Iconic Australian designer Megan Park is the latest power speaker to join Ragtrader Live, Melbourne.
She will reveal her insights into surviving and thriving in the industry, alongside leaders from The Iconic, Country Road, Reebok, Hugo Boss, Instagram, Levi's and more.
Megan, you've just celebrated 21 years in business. What does your company look like today?
We have two retail stores in Melbourne and an online store. We wholesale in Australia to approximately 15 accounts and internationally we sell into approximately 40 accounts. Our International business is primarily in the USA which has always been a strong audience for us.
What was your first professional experience in the fashion industry?
After graduating from RMIT, I was employed as head designer for the bridal label Mariana Hardwick.
It was a dream role as I was free to create without the restraints of budget and was able to channel the couturiers I had studied and loved - Dior, Schiaparelli, and Valentino.
If I wanted to use 15 meters of silk taffeta to create a gown I could.
We had a workroom of beaders, patternmakers and lovely Italian seamstresses that could drape and stitch my sketches into reality.
It allowed me the opportunity of travelling for inspiration and sourcing which was pretty exciting also for a girl who had not until this time left Australia.
Mariana was a great mentor and gave me a huge amount of freedom. I travelled with Mariana to India for the first time and it was on this trip that I met with the people who would become so important to the 2nd phase of my career and which would ultimately lead into me starting my own brand.
After nearly three years of working for Mariana, my wanderlust was too strong and I left to travel Europe and base myself in London, which was where I was to later launch my collection.
When did you release your first collection to market and can you remember some memorable pieces?
Having worked as an embroidery designer for six years with the Indian embroidery house Sreepriya Exports, I decided it was time to launch my own brand rather than creating textiles for others.
Until this point I had travelled and worked between my studio in London and the workshop in Kolkata, creating embroidered textiles.
With this experience under my belt in 1997 I launched MEGAN PARK – a small collection of hand embroidered scarves and bags.
I thought of these accessories as perfect canvases for creating embroidered artworks to be worn. I wanted the collection to be timeless and for the pieces to be so beautiful and unique that they did not rely on the sway of fashion to dictate their desirability.
I would be completely buzzing when I would snatch a look in one of the UK tabloids at icons wearing my label.
To think of Iman carrying an MP bag and for it possibly to be in David Bowie’s wardrobe and seeing Annie Lennox singing at the Royal Variety Performance for the Queen wearing MP.
The first sarong I added into my collection when moving on from accessories was worn by Nicole Kidman and reading her article in The Independent that Alexandra Shulman the then British editor of Vogue had chosen to wear a Megan Park skirt teamed back with Prada on International Women’s Day to meet the Queen – such thoughts bought a smile to my face.
I have never courted celebrity and so it does feel sweeter when you know they have bought it rather than it being gifted.
What prompted you to launch your own label?
I had been designing a range of embroidered textiles for six years before gaining the confidence and experience to launch MP.
To be honest, witnessing the trials and tribulations inherent in running a business while working for others actually scared me off running my own business, but I guess with time, the memory of the difficulties faded and what grew was my desire to create a collection that was inherently me rather than designing to suit others.
Of course, I now design back to the signature of MP, but at the beginning I was designing without a customer in mind but more so pieces that I thought were beautiful and offered a range that was unique and not offered elsewhere.
Fortunately the moment in fashion very much suited to the aesthetic of my collection when I launched - this was not by design but by luck.
Do you still use the same production partners?
I began with the same two Indian suppliers 21 years ago that I still work with today.
I visit them for each collection and spend on average two months of every year working alongside my teams in both Delhi and Kolkata – they are my second home and I consider them family as many of the tailors, kurigers (embroiderers) I have worked with since the beginning.
The closeness of our relationship is intrinsic to my own happiness in the business which goes beyond the annual turnover.
The companies who produce for me in India are run by incredible people who are generous, honest and incredibly supportive to me in both a business and personal sense.
They treat all who work with them with integrity and respect and create truly special workplaces for their employees.
