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Kath Purkis is dressed for success with Le Black Book

Like most girls her age, Kath Purkis loves fashion and shopping. Unlike most girls, Purkis has turned her passions into a business dream: an online boutique that just won’t stop growing.

Kath Purkis is all flaming red hair and high heels when she opens the door to her top floor, harbour-view Sydney apartment. At 24, she has a stature and a confidence that belies her petite frame and youth. It’s the kind of self-assuredness that comes from success, and as sole owner of online fashion boutique Le Black Book, Purkis knows a little something about that.

Founding the company at 21 years old, Purkis has watched it go from strength to strength. This year, Le Black Book has made more sales each month than in its first year of business. “And I thought I was doing good for the first year! Now I’m just laughing,” she says.

Le Black Book’s success was not a matter of luck, however. Purkis spent eight months in business development. With a detailed marketing and PR plan from the get-go, Purkis had a temporary website where prospective customers could sign up and was featured in a magazine before the launch of Le Black Book. “The second I did open my doors my customers were really hungry.”

Purkis developed Le Black Book because there was nothing in Australia that catered to how she liked to shop. The niche online store is now experiencing exponential growth. “The past two months have been absolutely crazy,” Purkis says. “My business mentor always said to me it would take one product and the right time and it would go haywire. I was so tired of hearing it. But I’m finally starting to feel it. We have one style of stockings that has sold 500 units in eight weeks. It’s high volumes like that which will take Le Black Book to be as big as [global market leader] Net-A-Porter.”

The dream job

Fresh out of high school, Purkis began a business diploma and landed a coveted junior role in public relations for Australian designer Akira Isogawa. Although she was learning the fashion business inside and out, the young entrepreneur wanted to be her own boss. With just a passion for fashion and the savings from three jobs under her belt, Purkis set up Le Black Book. Women all over the world now shop there. “I love that now I have a business where I wake up in the morning and I’ve already made money. A business model of that nature is so good in terms of growth and longevity.”

When the recession hit, Purkis saw a need to modify her range to attract mid-market buyers. With her average sale usually between $400 and $1,000, the young entrepreneur decided to offer a basic, classic line at a cheaper price point. Enter Noir Shop, the house brand of Le Black Book designed by Purkis and her team. “It’s now become the bread and butter of Le Black Book,” she says. Learning from the business model of international stores like Zara, Purkis ensures that Le Black Book has something new to offer every week. While high-end designer lines are bought six months ahead, Noir Shop stays fresh as Purkis can take designs from the page to her store quickly.

Retail with imagination

Creativity and constant innovation have helped set Le Black Book apart from the competition. Purkis realised she needed to offer more than a cold retail experience. “You need to give people something to come to, get passionate about and really cotton on to.” To this end, Purkis has added interactive features and an e-zine (Le Magazine) to her website. Shopping at Le Black Book is a personal experience, she says. “When my customers email Le Black Book they get straight to me.”

Purkis has sought to know her customers from the beginning, targeting women through Facebook campaigns. She recently added a commenting system to Le Black Book so customers can interact with each other as they engage with material on the site. According to Purkis, her store is the first in Australia with that capability. “If there’s something that’s hot and really selling girls love to talk about it. It’s another way that Le Black Book is a trend forecaster, we’re always up to date with a new function.” The clothes are grouped into three custom profiles: trendy, classic and feminine. “A lot of other online stores have just one look, and I think it bores customers. Sometimes a classic girl wants to be trendy, and she needs a bit of guidance,” Purkis says.

[Next: Passion and Attitude]

Le Magazine is designed to bring customers into the world of Le Black Book. “It’s about telling the story, showing customers another way they can wear the product. It’s educating consumers but with a fantasy element. Like, yes, you can wear your suspender stockings while lying around in your pyjamas, looking amazing. Because we do,” she laughs. “Because we don’t have boyfriends and we just hang around and we love that.” On a Friday night, Purkis confesses, you’re more likely to find her at home on her online store rather than out on the town. But you can be bet she’ll be dressed to the nines while she’s checking her sales figures.

Passion and attitude

Despite her youth, Purkis has no trouble getting people to take her seriously. “When people talk to me they realise I’m dead serious, I’m not a joker and I’m not a kid. Once I open my mouth and start talking they realise how passionate I am.” That said, Purkis, has had to put her inner business tycoon ahead of her sweet cupcake-loving disposition. “When you do start a company quite young it is very easy to be taken advantage of, and you need to be tough. There’s a reason why there is Kath the business side and Kath the personal side, because you need to be really strong, you need to know what you want and you need to have really good people around you.”

Now a sought-after guest speaker and business mentor, Purkis will be lecturing design students at UTS this month. “If you think positive and go for something, I find it always happens,” she says. “You need to be quite a chameleon to have a business. You need to have ten hats. You can’t just be a fashion designer. That’s only two percent.” Do your research, Purkis advises. Get a thousand quotes: “You’ll always find a better deal and someone better to work with.” Use web analytics to understand your customers. “Get to know your market, what they’re doing online and where they’re from. Network with people who have your target market in a different industry. Create an alignment, use cross-promotion.”  Basically, wherever your target market is, get out there, she says.

Eyes on the prize

Purkis has her eyes firmly fixed on the future. She is developing a line for 35-to-50 year olds for next year, and plans to introduce sleepwear and menswear to her range in years to come. While she still packs orders with her Dad and her Grandma, the ambitious woman has had to alter her business plan (“I’m ten-folding everything!”) and has Net-A-Porter in her sights. “I’m 20 years younger”, she says matter-of-factly, and compares her success as a one-woman business to Net-A-Porter’s 10 directors and million-dollar seed fund. “It’s still just me. I think that’s pretty cool, pretty organic.” And as for Le Black Book? “Watch this space,” Purkis says.

Online: www.leblackbook.com.au

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Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake is a staff writer for <i>Dynamic Business</i> magazine. Fascinated with the power of media, she's previously worked for Sky News and <i>The Jakarta Globe</i>. In her time off, she's likely cooking up a storm, haunting vintage stores on King St, Newtown or trawling design blogs for things she can't afford.

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