The Founder of Sydney-based Milk + Thistle on the Joys and Trials of Starting Your Own Label

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Danielle Atkinson has seen it all.

A mother, new baby snuggled in a pouch on her chest, comes into the Milk + Thistle clothing store on Newtown’s King Street in Sydney and sighs with pleasure as she runs her hands over the silk, linen and cotton garments. She smiles in delight at a print of galloping horses and holds up a linen jumpsuit in soft chambray. “Ohhhhh, heaven – I’ve been waiting for these to come in!” Danielle Atkinson, the designer, welcomes her by name and without even trying them on (lest the bub be disturbed) she purchases the jumpsuit, a fluttery tencel tank top in deep burgundy, and a rose-pink silk slip dress.

With a new drop from the spring range having just hit the racks, there is a steady flow of Milk + Thistle regulars in and out of the store over the course of the morning’s interview and no-one leaves empty-handed.

Danielle is pleased with the morning’s trade and the positive feedback from her customers, but is realistic about what it means. “It’s easy to get stuck in your own bubble here,” she says. “In the inner west, yes, I have a fantastic following and am known also in the eastern suburbs through various stockists. But does anyone on the north shore know my label? Very few, I’m guessing.” Expanding her customer base is just one of the on-going challenges Danielle faces in a very competitive market.

“The best thing is getting to know my customer. I love that part of it and get a huge kick from seeing the pleasure they take in my designs.”

“Marketing is a whole other field of expertise and requires an investment of time and money that is not always possible to give. I want my tribe to be able to find me wherever they are, but Instagram and Facebook can only take you so far.”

Weather any storm

Danielle started her label, Milk + Thistle, in 2006 and has weathered all manner of challenges over the years since, a global financial crisis and massive turndown in retail spending not the least of them. But an increasingly savvy commercial outlook and strategic approach to her business has helped her successfully navigate difficult times. “A good bookkeeper is essential! When you know your numbers, you know your business and you understand what’s at stake.”

She understands that creative energy in a business is all well and good, but without being able to direct it effectively and economically, not much can be achieved. “I am much more commercially driven now and understand that my product can only be a reflection of me to a point. Then it has to be accessible to others.”

This is something she knew intuitively from the outset of her label, which she started by screen printing singlets on her dining room table and selling them at the local markets. “I had just spent $1,000 on my first big roll of fabric and was having heart palpitations just looking at it!” she remembers. “I knew if I couldn’t sell a decent number of these tops at the markets, I would probably not continue. I needed to know from day one that I had something people wanted to buy.” She needn’t have worried. The tops flew off the racks and were shortly picked up by an assortment of local stockists.

Know thy customer

In retrospect, Danielle feels that more time spent directly with her customers early in the business would have been to the business’ benefit. Nothing beats direct customer feedback for refining and perfecting a product. Add to that the significant cost margin associated with wholesale orders and the demanding timeline, and it is certainly a tough way to make a buck.

So when the opportunity came to open a shop, the time felt right to step back from wholesale and concentrate on retail trade. What has been the best thing about opening the shop? “The best thing is getting to know my customer. I love that part of it and get a huge kick from seeing the pleasure they take in my designs and hearing about what they want and what works and doesn’t work for them.” And the hardest part? “Finally understanding that I can’t please everyone and realising that trying to do so is counterproductive. My customer is 35+ women. I don’t do short garments. I do make proper size 16s. I own that now and work towards satisfying that niche.”

Getting to know her customer also resulted in a shift in the way she presents her brand. For the last two seasons, she has used older models (who are actually existing customers of the brand) alongside the younger professional models. The reaction, she says, has been overwhelming. “It was a huge hit – such an enthusiastic reaction. It felt like I’d got something important right.”

This is Australian

Just like those early days of kitchen screen printing, the label continues to be made entirely in Australia. Is this a major selling point of the brand? “Yes,” confirms Danielle, “especially given the socially aware and educated customer of this area, but in all honesty, it’s difficult to know how much of a difference it would really make – would a customer actually not buy a dress they loved because it wasn’t made here? Hard to say.”

The expense associated with manufacturing in Australia is considerable, but for Danielle it’s worth it. “My makers are literally down the road from my house, so if there’s a problem I can be there in minutes to make a decision.” Danielle says she knows garments being made in China and other countries can be of extremely high quality and many labels are very transparent about their ethical responsibility to workers. But, for her, the logistics of single-handedly designing the label, managing production and running a shop, make the thought of frequent trips abroad and long-distance negotiating just too difficult to contemplate, at least for now. “But I would never say never. If the time and circumstances are right…. Well, who knows.”

Garment making can be a fraught process as it is, even with the highest of domestic expertise involved. Just one error in the process of pattern-making, cutting, and sewing can have a snowball effect: “and I’m the one left holding the snowball and having to pay for it,” says Danielle matter-of-factly. Fabric itself can be surprising and unpredictable, she explains. Her training was in fabric designs and she has decades of experience under her belt, but she says you can still get caught out and that is just part and parcel of running a label.

Given all these challenges and working in such a competitive area, what keeps her going? “My customers and being able to explore and satisfy my creative urge. I love fashion. I love fabric. I love working with it and being around it.”

And, if the delighted squeals of her customers are anything to go by, the feeling is mutual.

If you’re in Brisbane and are looking to start a label of your own, enrol in the How To Start A Label masterclass 

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