How a leading Australian fashion brand is defying the downturn

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The co-founder of Aje on staying agile. By the time this tumultuous year draws to a close, Aje co-founder Adrian Norris believes consumers will be all too ready for a shot of optimism. "We've made everything really carefree and joyful," he says of the brand’s forthcoming summer collection. "We know that's how people are going to want to feel."

 

The brand's upbeat aesthetic is just one of many adjustments and tweaks – both small and large – that Aje has made since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The good news is that, so far, those changes seem to be working.

 

“It was obviously very stressful a few months back, but we’re seeing sales rebound,” Norris says of Aje, which has 19 boutiques nationwide, with a 20th location set to launch in Sydney this November.

 

Norris, who launched Aje along with co-founder and creative director Edwina Forest in 2008, pulled together an internal taskforce to monitor the COVID-19 situation back in late January. That foresight meant that when stores were forced to close due to the pandemic, Aje already had a plan in place.

 

“I know everyone says it, and it might seem clichéd, but you have to be nimble,” says Norris. “This is a time for us to think outside the box.”

 

Instead of pressing pause on bold plans for growth, Norris and Forest found the pandemic hastened their existing moves – including a shift to e-commerce.

 

When Aje first launched more than a decade ago, it operated within a traditional wholesale model. But several years ago, the brand made the decision to open bricks-and-mortar stores. This meant that when lockdown hit, they were less exposed to wholesalers’ cancellations. The team had also been working to strengthen its e-commerce capabilities, and Norris decided to press on with the development of a new website while in lockdown – rather than conserve funds. Today, he’s pleased with that decision. “Our conversions have doubled. It’s absolutely wild.”

 

During lockdown, a number of staff substituted from the shop floor to working in digital roles. This included handling the site’s new live chat feature, which helped support the incoming messages every day. Some staff will remain in those digital customer-support roles, says Norris. 

I think we’ll probably see a lot of shutdowns. But I do think there is opportunity as well. I think that having Australians in Australia [rather than holidaying overseas] could be a really positive thing – and that there will be support for Australian designers, hopefully.

- Adrian Norris, Co-founder, Aje

Afterpay continues to help drive sales for Aje, he says. “Afterpay has been a success for us from the beginning, with the biggest value being acquisition of new customers,” explains Norris, who adds that because Aje typically launches new styles fortnightly, it sells out of them quickly. “Afterpay has helped our customers avoid missing out.”

 

The other big change since the pandemic has been freight, with costs spiralling by up to 400 per cent in the wake of international-flight cancellations. Where product would ordinarily be air-freighted from China in a matter of days, says Norris, the journey is now taking months by sea. “We’re just having to find ways to work around it,” he says, explaining that this has meant plenty of time standing in front of a wall filled with pictures of the collection and rethinking the way pieces are released.

 

On the plus side, he adds that shipping is better for the environment “so, we had it as one of our priorities anyway. Our aim was always to be at 80 percent sea freight, so it probably just hastened that pillar of [our] sustainability plan.”

 

Looking back over the past few months, Norris is most proud of keeping his team almost intact throughout the lockdown, and he says there are no plans to shut stores. 

 

However, he admits that the next six months will be a testing time for fashion retail.

 

 

Anna Saunders is the former executive editor of marie claire, who also worked for The Sunday Telegraph UK. She is the co-founder of women’s publishing site PRIMER.

 

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