melbourne style: interesting, arty, design-conscious clothes that people feel both comfortable and stylish in. The Alpha60 DNA – a loose, generous silhouette, mostly neutral colours, lots of black, minimalism, androgyny – and the label’s relative affordability means that people of different ages and incomes can wear the clothes.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and the duo has learned a great deal over the years. The DIY approach, Alex suggests, is what has helped keep them afloat.
“Between the two of us, we’ve had to wear a lot of different hats in the business. It’s never just about drawing pretty pictures and designing dresses. You’re bookkeeper, HR manager, accountant, builder, production manager, photographer, fixing computers, painting shops ... if we’d paid for someone to do all of these things we would have been broke a long time ago.’’
Now with nine stores across Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, it’s been non-stop, with little time to pause and reflect. But 10 years on, Alex Cleary is feeling two emotions: nostalgia and pride.
“We’re both really proud of each shop we’ve opened, but the most exciting one has to be the first one,” he says. “Georgie and I both worked like crazy carrying bricks, building walls, painting for weeks beforehand. It was so exciting to have a space to show off our whole collection.”
“We’ve also had some pretty fun shows,” Georgie says. “Obviously our 10-year anniversary show at the MPavilion with the Snuff Puppets was memorable. We really liked the idea of having people arrive not knowing what to expect, or actually having them expect a normal catwalk show and then surprising them with the wedding of a skeleton to a model. We also did a show at the beginning with a requiem theme – the models came out in coffins. That was pretty special.’’
Both admit it would be much more difficult to launch Alpha60 now, with even the “big” names of Australian fashion – Lisa Ho, Kirrily Johnston – running into tough times.
‘’Retail really has been up and down since we started, but we made a decision really early on that retail was the best way forward. The demise of a lot of the multi-label stores [Alice Euphemia closed last year; FAT announced its second voluntary administration in February] means you have to go it alone. We often look back and think how much harder it would be to start out now. But the flipside of that is that everyone can have an online presence now for very little cost, and that’s an exciting development.”
The retail landscape has clearly changed since those early days selling muffins and tea towels, but Alex believes one thing has stayed the same: the desire to work with his sister and ride the changes together.
“We’ve definitely both matured since we started out and our real motivation for the business to succeed is so we can keep working together,” he says.
“Family has been incredibly important. We learned so much from mum and dad growing up about how to be creative. Our house was always filled with something interesting, and we were lucky enough to get taken to galleries and gardens all the time. It didn’t always seem like fun back then – but it was a pretty good learning experience in hindsight.”