Geek-chic: Behind the nylon cult of Black Milk
It all started in a yellow suburban house in Brisbane with a single plastic sewing machine, a blog, and a hope that girls somewhere would like these patterned tights.
Now, the nylon cult that is Black Milk Clothing is a global phenomenon.
While half its loyal customers are local, Black Milk now ships to 200 countries and boasts celebrity fans such as Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Whoopi Goldberg.
The brand is also a social media phenomenon – heading towards two million followers on social media, they have more than a million on Instagram alone, and a dedicated team who respond to every comment.
Such is the popularity of Black Milk clothing, it has a dedicated IT department to help deal with the surge in website activity on collection day, when coveted items such as the Harry Potter–themed kimono sell out in minutes.
So how did this locally designed and made clothing brand famous for its geeky tights and swimsuits become such a success?
James Lillis, the man who started it all, still seems surprised by the growth some eight years after starting out.
“I never envisaged it would become this,” he says. “I was like, maybe if I can sell a couple of pairs of leggings a day, I’d be pretty happy.
“I think for some bizarre reason I really believed in it – and I don’t know why, I didn’t really have a lot of evidence – but a part of me felt, ‘I think I can do this.’ ”
Despite his lack of formal training and “just kind of making it up” as he went along, Lillis says it was sheer determination that has taken the company to where it is today.
“It’s quite perverse actually, the fact that somebody like me can go so far, it’s almost unjust,” he says.
“But we’ve just had a lot of hustle over the years and a never-say-die attitude, and I guess things like that hustle and a never-say-die attitude are probably better determinates of your success than raw talent.”
Whether it’s passion or hustle driving business, part of Black Milk’s success lies in Lillis’ realisation of a gap in the market; when he started out, there was no geek-themed clothing designed for women.
“I actually started off designing T-shirts and threw in a couple of Star Wars references and I just found people got fired up about it.”
Lillis found the men’s T-shirt market was “fairly clogged” when it came to geek culture, so he decided to turn to women’s clothing instead and put out an R2-D2 swimsuit, which blew up on the internet and quickly became a collectors item.
“It just flew out the door,” he says. “That led us to our first licensed deal with Star Wars, and girls were kind of like ‘this is great, what are you going to do next?’.”
So then followed Lord of the Rings collections, Harry Potter-themed clothing, and a suite of DC Comics, and most recently a Marvel-based collection.
And the hugely loyal fan base eats every collection up. Called “sharkies” by themselves and the Black Milk team, Lillis says they gained the moniker for swamping the website on “collection day” and then panicking when they couldn’t buy clothes as quickly as they wanted.
“The idea was that if you’re a girl who loves Black Milk, and on collection day you’re there ready to go, you’re like a little shark, so we call them little sharkies,” he says.
The name sharkies goes some way to showing the unique relationship Black Milk has with its customers.
A unique business model, without bricks-and-mortar stores, social media is their primary customer service point.
And they take it seriously. Not simply a tool to push their products to potential customers, the use it as a tool to deeply engage with their fans.
No comment on Facebook goes without a response from someone at Black Milk, and they don’t just talk about the clothing – conversations between Black Milk and their sharkies range from hairstyles to their pets and thoughts on potential new designs.
Lillis says this level of interaction is really what the internet and social media is all about.
“Every brand connects with its customers to an extent, we like to go to the extreme to the point where we chat with them, we talk with them, we know their names, we know their sizes, we’ve met them at events,” he says.
Part of the Black Milk culture right from the start, when it was just Lillis responding to emails himself, he says their huge social media presence is just an evolution of that.
“It’s quite genuine, and it really came from me appreciating that a girl was willing to take money out of her pocket and pay for something that I had made,” he says.
“And I think hopefully that’s continued throughout the years – that people who appreciate what we do, we treat them like our friends.
“We try to not let it be company and fans: we’re all fans, we all dig it [the clothing] we’re all excited about collection day, we’re all waiting for the next Halloween collection, we’re all waiting for the next licensed deal you know, we’re all into it.”
Black Milk currently employs about 150 people in its vast warehouse in the northern Brisbane suburb of Banyo, where they do everything from the marketing and design to the manufacturing of their coveted products.
Despite making all the clothing in Australia, it remains reasonably priced – their leggings range from $45 to about $80, and dresses sit around the $100 mark.
“We understand that not everyone has a huge amount of money in their wallets, and we want … people to be able to buy it,” Lillis says.
Keeping manufacturing in Australia is also a way for Lillis to keep control of a product he cares deeply about, and try to be responsive to the demand of his sharkies.
“Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not so much, but it’s because it’s tough to get things through manufacturing,” he says. “We like to keep it tight and keep a lot of control, but even then, oh my goodness crazy stuff happens, so there’s a lot of hussle, but no regrets.”
While there will always be focus on their licensed collections, Black Milk is starting to focus more energy on the active wear market.
They already have a couple of sports offerings to cater to the huge popularity of active wear, but Lillis says Black Milk is “going to do a lot more”.
With trendy prints and neutrals, the collection will be snapped up quickly – not least because the tights will come with pockets big enough to fit a smart phone.
“Obviously we want to keep reaching more and more girls, and get more and more people excited about what we’re doing,” Lillis says. “We have brought out some really cool things that have trended, so to speak, so we want to just keep finding the next cool thing.”