Your father, Patrick Ogilvie, was a well-known Brisbane milliner who ran a store for many years. What are your memories of his boutique and clients?
When I was young, Dad was based at Lennon’s for a few years, and then he opened up his boutique in Rowes Arcade in Edward Street, where he was best known. He was on the third floor, and at that time had 30-odd staff. At about the age of 7, my brother, sisters, and I would be in there all the time and we’d help him out. If he needed fabrics we would go to Gardam’s, for example, or run jobs for other staff—whatever they needed. That was where we’d spend our school holidays.
In Rowes Arcade they had these big old windows, and as kids we’d throw pins out at cars passing by on the street below. Great memories. We also had really great clients who would come in. He was open to anyone who could afford to have a hat made. His biggest customers were from the bush, and they came from all over Australia to buy a number of hats. At that time, wool was a pound for a pound. Unfortunately country people now don’t have what they had 40 or 50 years ago.
The best thing about what Dad did was that all his work was handmade. All the stitches were done by hand or by someone at a machine. It was the era of the artisan, and it was absolutely beautiful. My family has been collecting his hats for a number of years, and a lot of people send us things. I’ve had a lot of calls over the years from people saying ‘my mother or grandmother has passed away and we’ve uncovered all these beautiful hats—would you like them?’
The people who have supported dad over the years, or their children, now come to my store, and people often come in and talk about how beautiful Dad was. Last Wednesday I got a text from a customer of mine and he sent a magnificent photo. Dad must have done a christening hat for his family. The text read: “A testament of time! Mum’s baptismal bonnet, 60 years old! Fantastic, except for the fact you bastards have been taking our money for 60 bloody years! I will have to bring it in for you one day.”
You offer a European style tailoring experience in Brisbane. How have the locals responded to what you do, and how have Brisbane men changed in their dressing habits in the time that you have been in business?
I first went into business in 1981 when I was 21. I always had the intuition to go into the upper end of the market, and I felt the business would survive the next two generations.
It probably took a good ten years to build my credibility. The 1980s were about price: it was a time of sales and discounting at the expense of quality and the artisan. Particularly in the late eighties, when we were heading into a recession. But we really had to hold our nerve, protect our reputation and ride through it all. Thank God we decided to stay at the upper end of the market, as it’s really been our saviour.
We’re now in a time where the artisan and luxury are back—it has been for a number of years, and still has a number to go, at least for a generation. We’re finding that all our luxury labels from Italy are doing really well, whereas the middle market doesn’t work for us. Anything luxury, hand-made, artisan, special for the customer, service… all those things are the reason we’re still around today. In a sense we were also riding off the back of Dad’s name—it gave us that credibility, particularly in Brisbane in the early days.
What happens is that a lot of businesses are too short thinking, and not taking the time to do the hard work to establish a name and reputation. We’ve been doing it for 33 years, and it’s probably only gotten better in the last ten. What happens in that time is that economic times change and it all unravels; people change and lose their way. When you look at fabrics, for example, in the early 1900s the English owned all the textile mills and had the reputation for the best fabrics in the world. In the late 1920s/ early 1930s, the Italians decided they were going to work in this area—it probably took them 30 or 40 years to establish, but they now certainly produce the best fabrics around. In any business, in any area, if you want to work in the high end, you’ve got to build your reputation over many years and evolve. It doesn’t happen straight away.
Tell us how you came to be interested in fashion…
I think I’ve probably had fashion retailing in my bones because of Dad’s business. When I was about 12 I worked at Rothwells at weekends and holidays. Then when I was about 19, my brother said I should have a career—I had a whole lot of jobs, but I didn’t have a career. At that time my brother’s girlfriend worked in a menswear store, and so I thought I’d have a go at that for a year and see how I liked it, and then open up my own business. Thank God I was naïve! I’ve loved every minute of it.
Where do you look for inspiration on matters of style?
I do a bit of travel, mainly holidays, and it’s a great source of inspiration. For me it’s the Italians: what people wear in the street, as well as the luxury end. It’s their understated style.
What is your most treasured dress-related object or memory?
The first thing that comes to mind is my father’s watch. It’s a treasure for me because it was his and he always wore it. It’s an International Watch Company watch; very elegant and classic. It became mine when he passed away.
Give us three words, people or places you associate with Queensland fashion…
Patrick Ogilvie, Gwen Gillam, and Bernadette O’Shea are three treasures of Queensland fashion. Bernadette was a legend in the industry (and now a prominent champagne consultant), who did all the flowers for the rich and famous in that era. You’d go to Patrick for the hat, Gwen for the dress, and to Bernadette for the flowers.
Is there such a thing as a distinct Queensland style?
Yes, and I think it’s about colour, happiness and brightness. Our light does that. If you go to Milan, which is the closest in Italy to the North Pole, people wear darker shades. You go to Melbourne near the South Pole and people wear black. You go to Brisbane, which is closer to the equator, and it’s about colour and excitement. If you go to Rome, Naples, Capri, all towards the equator, it’s also colour and happiness. That’s how I think about Queensland fashion.
Published in Issue 12, on April 8, 2014.