Alice Payne

Selling surf, sun, and fitness: Queensland’s mass-market fashion

Mass-produced items of clothing are not generally celebrated or retained, particularly those of recent years. Clothing has never been cheaper, and perhaps we value it less as a result. Yet most of us will spend our lives wearing mass-produced items, made by unknown people living half a world away from Queensland.

Queensland-based ‘Lorna Jane’ and ‘Billabong’ are two brands we see on a near-daily basis, their logos ubiquitous in exercise classes, on beaches, and in shopping centres Australia-wide. We may not think of them when we think of fashion, but they are the fashion the majority of Australians are most familiar and comfortable with; they are the garments worn not to special times, but for all the times in between. And in the case of both brands, wearing the garments has a particular connotation to a desirable lifestyle—one of sunny, healthful living.

This article follows the trajectory of these two labels from being small-scale local producers, to national and international powerhouse brands.

To understand Australia’s mass-market fashion industry, it’s important to know that approximately 80 percent is now manufactured in China1. Of course, most of our iconic brands were once manufactured locally; for example, brands such as Speedo and Bonds originally started out as knit manufacturers in the 1910s and 1920s2.

Change came in the late 1980s, as the Hawke government began to liberalise trade policies. As tariffs on imported goods were cut, more and more Australian companies began manufacturing offshore. Consequentially, between 1985 and 2005 full-time employment in the Textiles, Clothing and Footwear (TCF) industries dropped sixty per cent3. While Queensland had some manufacturing—Rocklea Mills is one example—it never had the TCF manufacturing scale of New South Wales and Victoria. In 1986, Queensland had only 4,700 clothing and textile workers compared with over 20,000 in New South Wales, and 37,000 in Victoria4.

As the country wound down local manufacturing, Australian apparel manufacturers evolved into ‘brand managers’, with globalisation offering new opportunities to scale up their production and reach international markets. Billabong and Lorna Jane exemplify this. While both brands may not be manufacturing tangible goods in Queensland, their Queensland history is bound up in their intangible offering; their brand story.

Billabong was born on the Gold Coast in 1973 when Gordon and Rena Merchant cut-out board shorts on the kitchen table of their fibro house at Burleigh Heads. Merchant was a surfer and a surfboard shaper and their local surf club needed some board shorts; Gordon and Rena stitched them up at home and the ‘boardies’ were a success. As a result, they kept making them, selling the garments at local markets along the East Coast from Noosa to Coffs Harbour. As demand grew, they opened a factory at West Burleigh. As Billabong and its founders were embedded within the surfing subculture from the beginning, the genuine connection to the ‘real’ surfing lifestyle gave the brand its cool factor.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Billabong was the brand worn by aspirational urban would-be surfers worldwide. Billabong sponsored the pro-surfing tours, with superstar brand ambassadors such as Taj Burrows, Layne Beachley, Donovan Frankenreiter, and Mark Occhilupo. The company was publically listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2000, and at its peak, was valued at $3.84 billion with a share price of $14.065. It had become Australia’s most successful and wide-reaching fashion export.

But such success hasn’t lasted. After a series of crises in the past three years, Billabong is struggling. Now, losses of the last two years total $1.13 billion, the share price has plummeted to around 60 cents, and the Billabong brand is valued at zero6.

A number of reasons have been suggested for Billabong’s dramatic downturn. Some analysts say Billabong invested too heavily in bricks and mortar retail in North America, and in buying up other surf, skate, and ski brands. The growth was unsustainable. Others say that Billabong’s trademark ‘coolness’ has fled. In becoming a global mega-brand, Billabong has lost some of the credibility of its low-fi beginnings7. As one journalist noted, Billabong is now the ‘barbeque short for the sausage sizzle’, and once middle-aged dads began wearing Billabong boardies, it was a downhill slide for the youth brand8.

In contrast, Lorna Jane, another Queensland mass-market brand, is booming. The active wear label started almost twenty-five years ago, when Lorna Jane Clarkson, a part-time yoga instructor and dental hygienist, began making her own active wear. At the time she says the kind of ‘functional, fun and feminine’ active wear she imagined just didn’t exist9. She started with leotards, unpicking an old swimsuit and using it to make a newspaper pattern on her lounge room floor. She began selling the leotards in her yoga studio, and Lorna Jane the label grew from there.

Initially just selling in South East Queensland, the brand grew throughout the 2000s. In the past six years alone, the Lorna Jane brand has expanded aggressively, growing from 30 stores in Australia to 156 stores in 4 countries10 with over a dozen stores in the notoriously tough US market.

Like Billabong, Lorna Jane is a brand founded on lifestyle rather than fashion. Founder Lorna Jane Clarkson retains ownership of the company and her personal philosophy of ‘body and soul wellness’ is a theme running through every aspect of the brand’s communication. Her book Move, Nourish, Believe11 is filled with advice, recipes, and inspirational quotes for her audience. She is not just selling gym gear, but an aspirational lifestyle—one of good health, fitness, and positivity. Lean, blonde, and successful, she embodies the woman her customers aspire to be.

It’s no accident that these two mega-brands each came from Queensland. Both Billabong and Lorna Jane came about through a need for clothing that matched the lifestyle of the owner and their circle, and in both cases Queenslanders were their first market. And in the case of both Lorna Jane and Billabong, their brand story rests on their humble Queensland beginnings and a romanticized view of the Queensland way of life. For Billabong, the story is part of surfing folklore. For Lorna Jane, the story relies on her personal embodiment of the active lifestyle.

It is unlikely that either brand could have grown so big without the benefits of globalisation and the economies of scale provided by offshore manufacturing. Globalisation enabled Billabong to compete on a scale unthinkable back when Gordon Merchant was surfing the Burleigh ‘point break’ in the 1970s. In Billabong’s case, their growth seems to have proved unsustainable, and their brand story has less traction, at least for the moment. For Lorna Jane, the rapid growth continues, and the brand story continues to resonate.

Surf signage at a Gold Coast beach, 2014
Surf signage at a Gold Coast beach, 2014Alice Payne
Billabong Pro, Mundaka, Spain, 2009
Billabong Pro, Mundaka, Spain, 2009Bastian
Billabong bikini, Philippines, 2006
Billabong bikini, Philippines, 2006Igorms
Inside a Billabong store, Queensland, 2014
Inside a Billabong store, Queensland, 2014Alice Payne
Billabong Boardshorts, 2014
Billabong Boardshorts, 2014Alice Payne
A Queensland Lorna Jane store with motivational message, 2014
A Queensland Lorna Jane store with motivational message, 2014Alice Payne
LA West Ladies Day with Lorna Jane and True Food Kitchen, 2013
LA West Ladies Day with Lorna Jane and True Food Kitchen, 2013Yelp Inc.
1Magner 2013
2Peers 2010
3ABC online
4Webber and Weller 2001
5Lobello 2013
6Fickling 2013; Thomson 2013
7Warren and Gibson 2012
8Knight 2013
9Kelly 2012, 124
10Ragtrader 2007; Lorna Jane 2014
11Clarkson 2011
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Published in , on February 25, 2014.