Inside Retail: Congratulations on 50 years of Feathers. How do you feel about reaching that milestone?
Margaret Porritt: It’s just been a blast. I can’t believe how fast 50 years have gone. If you had said [it had been] five years, I’d believe you. As they say, if you love what you’re doing, you’re not spending one day at work. Even through the pandemic, as tough as it’s been, I still have the passion to get up and go to work. It drives you and it’s inspirational.
IR: Your mother was a milliner, and you trained as a milliner. What attracted you to fashion as a young girl, and what do you still love about it?
MP: It’s so exciting. I get joy not from getting super dressed up, but just putting on a beautiful outfit, the right shoes, the right garments. I’m still an avid shopper. I wear everything Feathers, but my key pieces for groovy special occasions, I buy elsewhere. Of course, we don’t carry shoes or bags, but at the moment, everything’s about the right shoes and the right bag.
I just think there’s an adrenaline that drives the love of fashion. I don’t know if it’s the colour or the style, it’s such a broad spectrum. I love going shoe shopping, I love going handbag shopping, I love seeing what’s on the street. When I go to New York or Paris or London, which we did two years ago, it’s the street that inspires me. The women in the street, in the shops, at the hairdresser. Then you look in the department stores in New York…Saks and Bloomies are fabulous stores.
IR: Beyond the fashion side of things, you’re obviously a successful businesswoman. What do you like about running a fashion retail business?
MP: I’m not doing one thing. I’m talking to solicitors and accountants, negotiating with landlords, talking to interior designers, working with the girls on the floor, speaking to customers. It’s embracing a whole issue.
When I was young, [and learning to be a milliner], it took me a week to make a hat, and if it was a centimetre out, my mother would make me unpick it and work on it for another week. That gave me an eye for fabric, design, and simplicity. It’s harder to make a simple hat than a hat with feathers and flowers, because you can cover up all your mistakes. If you make a simple hat or you design a simple garment, even designing a simple house, there’s beauty in straight lines and simplicity. I think that shows in what I do, even though we do some fancy bits and pieces. The customer is what drives us.
For the first 25 years, when I carried Australian designers, I treated my customer like a princess. Women have been shopping with me for 50 years because we’ve always looked after them. That old-fashioned service, unless you go to the top designers, it’s gone. It’s cash and grab. You’re on your own, mate. You’ve got nobody giving you advice. Sure, if you go to the top designers, they’ll look after you. But the old-fashioned middle market service doesn’t seem to be around anymore.
IR: Do you think it’s harder being in fashion retail today or when you first started out?
MP: It’s harder now. It’s very tough. You have all this legislation. I fear for young people starting a business because with all the legislation – the GST, the super, the payroll tax – you literally need a full-time bookkeeper-accountant, then you’ve got to have an operations manager. I ran six to eight shops literally on my own with a bookkeeper because it was more simplistic. Everything is much harder [now]; there’s a lot more legislation. And I think probably it’s better, but for a small business, it’s hard.
To get the rebate from the landlords when we were locked down, the forms you had to fill in, and the landlords hammering you; you were lucky to be standing up. Every move you made was extremely difficult these [last] two years, and it’s still not easy. I’m fortunate that I’ve got 50 years of experience.
IR: What do you think that 50 years of experience gives you? The perspective to know that you’ll get through it? Are there any specific lessons that you’ve drawn on?
MP: There are three things that you need to look at when you rent or you move; it’s the location, the rent and the landlord. If you’ve got a tough landlord, you’ve got pain all the way through. But if you’ve got a fair landlord that respects that you’re still standing, you’ve refurbished the shop, you’ve spent a lot of money, and you keep doing it and maintaining it…I’m very lucky. Out of the five shops, I’ve got four very good landlords, and one tricky one. That’s the nature of the beast. And I’m not in the big shopping centres, because I’m not strong enough to pay that massive rent. We’re in strips and in Myer.
IR: Department stores have been one of the big shifts in retail in the last few decades. They used to be the go-to destination, but now a lot of them are really struggling. Do you see that as being a significant change?
MP: Really big. There are some people who will go to department stores because mostly everything’s there, but in womenswear, it’s shifted. There’s no service, there’s no staff. They’re all blitzing online. David Jones is up online and Myer is up online, and that’s where the business is being driven. If you go on Kogan, Catch, or Amazon, you basically have the whole shop in front of you, and people are getting used to it, but I still love Selfridges, Saks and Bloomingdale’s. Macy’s is off the radar. I don’t know what happened to Barneys. It just got very dead the last few years before they shut down. It just didn’t smell right. It didn’t have that feeling. Something’s gone. I think it’s basically service, they’ve got no staff.
IR: What has the rise of online been like for Feathers? You would have really seen it happen from the beginning.
MP: [Online was] one of the things that held us together in the pandemic. That cash flow that came with online was a saviour. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but you had a cash flow coming in. If you were not online and not bringing in any money, you still had to run the business, you couldn’t just stop midstream. I’d say we’re up 20-30 per cent [online], certainly not up 40-50 per cent, but then I don’t have homewares, kettles, shoes, athletic wear.
