Pike Brothers

Inside the showrooms of the men's outfitters Pike Brothers of Brisbane, ca. 1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 67440 http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/139293 Inside the showrooms of the men's outfitters Pike Brothers of Brisbane, ca. 1920

Who: Two brothers, Edwin (1860–1933) and Walter Pike (1857–1931), created Pike Brothers in 1885. The brothers came to Brisbane from England in 1883 to pursue pastoral activities and chemistry respectively, but ended up forming a business together while Edwin was trying to save money for land. They were active managing directors for more or less the entirety of their adult lives. Their sons, Wyndham Pike (Walter’s son) and E. Dudley Pike (Edwin’s son) continued the Pike family business, taking up the mantle of governing directors from the late 1920s.

Banner welcoming His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester outside Pike Brothers building in Brisbane, 1934
Banner welcoming His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester outside Pike Brothers building in Brisbane, 1934. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 165653

What: Pike Brothers was a long-running and successful menswear importer and tailor. Their business reputation was built on quality and exclusive menswear, targeted at a Queensland market of well-heeled graziers (possibly courted by Edwin due to his pastoral interests). Their lines of imported products from London were critical to their success, and they called themselves the ‘direct importers of every requisite for gentlemen’s wear’.

CityLibraries Townsville, Local History Collection http://library.townsville.qld.gov.au/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/ENQ/PIC/BIBENQ?IRN=5854692&FMT=PA
Pike Brothers Gentlemens Emporium, Flinders Street, Townsville, 1906. CityLibraries Townsville, Local History Collection

Where: The firm is strongly associated with the prominent Queen Street location they started in—a highly prized destination for shopping in Brisbane. In 1906, they shifted from 30–32 Queen Street up the road to a much bigger premises at 85–91 Queen Street. Though the Brisbane store was the focus of their trade, they were quick to identify the importance of the regional Queensland market, and promptly established a branch store at Townsville in 1898. This was the ‘Gentlemen’s Emporium’ on Flinders Street, which proved to be a successful and long-running arm of the company.

They made many other moves into the regional market over the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, with stores at Toowoomba, Charleville, Roma and Longreach, and extensive mail-order conducted from their Brisbane headquarters. But for the Englishmen, Brisbane was never really the symbolic centre of their business; it was their connection to the mother country that shaped the brand identity of the Pike Brothers. An address in London, of which they were forever reminding their customers, enabled them to conduct regular buying and imports, and provided the aura of international fashionability.

Pike Brothers advertisement for men's clothing, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 108483. http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/92680
Pike Brothers advertisement for men’s clothing, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 108483

When: Pike Brothers operated as a family business from 1885 until 1956, when they were purchased by Leviathan, a rival Melbourne-based men’s outfitters. After this time, they continued to trade as Pike Brothers, and later just ‘Pikes’. Brisbane’s Myer Centre, which opened in 1988, was developed on the store’s city site, and involved the demolition of the original Pike Brothers store. Following this, Pikes was purchased by Brisbane department store firm McDonnell & East, who operated multiple Pikes stores in Queensland.

Why: Though menswear is experiencing a renaissance in Queensland in recent times, the state has long had a reputation for neglecting men’s fashion. But the example of Pike Brothers shows that quality, style, and practicality in menswear have not always been at odds.

Early advertising for the store set the tone for a sophisticated and urbane arrival to the men’s outfitter scene. Their newspaper ads were creative, and at times obscure, featuring surreal illustrations, esoteric prose and long flowery poems.

Queensland Figaro and Punch (Brisbane, Qld. - 1885 - 1889), Saturday 14 August 1886, page 8. National Library of Australia http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84118728
Pike Brothers ad in Queensland Figaro and Punch (Brisbane, Qld. – 1885 – 1889), Saturday 14 August 1886, page 8. National Library of Australia

An ad from 1886 featured one of many rhymes:

IF a man is but wise,
Likes hats, gloves, and ties,
Watch the men who advertise—
PIKE BROTHERS.
Collars, shirts of every size,
Don’t make fellows look like guys—
PIKE BROTHERS.1

They emphasised quality and style, and proudly name-dropped the various sources of their English imports. Forever looking beyond Queensland for credibility, they boasted a ‘first class cutter from Melbourne’ and later one from the West of London. Goods that weren’t produced locally were made to their specifications in their ‘London House’. But this is not to say that the men’s outfitters weren’t highly attuned to the needs of their Queensland market. Quite the opposite. They advertised durable clothes for ‘bush and station’ wear, and frequently promoted the virtues of ‘tropical wear’.

