"We had little business experience, no capital and no intention of taking out a loan, so we recognized what we did have and that was the potential to reach an endless amount of people through the web and try and convince them of our vision" - Nadia Napreychikov and Cami JamesAlthough Discount Universe didn't show officially on schedule in April, the Melbourne-based luxury street wear label was one of the standout shows of this year's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Australia.
High profile British blogger Susie Bubble ventured as far as calling it "show of the week".
Sadly we didn't get to see it - other duties called at a 130 year anniversary dinner thrown by Bulgari on the same evening.
But we did write about the brand back in March for The Saturday Paper, revealing that one of its biggest celebrity fans, Miley Cyrus, was in the midst of cementing a deal with Discount Universe designer duo Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James for the use of some now rather infamous Terry Richardson images of Cyrus wearing Discount's psychedelic tie-dyed PRAY 4 UR LIFE T-shirt, on merchandise for Cyrus' 2014 Bangerz world tour.
The Cyrus deal - which was substantial - has long since been finalised.
In the interim, another pop icon, Katy Perry, has commissioned a Discount Universe costume to wear on her own Prismatic world tour.
And Buzzfeed even dedicated a listicle to the brand: Thirteen reasons why Discount Universe is the best thing to happen to Australian fashion.
Meanwhile, Discount Universe's Sydney-based PR agency, Mother and Father PR, tells FELLT Industry they have been inundated with international editorial requests for pieces of the brand's typically wildly-colourful and heavily-embellished "Arti$inal" collection that was shown in Sydney in April from stylists such as B. Akerlund, Johnny Wujek and Vogue Japan editor-at-large Anna dello Russo.
In recent months, pieces from the collection have been dispatched to Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris for shooting.
“If I could claim this collection's Frequent Flyer points, I’d never have to fly economy again” quipped Mother & Father director Matt Jordan. "There have been times when we’ve had nothing in the showroom. It’s been a logistical challenge. I’ll have samples in Portland, Oregon and then someone in LA wants the exact same thing. And then someone in New York wants it two days later. But it's been really interesting – how cooperative and patient all these stylists have been".
Here is the original Q&A I did with Napreychikov and James (L to R below) - in tandem via email, at their request, due to the logistical challenges with one party stuck in a remote Bali location at the time.
In the interview, they talk about how the brand essentially morphed out of their blog, shortly after graduating from Melbourne's RMIT. They drew my attention to two specific posts - here and here - which talk to the brand's mission statement.
Plus an extended version of the story that ran in TSP in March.
PATTY HUNTINGTON: Where do you guys see yourselves fitting into the Australian fashion industry right now? What are your thoughts on the industry in general?
DISCOUNT UNIVERSE: We’ve never really considered ourselves to be a very comfortable fit with the rest of the Australian fashion industry. From the very start, we’ve made a huge effort not to enforce much structure into the way we’ve presented DU. We were not too happy with the idea of thematic collections, it seems designers have been conditioned to create in this way. To us it seems wasteful attempting to dilute a collection because there is some unspoken rule that it should be a certain size, contain tops and bottoms, basics and ‘highlights’, rather than simply presenting the best pieces, the ones that speak most truly about the original intention.
The fashion system as we knew it at the time – from what was being taught to us at uni and the general observations that we had made, seemed completely out-dated. The idea behind the structure of our brand is very time specific to when we started. We recognized how huge fashion blogs were becoming and how brands used bloggers to promote their merchandise, so we took it one step further and became both the blogger and the brand. We also took advantage of an extremely precise moment in our industry which was at the time in constant flux, and saw that this was the moment that we could gain access to a global audience, without needing to fit in to our local industry.
How would you describe the DNA of Discount Universe?
When we first wrote about DI$COUNT UNIVER$E at Uni, we had this sentence that sort of encapsulated what the brand was about, the idea being that it was a lot more than simply clothing. The discount DNA is a culmination of ideas, imagery, the dialogue between us and the world, the desire for transformation and evolution, it’s about personality, spontaneity, humour and irony, cliché and imitation. It’s our art!
How do you feel as young designers attempting to carve a niche for yourselves in what has been one of the industry's most difficult periods? Do the recent ragtrade disasters spook you at all?
To be honest, we don’t really focus much on what’s going on in the local industry. When we started DI$COUNT UNIVERSE we pretty much did everything in our power to do the exact opposite of how we guessed a fashion business at that point should have been started and managed. We had little business experience, no capital, and no intention of taking out a loan, so we recognized what we did have, and that was the potential to reach an endless amount of people through the web, and try and convince them of our vision. We started out with a small pool of people who were fiercely supportive of what we were doing, and thanks to them were able to organically grow our business. We make an effort to stay acutely aware of our position as a business in relation to our audience at each moment in time. We always push ourselves to create potently and accurately, it never made sense to us to invest huge amounts at one time, not that we were uncertain of the business, simply that banks are awful. Having huge amounts of debt seems to be omnipresent in young business start-ups but for us working on something, bit-by-bit, makes a lot more sense.
When did you first find out about the Terry Richardson shoot and what was your immediate reaction when you spotted Miley in the PRAY 4 FUR UR LYF t-shirt?
