Fella Hamilton: Fabulous and 50

It’s no secret that retail is doing it tough at the moment – stores are closing, sales are taking a downturn and restructures are taking place all over the world. So for a womenswear business like Fella Hamilton to actually survive and thrive for 50 years – while continuing to manufacture locally – is quite an achievement for the Australian retail industry.

Fella Hamilton created her namesake label in 1969 when she introduced Australians to the glamorous terry towelling turban. She began the business as a wholesaler before shifting to retail, when she opened her first store in 1987 in Hawthorn, Victoria. There are now 32 stores across the country.

The 93-year-old may no longer be at the helm of the business, which is now run by her son David and daughter-in-law Sharon Hamilton, but she is still interested in being kept up to date with its progress. As she says, “They have expanded the business in a way I could never have imagined.”

The Fella Hamilton brand actually turned 50 this week and as part of the celebrations, David and Sharon have re-created the famous turban that started it all and put it back on the shelves. 

The turban is part of a limited edition heritage terry towelling leisurewear range, including a tracksuit, dress and beach cover-up. Fifty per cent of its sales will go to the Breast Cancer Network Australia. Thirty turbans will also be donated to the Cabrini Hospital Oncology Department.

The next 50 years

As for the future, Fella Hamilton is planning to focus more on the digital side of the business. A relaunched website is on the horizon, featuring more interactivity, filters and a new blog so the brand can share their story with customers. The team is also looking to invest more in terms of digital advertising and pull back on its investment in print.

“They say that the largest increased demographic on Facebook is people in their 60s. A lot of grandmothers like to see photos of their grandchildren. That audience is growing, and now with our new website, we feel like it’s the right time to put more of our marketing budget into that,” explains Sharon.

However, the baby-boomer generation has a real love of bricks-and-mortar stores, and last year, Fella Hamilton opened new stores in Tasmania and South Australia. The brand also recently collaborated with 100 per cent Australian merino wool brand Hedrena, and created several basic styles using the textile. According to David, customers have responded so well to the range, that Fella Hamilton is looking to open a new standalone Hedrena store in the future. The wool brand previously had six stores, which have since closed.

“Generally our customers are semi-retired; they’re either working part-time or fully retired, so they’re not in a rush. They don’t have to do everything online. These ladies love to chat about their family, the trips they go on, what they’re doing in the garden and their health, so our staff have to really look after them because they really like to be greeted by their name, too.”

Physical retailers need to have a lot of patience when catering to older customers, David adds, and it’s imperative that shopfloor staff take the time to get to know them and spend time having meaningful conversations with them. Meanwhile, some customers may need more help getting dressed in the changerooms, while others have lost confidence in knowing how to style themselves so will require some guidance and advice from staff.

The result is the creation of an extremely loyal community of customers.

“Often customers know the whole team in the store. With some brands, people walk past their stores all the time, but a lot of our customers are loyal customers,” David says.

The forgotten generation

While Fella Hamilton’s customers are in their 60s and 70s, the older generation are largely ignored by many retailers, which are missing out on an opportunity to cater to a demographic that often has disposable income and are looking for stylish pieces for their wardrobe. 

“I’m 55. I’ve gone through menopause and if I went into a lot of clothing shops they’re catering often to a slim, younger body shape,” says Sharon. I’m now more conscious of my arms, even my knees and I’m a size 10, so I’m not large. Catering to an older woman with an elasticated pant is not sexy, but it’s not fair on people in their 60s who still want to feel and look good.”

While some people may think that older people may not have anywhere to go, retirees in particular are often very active, with plenty of events and functions to attend and opportunities to dress up – such as lunches, parties and holidays, points out Sharon.

David adds: “Probably one of the biggest myths is that [our customers] want to shop for their age, but customers don’t want to look their age – they want to look younger. It’s a mistake to design things that are too old-looking. They also want to look fashionable and youthful.”

The right fit

Brands also need to be aware of how to properly fit and design for an older demographic, advises David. It’s something that the Fella Hamilton team invest a lot of time and effort in.

“Because we manufacture here, we employ two pattern makers, we employ sample cutters and two fit models – one size 12 and size 18,” explains David. “So we make a 12, she tries it on and we check fittings and make adjustments. Then we make an 18, fit it on, then make another sent of adjustments for size 20 and 22. I don’t think a lot of companies would go to that same effort.”

“We have a generous fit as well for that older lady whose body shape has changed, so we hide all the lumps and bumps and make her look good.”

David also adds that given women’s bodies change after they hit menopause, their clothes require features such as elasticated pants and natural fibres like linen and 100 per cent cotton.

“We want our lady to feel as good as she can and be proud of how she looks. It’s important,” says Sharon. “Why should that age group be forgotten because they’re not as young? We’re trying to do design clothes that make her feel ageless but comfortable.”

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