Behind the glamour and beyond the catwalk, Wayne Cooper’s fashion empire is built on savvy business skills, passionate ideas, and an instinct for knowing what customers want a year or more before they know they want it. By Camille Howard
His mates had him pegged as a trendsetter from an early age. And apart from a brief diversion to law school, Wayne Cooper’s passion for a career in fashion has never wavered.
Drawing inspiration from his parents’ sense of dress, Cooper believes his working class upbringing in London’s East End fostered the creative compulsion that has made him a leader in Australia’s fashion industry. "You don’t seem to get the upper or middle classes driving fashion, it seems to be the working class people," he explains in his native cockney accent. "If you grow up in council flats, you’re not born into wealth and so feeling good is looking good … you can get away from the life you’re living by the way you dress and where you go out."
After leaving school with top marks, he considered his father’s advice to become a doctor or a lawyer. Medicine was the most unappealing and so he went off to law school. "I didn’t really want to be a lawyer, I just did it." But supported himself by working in fashion while he trained to be a barrister.
It was the excessive 80s, and during this time he and his mates dressed up, wore makeup and flamboyant clothes, and Cooper’s flair for fashion began—complete with Doc Martens, parachute silk and wrap skirts.
After completing his degree, he came to Sydney, on his way to see the world. Intending, when he returned to London, to complete a college fashion course and open his own shop. But life in Sydney was too good. "I thought this is where I’d love to live; this is the most perfect place in the world."
So, he enrolled in pattern-making classes at East Sydney Technical College. "I wanted to learn the nuts and bolts of how to make the clothes. I thought I could do the rest because I knew what I wanted to make."
He started a small clothing label with a girlfriend, but when she decided it was too hard and financially unrewarding, Cooper decided to go it alone. "I thought, well, I’m going into a fashion business on my own, with no backing, no partners—I’ll call it Brave."
And so his fashion empire was launched in 1991.
Hiring a pattern-maker for the back room and getting his sister Michelle on board, as well as a few staff to man the shop, Cooper designed the clothes, made them and turned them over in the retail store. Starting with menswear, it wasn’t long before he decided it was more fun designing for women. "It don’t really rock your world!" he says of designing menswear. "With women’s wear, you can never make the same dress twice and do it for 20 years."
When Brave expanded to a second Sydney shop, Cooper hired Jean Ferraud—his former boss—as his artistic director. "He’s the best seller in the world. He’s French and he’s fabulous!" Editorial interest in the new kid on the block grew and Cooper opened stores in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and another in Sydney. In 1996 he launched his signature label, ‘Wayne Cooper’, and in 2002, ‘Wayne’ replaced the ‘Brave’ label.
With another three stores opening recently, Cooper’s empire now extends to nine retail stores, as well as a presence in major department stores and overseas stores.
Cooper realises that while he creates his own style, he doesn’t set trends in a wider sense. Fashion goes in waves, he believes, created on a global scale and based largely upon the political and economic times we live in. "You can look back and see trends," he says, "but you don’t see them as much while you’re in them as you do by looking back.
"The 60s was about tailored, sharp clothes. In the 70s there was much more freedom in the world and you saw that reflected in the way people dressed, the hippie style. The 80s were flamboyant, and you got the shoulder pads and power suits because it was all about Wall Street and making money. In the 90s, things became more minimalistic … which was a reaction to the money-hungry 80s." Today, Cooper says fashion is shifting quite dramatically.
He says today’s fashion trends go round much faster, with four trends in one season, another four trends in the next season, and those trends keep circulating.
Like most businesses, fashion is driven by what the consumer wants. And what the consumer wants today, he says, is very pretty, feminine and ladylike fashions. "These days you can’t afford to do trends that people are going to react adversely against," he adds. "You can’t afford to do one stinker of a season where you run against what you know women want."
With current buying trends favouring ‘occasional dressing’, for weddings, the races or parties, Cooper says his designs have shifted to more beautiful dresses. "That’s where the focus of fashion will stay for a while. It’s very individual, it’s not so much that people want to follow a trend. They want to feel like they are the only person who looks like that."
Fashion used to be driven by youth culture but he says that’s not a factor now. While youth is driving trends such as surf culture and hip-hop, he doesn’t see them being relevant to the global audience, as fashion should be.