My demographic has gotten older with me. She’s tactile, she wants to touch and feel. She’ll look online, come in and try it on, and buy it. Now that we’re open again, that’s where it’s been a real bonus for us. I was just listening to a seminar that Telstra and The Australian put on, and that’s what they’re all saying is happening. We’re very pleased with online, it’s growing, and we’re working on growing it even more.
IR: Even after 50 years in business, it sounds like you spend a lot of time informing yourself about the latest industry news and trends. Is that something you’ve always done?
MP: Always. I’ve got a very inquisitive mind. I drive my husband nuts. I think more than anything, I can adapt to change. I love change. I don’t stagnate. Like, the team has gone out and they want to improve the site. We’ve ramped up what we spend on the algorithms. I’m always searching for something new. I mean, I don’t know what the metaverse is, I can’t get my head around that one – accepting Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. That might be for the new generation, the children who have grown up with it. I don’t know if my 40-, 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds are quite into that.
IR: There’s a lot of uncertainty in retail right now. How does it compare to some of the other tough times you’ve experienced in retail?
MP: The growth as we all know is online. It’s important to have bricks – bricks-and-clicks work the best – but you’ve got to be online. For fashion, I think you’ve got to have some [physical] presence. But basically, after two years of this, we’re in survival mode. I’ve consolidated and I will sit tight because it’s hard to gauge. Rents are still very high and to go into a five-year lease, when you don’t know if your demographic is there…
Look, in the 90s, I opened 13 stores and closed 15. I did pop-ups right through Melbourne before that was even a buzzword. From a business point of view, the 90s were tougher in one way. But when there’s a recession, you know if you come out, you will be stronger. The pandemic left you with a query. But I still believe in that philosophy that if you come out of the pandemic, you will be stronger, and you will be one of the survivors.
More than anything, fast fashion has knocked a lot of the middle market [out]. The Ann Taylors, DKNY, CK – they all had a tough time when Zara and Uniqlo and H&M came in and cleaned up everything. People said, ‘I’ll buy my good designer pieces, but then I’ll go to H&M or Uniqlo or Zara and buy my basics there.’ Fast fashion knocked the middle market right around the world, and we survived that too. That was really hard. It was almost a recession for the middle market.
IR: Speaking of hard times, what what it was like starting a business as a single mum in the 1970s?
MP: When I first wanted to go into business, I had money in the bank, but I needed a credit card, and I couldn’t get a credit card because I had no history. I had no debt. The bank wanted my father to be guarantor, and the landlord wanted my father to be guarantor, and I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that. I have a [divorce] settlement. I have money in the bank, and I’m not going to ask my father to be guarantor. I will not go ahead.’
Honestly, I had to fight every inch of the way. I had the bank asking me why I was going into business with three small children. Why wasn’t I at home? The founder of The Body Shop had the same problem. The bank wouldn’t give her a loan, so she put her husband in a suit, went to the bank, and she got a loan. Well, I didn’t want to do that. I was an independent woman.
I did find out there was a memo that went through the bank that said, ‘Don’t lend women money to set up a business. They’re too unreliable.’ I found out from a bank manager I think in the 80s or the 90s, and I was horrified.
IR: Later on, there was a moment when you transitioned from selling other designers and brands to your own designs, and you put your own face on the campaign to introduce the change to your customer. I was really struck by the cool and confident vibe of those posters. What was it like for you to become the face of your brand?
MP: In the mid-90s, I’d had enough of the majors discounting. I would get some beautiful pieces in from Carla Zampatti and all these top brands, and I would turn around and Myer and David Jones had taken 20, 30 per cent off. I was a small business; that would cut into my margins. The main brands I carried, which were Country Road and Sportscraft, all opened their own stores. I would place a half-a-million-dollar order for the season and I wouldn’t get half of it because if what I’d ordered was selling, they’d take it off me and put it in their stores. That led me to say, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m getting on a plane, I’m going overseas.’
I put a collection together, and within 12 months, it took off like a rocket. I didn’t need any of the others. But I couldn’t get the message through to the customer that we didn’t carry Australian designers anymore, we carried Feathers by Margaret Porritt. My son was working for me doing marketing, and he said, ‘We’ll take a photo of you, we’ll get a big poster and put it in the window.’ I said, ‘David, I’m 65 years old, size 16, who wants to see that person in the window?’
We had billboards right around Melbourne. We had them in Sydney. We had posters in the window, and that’s how we got to tell the customer the story of Feathers by Margaret Porritt.
IR: You recently held an event to celebrate 50 years of Feathers, but it seems like you’re more interested in looking forwards, rather than backwards. What are you excited about in the years ahead?
MP: We’re really solid with our [existing] client base, but we need to bring in a 30-40 year old. When I started, I was 32, and that woman has grown with me. We need to bring back that 30-40-year-old woman who wants a slightly better outfit in the middle market. All the young brands online, half that stuff doesn’t fit.
But it’s very hard when you’re coming out of survival mode. I’m a great believer that the universe will look after you and that you get back what you give out. Right now, I’m not being opportunistic, I just want to batten down, consolidate, and when I’m happy with everything, I’ll jump.
IR: So, it sounds like retirement is not in the cards for you?
MP: No, no. I’ll probably die on the job.