Life

While other labels scrabble to gain 'celebrity cool', two young Aussie designers have hit the $$ jackpot.

By Patty Huntington.

Australian designers Discount Universe hit the jackpot

Heavily embellished showpieces feature in Discount Universe’s ‘‘ARTI$ANAL’’ range.
Credit: Zac Steinic

“MILEY CYRUS.” So read the subject line of an email that popped into Discount Universe’s inbox on January 29. Via her US tour company Live Nation, the 21-year-old Hannah Montana star turned recording artist was asking permission to use photos of herself wearing a T-shirt designed by the Melbourne brand. As one of the pop Zeitgeist’s most buzzed-about figures, Cyrus wanted the shirt to appear on four pieces of merchandise for her 2014 Bangerz world tour, which kicked off in Vancouver on February 14.

The photos were part of a shoot of Cyrus by controversial American fashion photographer Terry Richardson and were uploaded to his blog on October 3, immediately going viral. Eight shots featured Cyrus in Discount Universe’s psychedelic tie-dye PRAY FUR UR LYF T-shirt emblazoned with illustrations and the words DISCOUNT DISCIPLES in flaming capitals.

Cyrus recently used one of the shots as her background photo on Twitter – where she has an audience of 17 million – and a mash-up of the shots appears as a video backdrop during the Bangerz show.

Fashion brands are now throwing money at high-profilers to plug merchandise on social media. According to Discount Universe design duo Nadia Napreychikov and Cami James, however, Cyrus’s stylist Simone Harouche bought the T-shirt from their online shop. At press time, a deal was being negotiated for the use of the images of the shirt on the already manufactured tour merchandise.

Just another day at the office, it seems, for Australia’s hottest new fashion label.

Since launching their brand, officially DI$COUNT UNIVER$E, into orbit in 2009, Napreychikov and James have received many big-name requests for their acid-bright luxury streetwear. Reps for Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Kreayshawn, Iggy Azalea, M.I.A. and Kimbra have requested product to wear on music awards shows and in video clips. The Australian Ballet and Hello Kitty, among others, have sought small one-off collaborations.

Spears and co bought or commissioned custom items mostly from the brand’s premium ARTI$ANAL range of heavily embellished showpieces, prices for which range from $A400 to $5000. Others purchased from the ready-to-wear TRA$H line, which offers a slice of Discount Universe’s louche glitter dream for under $300 – crop tops, biker shorts, slouch pants, hooded shirts, biker jackets, miniskirts and microdresses smothered in studs, sequins, smiley faces, giant eyes, devil heads and Rolling Stone-style lips dripping with blood. Forty dollars buys a plain black DI$CUNT logo T. The PRAY FUR UR LYF style retails for $189.

How does a tiny, undercapitalised fashion brand from two RMIT grads come to the attention of the global entertainment industry?

Standing out from the pack helps and, in the best tradition of Aussie fashion larrikinism, Discount Universe follows hot on the heels of Flamingo Park, Mambo, P.A.M. and Romance Was Born – brands whose rainbow-lorikeet-bright palettes and irreverent graphics tapped the Australian love of colour and humour.

But the internet has played a key role.

Beyond a couple of independent Australian boutiques – and a small deal with US chain Urban Outfitters – the bulk of the business is conducted online. The label’s web shop is an extension of the duo’s blog, which launched in December 2009.

“[The blog] was fundamental for us in creating our own voice and also forming bonds with our customers,” said Napreychikov and James in a joint interview. “We had little business experience, no capital and no intention of taking out a loan, so we recognised what we did have and that was the potential to reach an endless amount of people through the web and try and convince them of our vision. We recognised how huge fashion blogs were becoming and how brands used bloggers to promote their merchandise, so we took it one step further and became both the blogger and the brand.”

The essence of the label, say the designers, is “a culmination of ideas, imagery, the dialogue between us and the world, the desire for transformation and evolution; it’s about personality, spontaneity, humour and irony, cliché and imitation. It’s our art!”

In the current environment and given the growing graveyard of Australian fashion casualties, a cynic might not rate the brand’s chances of being around in five years.

Mambo managing director Angus Kingsmill is cautious: “The Discount Universe girls are clearly very talented and are making amazing and unique product, but the fashion industry is littered with pitfalls and one of those is dealing with scale and financing growth, not only in the early years, but right through.”

In Napreychikov’s and James’s favour: they run a leanish operation, which industry sources estimate turns over less than $500,000 at retail. They produce in limited runs, with the embellishment outsourced to low-cost Bali. There are no traditional retail costs. Beyond a small presentation at the Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2011, moreover, the duo has not spent money on splashy fashion shows and won’t be on schedule at next month’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia.

Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus, their biggest fan, is spreading the word to 60 cities worldwide.

Says Kingsmill: “That sort of leg-up is worth millions of dollars for a young brand trying to establish itself on the global fashion stage.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 28, 2014 as "Masters of the Universe". Subscribe here.

Patty Huntington
is a correspondent for US trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily. She is The Saturday Paper's fashion editor.