“Why can’t we source a decent blank T-shirt?” That was the conundrum facing young entrepreneur Lawrence Railton and fine arts graduate and sales manager Dan Bycroft when Railton started his fledgling T-shirt wholesale distribution business back in 2006.
With a background in the distribution of skate and surf labels, Railton was busy establishing his new business − out of a Parnell garage − when Bycroft returned from the traditional Kiwi OE to help out.
“There was a demand for a better quality T-shirt,” recalls Bycroft, who was cold-calling screenprinters and fashion labels. And so AS Colour was born.
“We had a goal to make the best T-shirts in the world.”
The Boston Road warehouse, opposite Auckland's Mt Eden prison, started to become a cult purchase point for a cool set of 18 to 25 year-olds.
“It was weird,” says Bycroft. “We didn’t really take the retail side that seriously at first. We were primarily a wholesale business, selling to screenprinters and promotional companies. But then we started opening our showroom doors on Saturdays. We would buzz the customers in, night-club style, and all of a sudden we were the cool place to get T-shirts – accessible, but cool. It just grew from there. There was a lot of word-of-mouth and social media picked it up.”
AS Colour started by distributing an American T-shirt brand, but some of the fits were wrong − especially the women’s sizes − and the quality was not what they envisioned.
They wanted to make a T-shirt for the local market that did not rely on distributors or overseas preferences. Having an in-house design and production team means AS Colour can react swiftly to emerging trends.
Now, the company deals with breweries, coffee companies and everybody − from high fashion labels to the screenprinter in South Auckland producing T-shirts for a family reunion.
By providing a range of blank T-shirts − with high-quality combed cotton, fashion forward cuts and innovative fabrics − AS Colour is supplying a product that was previously unavailable in the local market.
“Blanks have become a fashion trend,” says Bycroft. “It’s cool to wear plain jeans and a plain T-shirt. And, it has become cool to wear no logos.”
This is what drives the retail business and, although the wholesale side moves the volumes, the retail fashion side produces the margins. With the new Ponsonby store being the fifth New Zealand store to open, AS Colour has also expanded into the Australian market − with a budding wholesale business in Sydney, a retail store in Paddington and new retail stores opening in both Sydney and Melbourne later this year.
The challenge for AS Colour in the Kiwi T-shirt market is moving customers off the traditional black. Black T-shirts account for 44 per cent of all sales − black, white and grey together make up 83 per cent of T-shirt sales. The problem was one of how to instil inner confidence for customers to take more colour risks.
While colours would always be popular with promotional T-shirts in brand colours, the cool fashion purchasers were slow to branch out. The answer was to use creativity and science and Railton, ever the visionary, matched up Draft FCB creatives Matt Williams and Freddie Coltart with Brice Clark, director of The Art Watchers Collective, to create the world’s first digital colour critic – the AS Colourmatic.
The interactive window display uses the laws of colour science to analyse what people are wearing and helps them wear colour better.
The Colourmatic was an instant hit − installed at the Britomart store in Auckland in early February. Based on colour science theory and trend-watching, the Colourmatic determines whether the colours someone is wearing are original, compared to everyone else, whether they are seasonally correct and whether an alternative would be better.
Hundreds of people used the AS Colourmatic at the Britomart store and AS Colour claim they are looking 28 per cent better on average. Sales are up over 16 per cent as a result.
The seasonal aspect of the recommendations is a fascinating one, as fashion is very subjective. Bycroft gives an example of a surge in burgundy sales a couple of years back.
“Suddenly, burgundy was a hot colour, seemingly coming out of nowhere. But it appeared that some street labels in the US were doing burgundy and the fashion caught on.”
What this seems to show is that there are a number of fashion opinion-makers that lead the way − they keep a very close eye on overseas markets. It is for this reason that the team at AS Colour stay close to opinion makers.
At the Britomart opening, where the AS Colourmatic was launched, invitees included fashion bloggers as well as the media and customers. There were over 150 people crammed into a small space, with people queuing up outside for a turn with the Colourmatic. Incidentally, one party girl achieved an amazing score with her brown, orange and green ensemble.
At the Britomart party, AS Colour gave away 50 T-shirts − based on Colourmatic recommendations. With all the key data being captured, the company is able to keep up with market preferences and, with a pending move of the Colourmatic to Wellington, the regional trends will be a welcome and interesting addition to the knowledge base.
Already Bycroft has seen a regional variation − Wellingtonians seem more individualistic with a taste for olive and other shades of green.
Word-of-mouth, social media and blogging are prime drivers for the marketing effort − and staying close to opinion leaders is key. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr are purveyors of desired communication and relationships with fashion bloggers − such as Katherine Lowe, Isaac Hinden Miller and NZ Girl help in this regard.
However, advertising in cool publications is an important part of the marketing effort.
The Australian magazine Monster Children is an edgy, Sydney- based publication that takes a refreshingly casual, reliably hilarious − and occasionally smart-arsed − look at various aspects of street style and popular culture. Although having a small readership in New Zealand, it is − according to Bycroft − read by the opinion-makers that matter.
This magazine − along with another Australian fashion magazine, Frankie − has regular AS Colour advertising.
Railton is inspired by US-based clothing company, Carhartt − which revolutionised premium workwear − in his quest to create a company associated with creativity and cool people doing creative things. This is what drove his Little Help Project, designed to inspire budding designers to create their own label.
This project started out five years ago as a T-shirt design contest. The winner was given $10,000 − a grant to start their own T-shirt label. The contest was repeated three more times and, today, has morphed into a six-monthly $5000 grant for top designs.
AS Colour now takes the best 10 designs and creates T-shirts for limited sale in-store, with royalties going to the designers − many of whom are grateful design students. The Little Help Project has resulted in a database of 3000 designers and has stimulated creativity in a co-creation style reminiscent of the first Apple apps. It has resulted in great marketing for AS Colour, particularly in its Britomart store frequented by cruise ship passengers and backpackers − overjoyed at the opportunity to purchase limited edition , original designer T-shirts for a mere $40.
AS Colour is not merely a purveyor of T-shirts. Its stores sell a range of streetwear − including singlets, sweatshirts, pants, shorts, caps, tanks, dresses and kidswear. Also, about to be launched is a range of men’s shirting that will, according to Bycroft, “take us into a whole new category”.
The new line of Oxford-style, button-down basic shirts will join all the other items on the AS Colour online store which has garnered international interest from America, Europe and Africa. The future for the company appears to be one of continuing growth and success.
This article first appeared in New Zealand Retail magazine.