Best known for the eponymous shoe label she founded in the 1990s, Jo Mercer is now channelling her passion for local manufacturing into Matilda Life, the fashion and lifestyle brand she started in 2021. Here, she discusses opening a physical store and lessons learned from over 20 years in retail. Inside Retail: Can you tell me about the Matilda Life brand? Can you discuss the key concepts and philosophies, as well as its key achievements since its launch in 2021? Jo Mercer: The pandemic wa
mic was a time for soul searching and reflection on an industry I had worked in since I was 18 years old. It was a shame to see that so many iconic Australian brands had stopped manufacturing in Australia. I wanted to change that and so, Matilda Life was born. We have four key principles that we will not compromise on, even as we grow: Australian manufacturing, sustainability, quality and a fair price – buying Australian doesn’t have to mean a designer price tag. Opening our first store has been our most significant achievement since the launch of Matilda Life in November 2021. Our Armadale, [Victoria] store embodies our key principles, with a fully Australian-made and environmentally sustainable fit-out. IR: Why have you decided to open a bricks-and-mortar store rather than focus exclusively on e-commerce? What excites you about this concept and can you discuss the in-store offer and customer experience? JM: I think customers love the ‘touch and feel’ experience of a physical store, especially with a brand like ours that uses premium fabrics and materials. We wanted to create a really relaxed, friendly and enjoyable shopping experience – like a warm Australian welcome. We also want our customers to feel like they’re a part of our family and really engage with the Australian-made nature of our brand. It’s much easier to articulate this in a physical store – whether it’s through our colour palette, the smell of our candles (all made with Australian botanicals) or just by speaking with customers as they visit. IR: There was a lot of talk about supporting local businesses during Covid-19 restrictions. Has this continued over the past year? What needs to change, either in the industry or with consumers, to ensure local manufacturers can thrive? JM: I think the pandemic really shined a light on the importance of buying Australian-made. It’s still on people’s minds. And even though customers want to support local brands, it’s hard to do so, because there’s not many brands doing it. We need more retailers to be a part of this change and invest in Australian-made from start to finish. IR: What were some of the key lessons you learned in starting the business during Covid-19, and how have customer behaviour and preferences evolved since the brand’s launch? JM: Don’t try to start a business during a pandemic! It’s lucky I didn’t know how difficult the journey ahead would be. I started investing in the business during the first Victorian lockdown, thinking it would last only six weeks. The ongoing restrictions meant we were unable to visit manufacturers or organise photo shoots. We had to organise fit tests and pattern adjustments with our designer on Zoom. Since the brand’s launch and Covid19, people have invested more in casual wear, which has worked really well for us as a more relaxed brand. Previously, customers spent money only on dressing up and going out, whereas now they’re after high-quality essentials for every day. IR: What advice are you able to share for people who are considering entering bricks-and-mortar retail, especially considering the current macroeconomic conditions? JM: Don’t underestimate the cost of opening a store, and make sure you can afford to make the customer experience a good one. Customers have high expectations, so your store needs to be reflective of your brand. An online presence is still important, too. During the pandemic, we saw people who had never shopped online before prepared to give it a go. Keep that in mind, even as shoppers return to bricks-and-mortar stores. IR: Are there plans to expand the store footprint beyond the Melbourne store? If so, can you discuss whether there’ll be more Matilda Life stores interstate or overseas in the years to come? JM: We’d like to trade for six to 12 months to really understand our customers’ response and appetite to the brand. We don’t want to rush into anything. We’d like to make sure we’re trading well, even during this tough retail period. Our long-term goal is to open more stores, potentially interstate and overseas. Let’s take it one step at a time though! IR: You’re well known for the Jo Mercer brand (previously known as Joanne Mercer, with the business name changing following her departure in 2007). How have you seen Australian fashion and footwear evolve over the years, and how do you see their trajectory moving forward? JM: Over the past 20 years, footwear has become more about fashion and less about quality. That’s been an ongoing trend. Designer brands have dominated and those middle-market brands have disappeared. We’re missing high-quality leather shoes that don’t cost $1,000. That’s the gap we saw and filled with Matilda Life’s range of fair-priced premium leather shoes. IR: What do you see as the biggest challenges and the most exciting opportunities facing the Australian retail industry over the next few years? JM: I’m excited to see how brands evolve when it comes to environmental sustainability. We know customers are already demanding better practices from the brands they buy from, so retailers really need to get on board. It’s no longer OK to just ‘tick a box’. The days of greenwashing and greenhushing are over and I think customers will continue to demand transparency from retailers. IR: Anything else you’d like to add? JM: At our Armadale store, we stock a range of products from talented artisans who share our Australian-made ethos. They make wonderful products that each have a story behind them. The founder of The Raconteur, for example, is a retired private equity and capital markets lawyer who now makes candles with native Australian botanicals. We have loved curating a collection of luxury Australian-made products and sharing them with our customers. This story first appeared in the August 2023 issue of Inside Retail Australia Magazine.