About a week before she wore it, we were talking about wanting to dress her specifically, having no idea that she already owned the shirt! It was quite the surprise!
It's become a fairly typical experience for you, has it not - an email out of the blue from some major stylist or artist? How do you think these stylists etc first heard about your work?
The internet! We started on the internet, it was a time when there was only a handful of us beginning brands in that way, and it was a global community. We had a potent concentrate of incredible people looking at the blog from the beginning, we were lucky enough to hit a nerve and it seemed to set us up in a way, clearly some amazing people recognised our intention.
How important was the blog to the story of the brand?
It was fundamental for us in creating our own voice and also forming bonds with our customers, as they were with us on the journey from a time when you wouldn’t usually have relationships. The struggles and successes were all recorded, our inspirations and ideas, all of it.
Tell me about the first years and all the custom work
We’re still in our first years, and our custom work, which we call our ‘Artisanal’ line is still by far the most important aspect of what we do. This is what drives us as artists and individuals, and in turn also drives our business, which definitely would not exist if we didn’t allow ourselves the luxury of making one-off artisanal work. We do not have any rules when it comes to this line. The pieces are physical executions of individual ideas that come to our minds. We don’t categorize any of them to seasons or collections, and we always put the idea above the execution. Our ready-to-wear line, helps us to support ourselves to do this kind of work without the constraints of having to sell it, or make any money of it at all. We prefer it this way as it means our work maintains sincerity. A lot of the time these artisanal pieces are also directly influencing the attitude of the RTW line.
How did the Australian Ballet collaboration come about and what happened to the studded ballet slipper?
This particular project was really fun – free reign for customisation over a classic style is one of our favourite types of project, especially considering the proceeds were going towards art. The Pointe shoe has been auctioned off through Bonhams Auction House – who knows where it ended up.
Have you ever been approached about collaborating on theatre costumes? Cate Blanchett, for instance, has been very supportive of Romance Was Born and indeed has worn some of their clothes and commissioned costumes from them for the Sydney Theatre Company. Beyond numerous music artists who have worn your gear on stage and in video, are there any other big names that have approached you?
We are currently in talks with a few musicians regarding tour costumes. We love the idea of designing both theatre and film costumes also!
What are the signature Discount Universe fabrication treatments?
Sequins, studding, hand-painted batik, fringing, beading. We have developed different sequining and beading techniques for durability and have done a lot of custom batik art recently, working closely with artisans. We do all our studding by hand, we both really enjoy working with leather. Fringing has probably become somewhat of a signature also, but the sequins are definitely our most recognisable handwriting.
What projects do you have in development that you can talk about?
We’re currently working 24/7 on our inaugural MBFWA show. We’ve got some amazing people working on it with us and we’re pumped to be showing pieces from our Artisanal line this year.
What is your five year plan?
While we definitely have dreams and aspirations, it would be impossible to write a five year plan! It is not uncommon for our business circumstances to change drastically on a weekly, and sometimes even daily basis, so there is only so much planning you can do… and while being a good planner is obviously an asset to any business, our experience has taught us that being malleable and always prepared to take risks and change strategies without warning is invaluable. Intuition is also really important, as well as the power of saying no to things that might seem tempting but you know are not right for you at that point in time. As long as we’re still working and still creating, we’re happy to keep doing what we’re doing without a plan – just making sure we’re ready for anything that comes our way.
How big is the brand? (i.e. turnover)
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
So read the subject header of an email that popped into Discount Universe’s inbox on January 29th.
Via her US tour company Live Nation, the 21 year old Hannah Montana star-turned-recording artist - one of the pop zeitgeist’s most buzzed-about figures – was asking permission to use photos of herself wearing a T-shirt designed by the Melbourne brand on four pieces of merchandise for her 2014 ‘Bangerz’ world tour, which kicked off in Vancouver on February 14.
The photos were part of an NSFW portfolio of images of Cyrus taken by controversial American fashion photographer Terry Richardson and uploaded to his blog on October 3, immediately going viral. Eight shots featured Cyrus in Discount Universe’s psychedelic tie-dye ‘PRAY FUR UR LYF’ T-shirt emblazoned with illustrations and the words ‘DISCOUNT DISCIPLES’ in flaming capitals.
Cyrus recently used one of the shots as her background photo on Twitter – where she has audience of 17million – and fan photos posted to Instagram have revealed a mashup of the shots appearing as a video stage backdrop on the Bangerz tour.
Fashion brands are currently throwing money at high profilers to plug merchandise on social media.
According to Discount Universe designer duo Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James, however, Cyrus’ stylist Simone Harouche bought the T-shirt from their web shop. At press time, a deal was being negotiated for the use of the images of the shirt on the already-manufactured tour merchandise. [Update: contracts have now been exchanged].
Just another day at the office, it seems, for Australia’s hottest new fashion label.
Since launching their brand, officially 'DI$COUNT UNIVER$E', into orbit in 2009 straight out of RMIT, Napreychikov and James have received many big name requests for their acid bright luxury streetwear.
