Brian was born to be a cutter. He’s got the lineage: Brian’s grandfather, Geoffrey Ray, graduated from the Melbourne Training College for Cutters in September, 1912. And his father before him worked these same shears at this same high table in the same ivy-covered Northcote shop. But despite the history, it was Batman who proved Brian really had a calling. “When I was just a kid, about five, I was watching Batman,” he says. “I looked at Adam West’s outfit and thought, ‘I want one of those’.”
Young Brian scavenged one of the endless scraps of fabric strewn around the house, spread it out, and lay down on it. With a piece of chalk, he traced around the outside of his own body. “I cut it all out, and I hand-sewed it together, drew a Batman thing on the front, and put it on,” he laughed. “Dad said, ‘This boy’s got to come into the business’.”
These days, there isn’t much of a trade in superhero outfits at AA Chef’s Wear Direct. Instead, Brian and his own son, Daniel, are Melbourne’s foremost local suppliers of Melbourne-made aprons. Designing, cutting and sewing in-house, they supply hospo luminaries such as Chin Chin, Taxi Kitchen, Donovan’s, Glovers Station, Top Paddock and Scott Pickett’s new venue, ESP.
The business began in 1930 when Brian’s grandfather had a blue with his boss. Leaving the Flinders Street tailoring shop, Geoffrey went into uniforms, copying designs from catalogues sent from New York. Before long, Myer was a major client, where chefs (and dentists) could buy jackets, trousers and toques.
There have, of course, been a couple of changes in the 85 years since; the rise of offshore manufacturing the most profound. Items such as chef’s coats and trousers are imported in bulk for a price with which no local tailor can compete.
But Brian and Daniel identified a niche that overseas competitors couldn’t hope to match: custom aprons for individual businesses, each uniquely tailored to suit their style. “Because we do smaller quantities – it’s a minimum of 20 – it’s not worth importing this stuff,” says Brian. “If you want a blue denim apron with red stitching and two pockets on it, no one in China’s going to listen to you if you want 50 of them.”
For around $20 apiece, customers can select a colour, style and fabric via the website Daniel designed. The guys work with their client, getting the cut and the fabric just so. Brian draws the patterns and stitches them in-house. Daniel punches the copper-coloured eyelets while sitting on a stool. Every single item is made by hand. “They last,” says Brian. “We source really good fabrics, and we use really good thread. That’s what makes a good apron.”
Certainly, fashions have come and gone. In recent years, for instance, some restaurants decided leather aprons were all the rage – but weren’t so keen on them after spending a sweaty summer in the thick, suffocating material. “They’re not practical,” says Brian, shaking his head.
Apart from the online ordering, the business is virtually unchanged since 1930. Fabrics are cut with a 50-year old machine built by Eastmans of Buffalo, New York, and sewn on a Singer nearly twice that age. Brian refuses to cut with anything but his grandfather’s shears, which are enormous, wood-coloured and smooth with use. “You can’t buy anything like them today. They’re carbon steel, they’re not stainless steel, so their edge is a lot sharper,” he explained, slicing through a wad of linen like water. “But new scissors have got sharpish edges where you hold them. These you could cut with all day.”
When Geoffrey Ray opened for business just after the Depression, he wanted a product that would never be affected by fashion. Eighty-five years later, his great-grandson believes he found it: “No-one wants an apron that their competitor down the road has.”