Ragtrader delves into its archives to unearth the incredible story of Cue Clothing founder and chairman Rod Levis, this year's highly acclaimed Australian Fashion Laureate.
It all started as an experiment in a break from university. My parents had a business in an industrial suburb where there was a lot of clothing and shoe manufacturers in the area. By 1966, I realised there was a shortage of young retailers; the only substantial one was John Hemmes and Merivale. So we started a bit of a buzz about Carnaby Street and The Beatles and popular culture the mid 1960s.
We had a shop in Elizabeth Street (Sydney) called Levis’s. We had very, very heavy radio advertising. This was the era of the Good Guys on 2SM Radio and then the new 2UW. These were the two pop stations that had a massive teenage following. For five years we had a show on 2UW called The Levis’s Late Show which ran every single weeknight for half an hour from 10:00 to 10:30. That was a huge thing and it established demand for our brand.
Various Australian fashion manufacturers were making styles for us under contract exclusively. My very first supplier was Carla Zampatti, Carla Zampatti designed with us and supplied us at the very, very beginning. I realised by the time we’d reached two years of retailing in Elizabeth Street in the city, that I wasn’t going to succeed and survive unless we had a proper manufacturing division and a design element.
In 1968 we opened Cue. Then another Cue store opened and then another one and then we went into Myer in 1970. But 1972, I think we were in about 10 Myer stores and I was trying to get Myer to run a Cue department nationally. Around that time, I read that one or two companies in London were starting to operate the equivalent of concessions in department stores. We were one of the first brands to have a proper concession that we operated; the only difference in those days is that Myer owned the stock.
Ragtrader wrote quite a few articles for us on the concept and how much success it was having in Myer Melbourne and that had a huge influence on the Myer state managers. Because at that stage, all the divisions were operated separately. Ragtrader wrote about three articles from ‘72 to ‘74 which helped create buzz about our success in Myer Melbourne and which Keith Rosenhain, the head of Myer, used to convince all the various managing directors in each state to catch on, which was a forerunner to our later success.
By 1975, we were in every single Myer store with a full Cue department. In 1982, Cue exited Myer completely for the next 18 years and wasn’t sold in any department store. We opened 100 stand-alone stores during this time. Then in 2000, the former junior sales assistant in the Myer Melbourne store became head of womenswear at Myer. She came to me and she said, “I remember the furore that the Cue shop always created and I want to bring it back”. She reintroduced us into Myer in 2000 and by 2004, we were in 70 per cent of stores. When Bill (Wavish) and Bernie (Brookes) took over in 2006, we struck a deal to put us in every store.
In 1975, we also went international. We went to New York and we sold to ten department stores; Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor and, well a lot have collapsed since, but there was also Bullock’s, Joseph Magnin, Robinson’s. On our last day, Saks realised they hadn’t made contact with us but by then, we’d gone to Bloomingdales who said ‘we’ll give you an order as long as you don’t supply Saks!’. We had a fair amount of success but it was too hard. At that stage we were very well established and had virtually every Myer store. I think by then, we’d also entered New Zealand and the little orders we were getting from ten department stores just wasn’t worth it, so we stopped one year later.
In 1978, we went to Singapore and for about seven years, we had six outlets that we were supplying to through the Metro Group who had stores and Robinsons. But again, Singapore became too hard and too much trouble because we were in every Myer store and had about 30 of our own stores. In 1994, we went back into Singapore through Isetan and that lasted four to five years. That was huge because we had a department next to Agnes B; there were only internationals there. It lasted a while but it became a headache so we stopped.
We eventually closed all wholesale operations. We were much better going it alone so in 2005, we started opening a network of Veronika Maine stores ourselves. That second label was developed in 1999.
The philosophy hasn’t changed for us since the 1970s, we’re just bigger. At the start there was me, our designer Margaret Wallace and our general manager Graham Young, who was the key link on opening all the business with Myer. Because we were so small, we were able to have one week production cycles. Today [November, 2012], we release 15 to over 30 new styles per week. Because we manufacture locally, we can move fast and produce as little as 50 to 1200 units. We’re quick to market and that’s the whole secret of the company, our styling is more cutting edge.
We have 16 factories in Sydney that we use and we work hand-in-hand with the union to maintain those. We’ve got four cutters. A lot of them have worked with us for 30 years. Most of them quality control themselves because they know the expectations and they know we make here because the Australian Made quality is superior.
We are the largest manufacturer in Australia – all shirts and knits and accessories as well as Cue in the City are made overseas - but every Cue design is made here and that’s a substantial amount. Some of our best makers in the last ten years have been recommendations from the union because they know they are good, legal factories.
We also go to Europe two or three times a year and deal with people who are the top suppliers to the best companies and because we’re large, they look after us. We’re very loyal and we try to maintain orders and budgets with the same suppliers. Most of them we’ve been dealing with for 10 to 20 years but one of them, KBC, we’ve been buying from for 40 years. They’re the oldest printer in Europe and all of our orders are designed with our people. So we’ve got three suppliers in Turkey, one in Germany and one in Italy and they are our core suppliers, we’re very close to them. Then out of Tokyo, we’ve got one or two suppliers to supply to Armani and Prada.
Most of our key head office staff have been here for over 20 years. Everyone works with everyone, it’s the feeling of family.