Words by Kerryn Moscicki, Founder and Brand Director of Radical Yes. All photos from Milk & Thistle.
With a shared love of things slightly tom-boy, voluminous and a ‘no exposed knee’s’ rule, Milk & Thistle is possibly what Radical Yes might look like if we made garments.
Established by wonder woman designer Dan Atkinson in 2006 Milk & Thistle, create a fully Australian made collection of garments that combine strength in silhouette with a strong sense of practicality that we love. Dan recently selected Neptune sandals and The Future trainers to complete her latest look-book shoot and we were floored with how well her vision spoke to the things we were thinking about when designing the shoes. We took some time to talk to Dan about her process, managing timelines and expectations for success and the whole ‘what does being radical’ even mean….?
You established your brand way back in 2006. As a fashion business, what has been the biggest changes you have seen in that time and how have you responded to that?
Yep, waaaaaay back in 2006! It’s been around 13 years for Milk & Thistle, in varying capacities. I have had 2 children during that time, Arlo (10) and Scout (8) so it hasn’t always been full steam ahead.
The biggest changes I have seen in the fashion business is customer behavior and how we sell the product we make. 10 years ago our business relied on servicing bricks and mortar wholesale accounts around the country which meant flying state to state to present a range to buyers 6 months ahead of its release. Now we work much closer to the seasons because our sales channels have changed to online and our own flagship store. 6 or 7 years ago we saw a decline in our wholesale accounts as stores were closing down. That lead us to open our own bricks and mortar store and concentrate on selling to our customer direct. It was a massive step for the brand but one I could see a trend with quite a lot of independent designers at the time. The flagship store really became a thing and high streets such as Oxford St and Crown St (Sydney) were full of independent/ Australian designers. It meant we could create product more regularly and closer to the seasons. It saw us injecting smaller ranges more regularly.
Then the online retail beast arrived. Whilst it had been around prior to this, it was more common via e-platforms like Etsy etc. Soon it became a preferred way to shop and our focus changed to fine tuning our online sales channel and targeting an audience that wasn’t just only geographically convenient to our store. Now, the biggest change we see, is these once thriving flagship stores now closing down. Customer behavior has changed again and people are more confident shopping online. It’s a shame, as these physical retail stores are so important to the cultural landscape of our cities but times have changed. I don’t deny the convenience of online shopping but I still think it’s important to keep the physical and the digital worlds running side by side.
In the last 5 year’s we have also seen a huge change in customer awareness. The rise of slow fashion and ethical fashion have become more than just buzz words. It’s now part of a greater education that we are proud to be a part of. We love that our customer shops with us because they know our product is locally made and made in small, considered quantities. We are the antithesis of fast fashion and more and more consumers are insisting on this.
It has meant that we need to be more transparent about our work practises and we enjoy sharing with people how our product is made, and by whom.
Connecting in this way is the power we have as small business and i love that its becoming the new standard.
Your garments are entirely Australian made (am I right on that?). What is your perception on how the local manufacturing industry has changed and what do you think the future holds for the industry? Do you feel more makers will start to re-emerge with the demand for locally made products or do you feel there is a skill shortage that can no longer be addressed in the current eco-system?
We are 100% Australian made. We always have been. I am passionate about supporting the local manufacturing industry and I have done so for over 13 years but I am cautious about claiming that I will only make in Australia in the future. I have seen the local industry of makers and cutters and printers and dye houses, diminish considerably in the short time I have been manufacturing and I fear that one day I may need to explore other options. I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon but the shortage of new makers emerging may lead to exploring other options. I am yet to see any evidence of a new generation of makers emerging. It’s a certain skill set in clothing production that just isn’t taught at grass roots level. The biggest conundrum is that more people are wanting to support locally made product, but in 15 o 20 years I am unsure who will be on the front line manufacturing these products in volume. Perhaps it will see the emergence of more small, boutique brands making in house or perhaps some clothing brands will adopt a make-to-order business model.
Tell us about your signature Milk & Thistle pieces? The constructions, the handles, the palettes - who are you imagining wearing your garments and where is she dreaming?
Well in recent years it has to be our linen jumpsuits. These have been our best-selling products by far. Whilst there is a lot of competition out there for a linen jumpsuit these days, we like to think we have designed a product that suits lots of body shapes and has an understated elegance. We think it appeals to those who like to dress feminine, as well as the tomboys amongst us.
We love to tread a fine line between feminine and tomboy, it’s my favorite way to dress and how I like to style our products. This is why I love to team up with Radical Yes for our shoots. You always have the perfect shoe to toughen up the frilliest of dresses. Your shoes give a street style cred even to the most demure garments.
Length and volume is another signature look of ours. If i had it my way, everything would be sold and worn 10 sizes too big, but I have to reign that in a little as not everyone shares my passion for volume.
We do have a particular fondness for the midi length and maxi length, and for the most part, we have a ‘no knee’ rule. I guess it comes from an intense dislike of my own. We think our ‘no-knee dressing’ rule is like our version of 'flat shoe liberation'. It’s easy, it’s flattering, it’s modern and its chic. It takes you to every occasion looking fabulous.
We think our customer is the ultimate juggler. Juggles kids, work and good times. She is the lady who gets shit done and likes to look and feel good doing it. She isn’t one for trends, just someone who seeks out something classic but never boring.
Can you share some of the biggest challenges you have faced running a brand? What advice would you give to aspiring designers just starting out on their journey?
What a crazy rollercoaster of emotions it is running a small business but we secretly love every minute.
One of the biggest challenges I have faced is the pace that fashion works at sometimes. Even if you do subscribe to slow fashion, it’s still a tread mill that moves rather quickly. You need to constantly reinvent yourself, or a version of yourself every few months to maintain the interest from your customer.
I love running my own business, I love the sense of accomplishment and I love the freedom it gives me to juggle mum life as well. I think the one piece of advice I would give anyone going down this path is to be patient. Any success takes time. Small business life is a marathon, not a sprint, no matter what you are making. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the things you are actually achieving rather than concentrating each day on what you aren’t achieving. It’s taken me about 10 years to do this and I go through times of really having to remind myself to not focus on what I didn’t get done but congratulate myself on what I did achieve. The little wins all add up.
I think specifically, from a designer point of view, it’s extremely important for designers to spend a lengthy amount of time selling their own product, face to face to their customer. The first couple of years of my business I would send my product off to stockists and never see or heard the direct feedback. I never got to see who was actually buying my clothes and how they were wearing it. Since opening my own bricks and mortar store, it fine-tuned the way I design as I could see what people liked and disliked about my product and about themselves. Now that I live remotely in Byron Bay, I miss this terribly and I struggle with it a lot, so I am very reliant on detailed feedback from my wonderful retail staff and I jump at the chance to sell my product at design markets and pop -ups, purely as a market research tool if nothing else.
Other bits of advice I would throw in there, is…. design what you love. Even if it’s not what your mates wear or your colleagues like, if it’s what you love then you will be better at it. Everyone has their tribe, you just need to find them, and they are out there.
What does being radical mean to you?
Being radical is seeking the alternative. Being curious about what else there is on offer. I wore a suit to my year 12 formal when my friends were in pretty dresses and high heels. I reflect on moments like that and see it was the beginning of a curiosity that really sparked my creativity. I want to teach my kids this. Ask questions about what else there is. Be more curious, it’s the most interesting way to learn.