What started as a little side business between friends, Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton, has turned into one of Australia’s favourite fashion stories—sass & bide.
When Sarah-Jane Clarke (nicknamed sass) and Heidi Middleton (nicknamed bide) became lifelong friends, the duo could hardly imagine that friendship was going produce one of Australia’s iconic fashion labels—sass & bide.
Clarke and Middleton’s success story began in 1999 at London’s Portobello Road markets, with a stall set up to sell their own creations. This little side business took off, and when the pair returned to Sydney later that year, sass & bide was launched.
Two years later the dynamic duo were invited to the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week in Sydney, and in 2003 launched their assault on the world with their international parade debut at London Fashion Week. New York followed a year later and the pair haven’t looked back.
Although making their mark with denim designs touted as fitting every woman, the sass & bide brand has since expanded to include funky dresses and tops and accessories, with the launch of a range of sunglasses late last year. “The success of our denim collection allowed us to venture into ready to wear,” says Clarke. This, she adds, was always part of the plan. “Before we established sass & bide we were creating one-off pieces as well as denim.”
There are now two collections, sass & bide and s&b vie, and each collection has
its own marketing and distribution strategy for overseas markets. These days
sass & bide is sold across 30 countries, with key international markets in the
US and UK. And while Australia is still the largest market, exports now account for around 40 percent of overall sales. And it starts with a hit showing on the international runways. “Showing biannually on schedule at New York fashion week directly impacts the success of the brand in the international and domestic market,” says Clarke.
As any business owner can tell you, going in to partnership with friends does have its risks, but not for this duo. “We always put our friendship first,” Middleton says. “It seems to work and we don’t question it. It helps that we have different strengths, therefore letting each other do what we are best at. We have very similar values and ethics, and we have never had a disagreement.”
It also helps that they have clear roles. Middleton is design director and Clarke handles the marketing and running of the business.
Dealing with seasonal differences around the world is part and parcel for any international designer keen to have a wide reach. Each collection is adapted for the northern and southern hemisphere and sold accordingly.
Staying ahead of the competition and mastering designs to meet seasonal differences keeps interest in the brand here and abroad. But Clarke maintains that keeping an eye on the competition is less about watching what others are doing and more about appreciating others’ creations. “It’s amazing how many ideas are out there and how each collection translates something new every season.”
“We’ve always followed our own path and instincts when it comes to collection design and key business strategies,” Middleton agrees. “We have also launched a few brand extensions (eyewear and lingerie) to keep the brand dynamic and fresh.”
As well as dealing with the competitive nature of the business, the fashionistas have developed a pretty thick skin to survive an industry often quick to criticise. But it has never slowed them down. “Sure we have had our fair share of mistakes, however I don’t think you can dwell on them, we just take it on board and use the feedback to improve our next collection,” says Clarke.
Since both adding motherhood to their roles, the pair feel confident they’re “in a good place” in terms of work–life balance, but admit it was a different story in the early days. “For the first six years we worked very long hours and were very involved,” Clarke says. “We have an incredible management team who we trust and rely on.”