Fashion also isn’t as seasonal as it was. "The only reason you’ll know the difference between the summer and winter range is, there will be a few coats and jumpers along with the chiffon girly dresses."
To come up with new ideas, Cooper draws on a range of moods and feelings. "You start with a concept, and that’s quite easy. Then you buy fabrics and decide what colours you want to do. We make a brief, then start sketching."
There is always doubt, but Cooper finds his collections feel fresher each season. "The only time you find out if it is or it ain’t, is when you put a show on and the buyers turn up—and it’s all too late, then!"
For each season of the ‘Wayne’ and ‘Wayne Cooper’ labels, he will sketch about 600 designs, but only around 200 go beyond the ideas stage. From the sketches, he and his pattern-maker match designs and fabrics, creating prototypes to trial in other fabric. This will inspire changes to the original design, continual re-sketching and playing with fabrics on the house model until he is happy with the garment.
Cooper knows what he does best and he sticks to it, designing with his colleagues and friends in mind. "We’re more sexy because the women around us are sexier," he says of his current range. And other designers? "You look at the person and look at their lifestyle, you can see why their clothes are the way they are."
The fashion game relies a lot on instinct and vision, with new designs needing to be created about two seasons in advance. As we sit chatting, it is the start of summer, but Cooper has just presented his winter 2005 collection to the buyers and was starting on designs for the 2005/2006 summer collection.
Much of what he creates is based on certain periods, looks and styles he wants to recreate with a modern feel. His current summer collection was inspired by the time and place where his parents first met in London, the Tottenham Royal. He followed this with his Parisienne-styled winter range, inspired by the 1930s jazz age.
"Once you’ve got your theme and you start exploring, then it all star
ts to look that way." The setting, the clothes and even the music for the shows reflect the theme, letting the audience see his inspiration and headspace at the time he created each collection. "Buyers get an understanding of the way the clothes are worn, fashion editors get an understanding of the way you want your clothes shot—the shows are a good selling and advertising tool, and they complete the process for me."
Cooper isn’t concerned about what other designers are doing with each season’s fabrics, concentrating more on what he can create with that same material. This involves beading a lot of clothes and making his own prints, inspired by designs from sources as obscure as old books or even wallpaper. As he says, it’s based on what he feels at the time and trying to come up with something he hasn’t done before, rather than watching what other people are doing.
The business has been like a roller coaster since Cooper’s humble beginnings, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. "Fashion’s not an easy place to make money. You’re at the whim of the economy … if something happens that makes people stop buying, the first thing you’re going to stop buying is clothes."
Establishing an international presence wasn’t easy either—for any of the Australian designers. "The very first Fashion Week … no buyers came!
"But Fashion Week has launched the fashion industry to where it is now. Those shows brought buyers; buyers bought clothes from Australian designers; Australian designers felt confident and went overseas to sell their clothes."
Cooper’s offshore presence has extended from the first interested buyers in the US to include the UK, Asia and the Middle East. And although he welcomes the overseas interest, he is more interested in focusing on his retail presence locally.
Times have changed since he first opened his studio doors, and Cooper has constantly reassessed his infrastructure to keep growing, now employing 15 full-time staff in his Sydney studio.
One of the toughest challenges in a seasonal industry is managing cash flow, especially when all the fabric is delivered at once. "It’s a very difficult time of year because all you’re doing is paying out, you’re not really getting any money coming in."
Cooper says managing the budget to get through this time of year is always difficult, but careful planning to spread out stock delivery helps.
Maintaining a balance in work and home life is hard given his long hours, but he has learnt to say no. "I’ve got two young children, and you can find yourself being swallowed up by just working all the time. You’ve got to put your foot down. Now I don’t work as much on weekends."
For those who think it’s all glamour and living the high life with the beautiful people, think again. "Don’t expect the world to come to you tomorrow … start small and grow," he says. "And if it don’t happen in the first couple of seasons, you’ve got to have that absolute commitment—and passion—to loving what you do."
And to wannabe fashionistas he has this advice: "Don’t do it coz you want to be famous, don’t do it coz you want to be glamorous, don’t do it coz you want your face in the paper—do it coz you love making clothes."