It was, of course, a distinctly English view of tropical clothing, with imports from the colonies and pith helmets featuring prominently. The following ad promoted Indian-made fibres and garments as ideally suited to Queensland: “Pike Brothers have just landed a second shipment of Indian clothing for tropical wear. Assam (silk and flax fabric). A perfect clothing for Queensland summer wear, being very light, soft, and porous—not easily soiled, and will not fade or shrink”2.

Pike Brothers Ltd. brochure, ca. 1940s. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives
Pike Brothers Ltd brochure, ca. 1940s. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

The growing firm expanded their premises in 1894 to make room for two separate departments for mercery and hosiery, and clothing and tailoring. With this new space, they had four large windows for display. A cutting and fitting room were prominently positioned on the ground floor, and made room for a special ladies’ tailoring section in a separate building. Regional infiltration was undertaken through mail order, regional sales representatives, and regional branches in Townsville, Toowoomba, Charleville and Roma. Edwin or Walter would travel personally to other regional destinations they wanted to trade in, such as Warwick, showing samples and patterns to procure mail order custom.

Mail order section of Pike Brothers men's outfitters store in Brisbane, ca. 1920
Mail order section of Pike Brothers men’s outfitters store in Brisbane, ca. 1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 109389

The business was once again expanded in 1901, when they adjoined a neighbouring shop. They advertised a ‘single-suit system’, which promised that no one else could buy a tailored suit identical to yours; an important note of exclusivity for a small town.

In the early 20th century, Pike Brothers were the sole Queensland representatives of Burberry—not quite the luxury fashion empire they are today, but nonetheless a very respectable British brand producing practical and stylish waterproof gabardine coats. This was the type of product that epitomised the Pike Brother’s offering: elegant and high-quality garments, approved by the Empire, that could be worn whilst working the land.

Pike Brothers Band, Brisbane, 1916
Pike Brothers Band, Brisbane, 1916. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 199510

Both Edwin and Walter would regularly go on buying trips abroad, personally sourcing their goods directly from manufacturers as far and wide as London, Manchester, Glasgow, Dublin, United States, Paris, and India. They would continue to tout their London style connection right into the 20th century, whilst also promoting the strengths of their on-site production: “We build our to-measure shirts on the premises—no outside factory engaged”.3

Young schoolgirl carrying a Pike Brothers parcel and a travel rug, Brisbane, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 251400 http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/121313
Young schoolgirl carrying a Pike Brothers parcel and a travel rug, Brisbane, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 251400

Having built a solid foundation for the business, they were registered as limited company, Pike Brothers Limited, in 1905, with majority shares held by Walter and Edwin Pike. Further growth followed, and by 1908, the firm had added a Toowoomba branch. Mail order was as important for developing country custom as these regional outposts. A long serving Pike Brothers employee from the correspondence department recalled some strange letters he’d received in his 45 years, including one that read: “For heavens sake, send me my trousers; I’m in the scrub, and I can’t get out till I get them”.4

Trams lined up in Queen Street, showing Pikes in background (behind Kings), ca. 1965. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 261180 http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/28953
Trams lined up in Queen Street, showing Pikes in background (behind Kings), ca. 1965. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 261180

The Queen Street store remained a focus of trade throughout, and struggles of maintaining the iconic presence of the flagship store was keenly felt by management. In annual meeting reports from the 1930s, it’s documented that the directors continually debated the pros and cons of expanding the Queen Street building. While the modernisation and expansion of shops was rife amongst the competition, Pike Brothers felt that expansion to their already very large and expensive premises would not necessarily lead to increased trade, due to the limited population in Brisbane.

In this and other ways, the big and brash approach of modern shopping was unsettling to the long-running firm’s old-fashioned values. A 1935 report has a managing director lamenting how difficult trading was given that “everything seems to be done on price, whereas years before it was very largely done on quality”. The firm predicted that shoppers would wisely return to a focus on quality after the effects of low-prices became clear. While they were sadly wrong on this front, they were surprisingly accurate in their predictions for other areas of change, and in particular, negotiating the imminent Second World War.