Reps for Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Kreayshawn, Azaelia Banks, Iggy Azalea, MIA, Katy Perry and Kimbra have requested product to wear on music awards shows, tours and in video clips – and The Australian Ballet and Hello Kitty, among others, have sought small one-off collaborations.
Spears and co mostly bought or commissioned custom items from the brand’s premium ‘ARTI$INAL’ range of heavily embellished showpieces, prices for which range from $400-$5000.
Others purchased from the ready-to-wear ‘TRA$H’ line, which offers a slice of Discount Universe’s louche glitter dream for under $300: crop tops, biker shorts, slouch pants, hooded shirts, biker jackets, miniskirts and microdresses smothered in studs, sequins, Smiley faces, giant “Cyclops” eyes, devil heads and Rolling Stone-style lips dripping with blood. Forty dollars buys a plain black ‘DI$CUNT’ logo T. The ‘PRAY FUR UR LYF’ style retails for $189.
How does a tiny, undercapitalized fashion brand from two RMIT grads come to the attention of the global entertainment industry?
Standing out from the pack helps and in the best tradition of Aussie fashion larrikinism, Discount Universe follows hot on the heels of Flamingo Park, Mambo, P.A.M. and Romance Was Born, brands whose Rainbow Lorikeet-bright palettes and irreverent graphics tapped the Australian love of colour and humour.
But the internet has played a key role.
Alongside Brisbane’s BlackMilk Clothing, which also launched in 2009 and has created a multi-million dollar online business off the back of Polyester/Lycra leggings and swimsuits printed with licensed artwork from Star Wars, DC Comics and others, Discount Universe is one of Australia’s first true grassroots internet fashion labels.
Beyond a couple of independent Australian boutiques – and even a small deal with US chain Urban Outfitters, which sold out of their sequined ‘Harlequin Eye Halter’ top last year – the bulk of the business is conducted via the four year-old web shop. The latter was an extension of the photogenic duo’s blog, which launched in December 2009.
“It [the blog] was fundamental for us in creating our own voice and also forming bonds with our customers” said Napreychikov and James in a joint interview.
“We had little business experience, no capital and no intention of taking out a loan, so we recognized what we did have and that was the potential to reach an endless amount of people through the web and try and convince them of our vision" they added.
"We recognized how huge fashion blogs were becoming and how brands used bloggers to promote their merchandise, so we took it one step further and became both the blogger and the brand”.
The “DNA” or essence of Discount Universe, according to the designers, is “a culmination of ideas, imagery, the dialogue between us and the world, the desire for transformation and evolution, it’s about personality, spontaneity, humour and irony, cliché and imitation. It’s our art!”
But most business questions are shut down with a “no comment” and according to Napreychikov and James, it would be “impossible” to write a five year plan because their circumstances can “change drastically on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis.”
In the current environment and given the growing graveyard of Australian fashion casualties, a cynic might not rate the brand’s chances of even being around in five years.
Cautioned Mambo managing director Angus Kingsmill, “The Discount Universe girls are clearly very talented and are making amazing and unique product, but the fashion industry is littered with pitfalls and one of those is dealing with scale and financing growth, not only in the early years, but right through”.
A member of The Nervous Investors consortium that purchased the 30 year old surf brand in 2008 for a reported AUD 10million, long after Mambo had lost its ‘cool’, Kingsmill has since “de-risked” the Mambo business, which now operates solely as a graphic design studio that licenses artworks to a dozen manufacturing partners. Since 2010, reports Kingsmill, Mambo’s global retail sales have grown 1000 percent to approximately AUD 150million.
“I like the ironic name ‘Discount Universe’ and I'm pleased to see they charge a lot for pieces that are worth a lot” noted Kingsmill. “The product is unique and I'm sure desired by a niche and in some instances a bloody wealthy niche market and can therefore command a high price because it is so different. There are many hidden and unforeseen costs in this game so a healthy margin is pivotal, at least while volumes are relatively low. The more a business can finance itself or attract finance from a partner who can bring in a new skill set, without depending on banks or high interest loans the better”.
In Napreychikov’s and James’ favour: they run a lean-ish operation (which industry sources estimate turns over less than AUD 500,000 at retail).
The duo produce in limited runs, with the embellishment outsourced to low-cost Bali. There are no traditional retail costs. Beyond a small presentation at the Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2011, moreover, they have not spent money on splashy fashion shows and will not be on schedule at next month’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia. They are, however, currently considering options for some kind of upcoming showcase.
Meanwhile their biggest fan, Miley Cyrus, is currently spreading the word – and merch - to 60 cities.
“I still believe the best way to gain cred around the globe is to have international fashion icons and celebrities ‘find’ your brand and wear it, particularly in this Instagram age” added Kingsmill. “It worked for Mambo in the ‘80s and ‘90s with Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols seeking one-off custom-made Mambo suits and Dave Grohl, The Foo Fighters and music acts as diverse as Robert Plant to Boyz to Men. Discount Universe is achieving the same with massive opinion leaders and celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azaelia supporting the brand. This sort of leg up is worth millions of dollars for a young brand trying to establish itself on the global fashion stage. Others will copy what they are doing but they were the first in their space and are authentic”.