Victorian label Cargo Crew has conquered the world with a fresh take on uniform design
Felicity Rodgers' success in fashion has come from thinking outside of the box. Her fast-growing business, Cargo Crew, brings style to the most unlikely garment category — Cargo Crew makes uniforms that look beautiful. With a cool, minimalist aesthetic, the brand has caught the eye of trendsetters and celebs around the world, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Heston Blumenthal to the culinary wizards behind Copenhagen's Noma.
A graduate of the Fashion Design program at RMIT, Felicity started her first label straight out of university and spent the better part of five years trying to make it work. She and her partner were featured in the Melbourne Fashion Festival Young Designer parade and sold their range to independent boutiques around Australia, but decided ultimately to wind up the business.
'We didn't make any money and we never got paid. People told us we were doing so well. "Yeah, but we can't afford to buy coffee!" We were young and it was a great creative pursuit. I certainly believe it gave me a great grounding to have a business, it really taught me about the struggles, particularly in fashion and wholesale, just to get paid. Dealing with that cash flow issue as a small business is definitely one of the biggest challenges,' Felicity says.
Not quite ready to work for someone else, Felicity had a bolt of inspiration. During her time running the label, various people had approached her and asked her to design a contemporary or fashionable uniform. 'I realised there was a real niche in the market for developing uniforms that people actually wanted to wear,' she explains. Thus in 2002, from a one-bedroom house in Clifton Hill, Cargo Crew was born.
Felicity drew on her wealth of contacts from the fashion industry to build a client base, determined to work on a made-to-order model that would make her business sustainable. Once she landed a meeting, the work spoke for itself; bespoke, custom-made uniforms, made in Melbourne, that could be tailored to the client's individual aesthetic. 'If someone wanted a pink trim, they could have that. If they wanted a spotted bow tie, they got it,' Felicity says. 'Ultimately my offering was good enough that people gave me a go.'
Landing beauty brand L'Oreal as her very first client, Felicity learned how creativity could flourish in a collaborative business environment. Felicity was briefed by the marketing department and had to build a style that suited their marketing aims. She was tasked with creating uniforms, which by definition are uniform, but within those parameters had to find a way to express something personal to the brand. She thrived on the challenge. 'There are certainly more commercial restraints to designing uniforms but responding to design challenges is a way of expressing your creativity. It's more structured but it involves a lot of innovation and creative thinking,' Felicity enthuses. 'You're trying to make something that's very comfortable to wear, very fashionable but also very durable. It's not always easy!'
Felicity's eye for customised cool saw Cargo Crew grow steadily throughout the 2000s, during which time her sister Narelle — another RMIT graduate — joined the business. At the beginning of this decade, Felicity noticed a shift in the Australian uniform business, with ordering moving from marketing departments to procurement departments, with cheap and cheerful solutions often winning out in the tender process.
Instead of moving into high volume, low cost mass production, Felicity decided that Cargo Crew would find a new niche. Cargo Crew launched an online store in 2012, offering their designer uniforms direct to customers, with no minimum orders. Parallel to that, the sisters beefed up their bespoke services so that clients looking for something unique and customised could be guided through the design process.
'We disrupted the traditional way that the uniform business worked. Traditionally, the uniform industry is dominated by a few large companies that wholesale to resellers and distributors, who then on-sell to businesses with a bit of customisation. Our approach was to sell direct to businesses without the middle man, with a great product,' Felicity explains. 'What we offer adds the extra theatre. It offers our client the opportunity to build their own visual language through how their staff are dressed, reinforcing the experience their customers are having. Besides having a really practical role in making the staff identifiable, it's also a really great tool to enhance our client's brand and visual identity.'
At heart, Cargo Crew is stylish, which is no mean feat for a uniform brand. But their aesthetic is so well developed that they have attracted clients from all over the world, some in very high places. Gwyneth Paltrow used Cargo Crew aprons for a Goop Christmas pop-up store in New York, and later wore Cargo Crew when launching her new beauty brand. Heston Blumenthal appeared in Cargo Crew while advertising his new range of barbecues in Australia and Zoe Foster donned their garments to promote her Go-To ethical cosmetics range.
Perhaps most flattering, when Noma founder Claus Meyer was looking to outfit staff at the Great Northern, his new food hall in New York's Grand Central Station, his people came knocking on Cargo Crew's door. 'It was a huge complement. We know for a fact that they scoured the whole world for the uniforms they wanted and they chose us!' Felicity smiles. It was the first of several planned projects with the Noma team, and a mark of how well the company is growing.
In 2017, Cargo Crew will clock 10,000 customers and ship 18,000 orders to Australia, New Zealand, America, United Kingdom and Europe, with nearly 10% of their customers now overseas. They have expanded from a lounge room in Clifton Hill to two warehouse locations, growing from one to 25 employees, and taking their wares from Melbourne's inner north to the height of the fashionable world.