Dominant Australian fashion label, Manning Cartell, is the brainchild of sisters Vanessa, Cheryl, and Gabrielle Manning. Formed in 2005, the triumvirate has led the brand through more than ten years of Australian fashion at its highest. Now considering new opportunities, Co-Managing Director Vanessa Manning tells The CEO Magazine that the trio are ready for their brand to take the next step.
The CEO Magazine: What was it that drove you to start a business with your sisters?
Vanessa: The three of us — Cheryl, Gabrielle, and myself — were coincidentally already working across many areas in the fashion industry independently of one another before we decided to join forces.
We were ready for a greater challenge; it just felt like the time was right to see what we could create together. So we formed the business in 2005 and were very fortunate because it worked. There were, of course, no guarantees that the three of us working together would be successful.
What are the benefits to operating as a family business?
As sisters we have an innate understanding of each other and a deep connection; we are similar yet different at the same time, and that’s what makes it work.
We have different strengths but our skill sets are complementary — we each operate within different areas of the business, but we come together to collaborate on brand strategy and projects. We have such similar work ethics, very congruent tastes, and a deep sense of trust in one another that comes with being family.
The label has been around for ten years. What have been some of the highlights during the growth of the company?
As a family business, we have grown organically, through hands-on management, and by having our own personal touch, and we’re very proud of that.
A year into our venture we opened our very first boutique in Paddington, Sydney. That was a big step for us, and we put all of our energy into it. It began as an old store that we had to reinvent to suit us. We were very hands-on, which is quite different to when we open a store now. Today we have an architect who partners with us to work on the design of the store. It’s amazing to see how different things are for us now, especially since that very first store has since had a complete redesign.
Another highlight was showcasing our Resort 17 Collection at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week earlier this year. It was a magical experience in a picturesque and iconic Sydney location — at Bradfield Plaza under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. All the elements of our collective vision came together; it was something we’ll remember for a long time to come.
How many stores do you have in Australia now, and where are they based?
Manning Cartell can be found in our flagship boutiques in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and our recently launched flagship boutique on the Gold Coast, which is our eighth store. At the end of last year we relaunched our e-boutique for a seamless digital shopping experience for our on-line customer.
What are your plans for the future of the business?
Our latest expansion is our newly opened boutique at Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast, Queensland’s newest and largest destination for luxury — it’s been a massive redevelopment and it looks incredible. Having ventured into the overseas market, we have engaged an agent in Los Angeles who showcases our collections to media and stylists. That’s garnered a lot of positive feedback and also some really great press for us in the US.
Over the next twelve to eighteen months, we will be focusing on a broader brand strategy for the business; one that continues the growth and relevance of Manning Cartell.
What have been some of the key challenges you’ve faced since you launched in the fashion industry?
There has never been anything we haven’t been able to overcome, but as with any successful fashion business, there have been a few challenges.
For example, finding suppliers with a similar work ethic, and working within tight fashion industry deadlines. Since we manufacture 85 per cent of our product in Australia, we find costs are quite high. It’s also expensive importing goods — we source globally, bring in the raw materials, and then we cut them and manufacture them here in Sydney. So cost is one thing and trying to control that with the fluctuating dollar can be tricky.
Another challenge is that fashion is ever evolving — the industry is moving very quickly at the moment, so it’s a constant challenge to maintain our position as industry leaders and to stay relevant.
Fashion is always ‘on’ and you have to have constant energy for that. Aside from the economic and fashion climate, the weather is also a consistent challenge. Planning relatively far in advance is a challenge across the entire fashion industry, and the lead time for ordering fabrics is lengthy. Essentially we are controlled by the elements and work to these year by year based on key learnings from the previous year. We love a good challenge at the Manning Cartell headquarters.
“The industry is moving very quickly at the moment, so it’s a constant challenge to maintain our position as industry leaders, and to stay relevant.”
What skills do you nurture and value in your staff, and how do you instil that culture in your employees?
Authenticity, integrity, and honesty are values shared by my sisters and I, and also our team, which is evident not only in the pieces we design, but also in our company culture. Everyone with Manning Cartell — whether they’re in the studio or within the stores — is committed to promoting and growing the brand. We’re constantly reviewing, growing, and trying to improve. For us it’s about keeping that attitude, and recognising that it’s those important relationships we form that will carry everything through to a great result, whether it’s someone you’re selling
to or someone you’re working with in partnership.
We operate as a fairly small business within our team. We share a very hands-on mentality — everyone is ‘all in’ — and that’s evident in our stores. If you ever walk into our boutiques, you’ll notice that all of the girls have great training; they understand our products, they’re well educated around what we’re doing as a brand, what our values are, and what’s important. They communicate clearly to the customers what we’re doing and how we manufacture in Australia, how we’re ethically accredited, and so on. Our staff are trained to ensure all customers experience Manning Cartell as more than just a shopping trip; our stores are a celebration of Australian fashion.
How important are the ethical manufacturing practices you use?
Being an active member of Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) is a major distinction for us. Having quality, respect, and an ethical approach to manufacturing in Australia is an integral part of our DNA and led to our accreditation in 2012. We have always tried to keep manufacturing in Australia because we feel that it’s important to nurture that industry within our country, as opposed to sending everything offshore. We’ve got second-generation seamstresses and patternmakers that work within our business and the partnerships that we have formed with them allows us to really understand what’s happening, where our goods are going, and who’s making them — it’s a much more controlled environment.
As well as ensuring we know the process, and that we keep those strong relationships and partnerships, this also helps to keep these skills alive, locally. We love being able to source local people with skills in pleating, printing, or different types of embroidery, but nowadays we are really limited in terms of where we can actually reach out to them. With the industry moving faster than ever — for instance, some retailers offer 3-hour delivery — its not acceptable to have delayed times from runway to store. Therefore, having this local element sits us in good stead.
How would you describe your working relationships with retailers like David Jones and The Iconic?
We have only recently started working with The Iconic; our first proper season with them will be the Spring/Summer collection, so we’re looking forward to seeing that progress. We’ve been on board with David Jones for several years now, and we have two dedicated spaces — in the Sydney store, on Elizabeth Street, and on Bourke Street in Melbourne — that represent our brand. The beauty of David Jones is that it supports Australian labels and home-grown fashion, which is a really good fit for us. It’s something I don’t think we talk about enough.
By partnering with David Jones, we also get access to a broader customer base, as their market is slightly different to that of our boutiques. And again we’ll get a different type of client at an outlet like The Iconic. Our relationships with these retailers enables us to connect to different people, which is wonderful.
How do you collaborate with key suppliers, and what benefits do you see from developing these relationships?
Manning Cartell has more than twenty loyal suppliers that have been with us since the beginning. We are very fortunate to have some really great partnerships and relationships with our suppliers. They’ve allowed us to continually grow, through their continued and passionate support of us. As a business, we always try to surround ourselves with people and other companies that inspire.
We are fortunate as a business that we have a great team of retail staff, patternmakers, seamstresses, photographers, developers, writers, suppliers, and consultants; a great number of exceptional people that we get to work with every day, and that’s not just internally, but externally as well. We understand a successful business is made from various layers — there have been so many factors to our success, and for that we are extremely grateful.
What do you love most about your job?
Probably the variety: fashion and business are both constantly changing and in all honesty, there’s never one thing to do or focus on.
Being in business means also being a part of many different facets. It has to be like that, and that’s why your head goes everywhere all of the time, which creates an incredible buzz. I think it keeps you going, and under the pump.
I love walking into work knowing that my sisters and I, and our wonderful team, are creating a memorable experience of Australian fashion for women all over the world.