Pike Brothers Ltd. brochure and fabric swatch, ca 1940s. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives
Pike Brothers Ltd brochure and fabric swatch, ca. 1940s. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

The 1939 report foresaw that a conservative business approach in the early years of the war would result in good steady profits throughout the period. They had accurately predicted that legislation would be put in place to prevent excessive price hikes. In the face of extreme challenges such as staff enlistment, difficulties obtaining imports, and profit caps, Pike Brothers managed to report profit growth. Business was so good that they discussed their wishes for supplying even better service to loyal civilian customers after the war was over.

Pike Brothers catalogue, inside cover, 1936. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives
Pike Brothers catalogue, inside cover, 1936. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

In the annual meeting of 1945, Pike Brothers reported that the last three years had seen net profits jump up an astounding seven times their normal rate. Despite this extraordinary trading result, their conservative approach prevailed, and management rightly decided to proceed cautiously in case of sustained difficulties after the war, such as the impact of high taxes, and the turmoil created by shortages in stock and labour. They also worried that the profit spike misrepresented the actual success of the business through the war: it was mostly the result of selling their goods at up to three times the pre-war price, as opposed to real growth that would come from selling a greater volume of goods. Nonetheless, in the post-war years of 1948 and 1949, Pike Brothers made a record turnover at a quarter of a million pounds.

Pike Brothers advertisement coinciding with the Fourth Test Match at the Woolloongabba Cricket Ground, Brisbane, 1932/33
Pike Brothers advertisement coinciding with the Fourth Test Match at the Woolloongabba Cricket Ground, Brisbane, 1932/3. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 59357

In 1950, the firm’s annual meeting reports complained of expenses created by increasingly fussy customers, who were making ‘unjustified’ complaints and returning goods to the tailoring department for alterations. In this pernickety fashion-conscious climate, their tailoring department were directed to produce their custom-made suits to a “very very high standard indeed”.

The good times were over by 1952, when the effects of the war caught up with the business, and meeting reports discussed their most difficult period on record. Though the business had built its reputation on importing exclusive products from overseas, price fixing regulations on imports meant these lines weren’t profitable. They also complained that the Retailer’s Association was controlled by drapers dealing in women’s clothing, and had adjusted regulations to allow imported womenswear to make 10% more profit than menswear.

Pike Brothers catalogue, 1936. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives
Pike Brothers catalogue, 1936. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

It seemed Pike Brothers’ business model of ‘high class menswear’ was working against them. Regional trade was seen as a crucial area of focus to improve prospects, but it meant facing very tough competition from the local businesses of each town, many of whom were thriving thanks to the modernisation of regional high streets. These difficulties continued right through to 1955, and despite a good turnover, the combination of drought and fluctuating wool prices, sustained price controls on imports, and escalating expenses made the future of Pike Brothers uncertain. New competition from the recent arrival of David Jones and Myer, who had a capacity for group buying, made things even worse.

Pikes, Queen Street, Brisbane, 1986. Brisbane City Council https://library.brisbane.qld.gov.au/client/search/asset/33056
Pikes, Queen Street, Brisbane, 1986. Brisbane Images, Brisbane City Council, BCC-B54-52833.6

When Pike Brothers was purchased by Melbourne outfitter Leviathan in 1956, it was the third Brisbane merger with retailers from southern states since the previous year. This pattern of three signified a trend that would only accelerate in subsequent decades. Leviathan continued to trade as Pike Brothers, retaining management and staff, but eventually the connection to Walter, Edwin and their sons was lost. In 1975, Pikes, as it was then known, was taken over by Queensland retailer McDonnell & East, who expanded the brand into a chain of menswear outlets around Queensland. Pikes went under with the parent company in the early 1990s.

References

This article was written as part of the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship. A partnership between QUT Business School and State Library of Queensland.
11886 ‘A German Baron as Informer.’, Queensland Figaro and Punch (Brisbane, Qld. : 1885 – 1889), 21 August, p. 13 Supplement: THE EXHIBITION SUPPLEMENT TO QUEENSLAND FIGARO, viewed 20 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84118804
21893 ‘Classified Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 5 December, p. 7, viewed 20 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3570202
31930 ‘Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 16 July, p. 16, viewed 22 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2156059
41950 ‘WANTED HIS PANTS, AND IN A HURRY.’, Sunday Mail(Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 22 January, p. 8, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98295131