I am contacted on a weekly basis by new production companies and the few times I have diverted and have bought others into the mix have only ever ended in pain as either they do not understand our expectation of quality or slip up on the nuances that I do not need to explain to the to our long term production partners.
Our American sales agent we have worked with for 19 years and our USA distributor for 16 years. My agent in the USA is old school – she comes from working alongside the best in the business and is respected by buyers and editors alike.
Whilst I could have partnered with much larger agencies, there is a lot to be said for working with someone smaller who values each and every relationship.
She has maintained some of our longest wholesale accounts in the specialty boutiques across the States where we are hanging alongside the best.
Relationships are incredibly important and I think the value that I place on these relationships also translates to the responsibility and value that I feel towards our retail customers.
I believe in nurturing long relationships rather than capturing a new crowd each season.
Who were some of your initial stockists?
My very first collection saw me selling to my dream list of clients – Harvey Nichols, Liberty of London, Browns, Isetan, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Joyce Hong Kong and many others throughout Europe, America and Asia.
I struggled to secure even one appointment as I tried to book appointments with buyers who were not interested in seeing a new collection and thought I would need to rethink my new business venture when fortune changed after meeting Mark Holgate, then the features editor of British Vogue.
After showing him the collection from my wheelie suitcase, he decided to feature me in the next edition of Vogue on the ‘What’s New ‘page.
I literally walked out of Vogue House and into a red public phone box where I telephoned Liberty (for the 10th time) and before they could hang up I blurted down the phone that I had just been photographed for Vogue and that they planned to feature me.
Within minutes I was in the buyer’s office and the next day I was meeting with Harvey Nics and the next day with Joyce Ma from Joyce in Hong Kong. What followed was a snowball that gained traction with each day that passed.
Between the buyers I guess my little collection was deemed to be the right collection for that time and within a month I could not have hoped for a fuller book of orders with any stores better than the ones who had written.
It was a crazy time.
The stamp of approval from that very first meeting at Vogue was so instrumental to my business making it to the 2nd season.
When did you first venture into retail? What was the biggest challenge in setting up your own vertical business?
MEGAN PARK had been a wholesale business for 13 years before venturing into retail. I felt incredibly insecure as we made our first steps into retail as it was not a space I knew nor understood.
I was encouraged though by a few key people around me that had mentored me in business as they saw it to be important for our brand identity and also felt that it was wise given the hardship being felt by many multi brand retailers.
The biggest challenge we find is managing our International wholesale vs. our local retail.
Managing sales and pricing when launch dates are not aligned.
We are so lucky now to have fantastic retail staff yet in the past this has come with its challenges.
We are still a very small team and to manage HR, online, inventory, front and back of house, merchandising and all that comes with running retail stores requires a very different skill set yet we do the best we can.
Running a purely wholesale business was definitely easier for us but I do feel less vulnerable now that we retail and genuinely feel our collection is elevated when hanging in our own spaces.
What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Our biggest challenge came when relocating my business from London to Melbourne in 2006.
I was established in London with a hearty wholesale business and felt very much part of the International scene.
I made a life choice to move back home and maintained my office in London at a distance for two years.
This was a problematic time in the business as my London team were without me driving the ship so to speak.
It took a couple of years of transitioning the business to Melbourne and building up the team around me in my new home.
We did lose a major amount of our European business at this time as my move also coincided with the GFC.
I used this time of difficulty to concentrate on building my wholesale business in Australia and was surprised by the strength of the Australian market.
I took on EVHPR as our sales and PR agent and just as my USA agent was inherent in nurturing my business in the USA, Emma van Haandel who was the director of EVHPR did the same for me in Australia.
We turned what was a difficult time in Europe to a time when we concentrated our energies on a buoyant local market.
What have been some of the big changes to your business in recent years?
The business of fashion and retail is constantly changing and evolving. No one thing stands out above the rest.
We continue to make changes to our structure and continue to explore new ways of doing business.