Sibling-run label Alpha 60 design uniforms for Tasmania’s MONA and look to international expansion. By Alyx Gorman.

Alpha 60 design for MONA

Alpha 60’s uniforms for MONA’s shop and restaurant staff.
Alpha 60’s uniforms for MONA’s shop and restaurant staff.

Georgie Cleary has held more than one celebration at the Museum of Old and New Art. She honeymooned there. She spent her birthday there. But most recently, it’s the museum itself that’s given her cause for revelry. As one half of Melbourne label Alpha 60, the designer has turned her hand to creating uniforms for staff at MONA’s restaurants and shop. “It’s such an honour,” she says.

“A lot of testing went into the uniforms,” Georgie’s business partner and brother, Alex Cleary, says. “There’s a lot more in designing a uniform than in designing a dress for an evening. It has to be utilitarian… If you walk into a dress shop, you choose what you want to wear. With a uniform it’s different. They have to be… practical enough for you to carry wine and art. For a restaurant, for instance, if you give a uniform big floaty sleeves, they’ll knock over all the wine glasses. We had to make them fit a lot of different people, and make those people comfortable.”

“We did an apron dress that can be worn in several different ways and fits everyone,” Georgie says. “We used classic Alpha styles that we have tweaked over the years to perfect.”

Designing something that’s not worn by choice comes with particular challenges for a venue as imposing as MONA, with its internal cliff faces and velvet-dark caverns. These are garments that must withstand acute gazes, from people accustomed to contemplating objects and their meaning. It’s fitting that MONA selected a sibling duo for the task, since the uniforms have to complement the gallery attendants’ garb, which was created by Lindy-Lou, sister of MONA founder David Walsh. “Those uniforms have stood the test of fashion time,” says MONA’s hospitality operations manager, Maria Lurighi. “When we started to discuss what we were looking for in a new uniform, we wanted each unit to feel individual. We wanted the staff to feel like they were wearing something unique.”

The resulting garments are dark and draped. They cocoon the wearer’s body, rather than cleaving to it, offering a cool detachment that is both literal and aesthetic. “They make us feel very graceful in a high-pressured busy environment. Guests often presume that it’s a personal garment,” says MONA staff member Isabelle Bishop. “Uniforms aren’t traditionally so arty.”

The new uniforms are a perfect case study in Alpha 60’s decade-long appeal. Over the lifetime of their label, the Clearys have spent more time in art galleries than they have on traditional runways. Lately, one of their outfits has been acquired and displayed by the National Gallery of Victoria for their 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition.

Alpha 60 emerged in the mid-2000s as a screen-printed shirt brand, created because Alex wanted new things to wear. Their first big break came in the form of an invitation from the National Gallery of Australia – the institution wanted Alpha 60 to launch their label as part of its programming around a 2005 Vivienne Westwood exhibition. The pair “had to bluff our way through it”, Alex says of the show, in which their models emerged from coffins in “a sort of reverse requiem”.

The same year the brand launched, the Cleary siblings set up their first retail store on fashionable Brunswick Street in Melbourne’s Fitzroy. It was not the first shopfront they’d run together. “We’ve worked in businesses together since we were eight and 10,” Alex recalls. “We sold flowers on the side of the street, made Christmas cards and shirts and bags. We had one market day before Christmas where we made $500 between us. That year we were kings of the kids.”

The decision to go into retail so early on was key to defining the brand and their audience. From the beginning, the pair – who share “extremely similar” tastes – realised they wanted to make clothes for themselves, their friends, and people like them. That meant keeping prices low. Had the brand focused more heavily on wholesale there would have been pressure from retailers to “make something different, or make it at a different cost”.

While retailing has led Alpha 60 down “some dark alleys, as well as sunlit streets”, that direct contact with their customers, without external pressure, has put the brand in a strong position. Retail is what made them decide to make womenswear (so many of their customers were women anyway), it is what made them shut their menswear business – “men’s taste grew more conservative… we had to stop doing it to make more room for women” – and it’s what has made them decide to relaunch menswear later this year, in a standalone store, also in Fitzroy.

The chance to sell to their own people is also why Alpha 60’s aesthetic is exceptionally well formed: it’s left of centre, with inclusive fits (“our customers are 17-year-old ‘fashion-fashion’ women and 70-year-old ‘art-fashion’ women”), defined by a focus on exclusive but relatively understated fabrics and a femininity that is never explicitly sensual, but not so eccentric that it reads as dowdy. Oh, and black. Lots and lots of black. It’s a look that stands out, but not flamboyantly so, and it is catnip to women in creative industries. The MONA work emerged because several women working at the museum were already Alpha customers. Fans at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Writers’ Festival have also recruited the brand to make uniforms.

Typically, a label with DNA this strong comes with a high price tag attached. But Alpha 60’s garments cost a third of the price of similarly “arty” labels such as Helmut Lang and Yohji Yamamoto – and just a few fractions more than the high-street brands from which their style is so distinct.

Alpha 60’s collections don’t come from a complex narrative source, or an arcane search for inspiration, says Alex . “It’s rarely from pictures or other garments. We’re more about working than dreaming off into mood boards.” Georgie Cleary has a background in graphic design, and for her, a garment’s fabric always comes first: “The ideas for these can come from many different places – a colour in a painting – the reflection in a sculpture or the icing on a cake.”

Lately, their challenge is to push the Alpha 60 look to its thinnest edge. The Clearys have just started wholesaling to a handful of boutiques in Europe and the United States, and Georgie says the demand from those markets has been “the weirder, the better”.

Expanding internationally is essential for Alpha 60’s growth. By their own admission the brand is “polarising”. They have diehard fans, but there are not that many of them. “We’re not a 20 or 30 boutiques in Australia kind of label,” Alex says. This won’t stop them from opening two more stores in rapid succession over the coming months.

One is above their Flinders Lane store, a 350-square-metre concept space inside St Paul’s Cathedral, where they plan on serving drinks and hosting their own exhibitions. The other is very different, located in the Gold Coast’s Pacific Fair shopping centre. This store will be a testing ground for tourists. The Clearys are keen to see how foreign visitors who’ve never encountered them before will react to their clothes. “It’s our dream to have a store overseas,” says Alex.

There’s an art to running a boutique label, but it’s also a science. Alpha 60’s two-pronged approach to the international market – through wholesale and retail – will help inform how they go about realising the dream of international expansion. “We’re just going to keep our fingers in both pies for now, and see which is tastier.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2016 as "Black arts".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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