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Christian Kimber grew up in the UK and moved to Australia in 2011. Having studied fashion and worked in men’s tailoring and footwear he says “I initially struggled to find my way and my place in fashion... But I’d always loved menswear and retail.”
So shortly after making the move to Melbourne he began designing and selling footwear. “We had a spare room full of boxes of shoes,” he says.He bootstrapped the business — which at the time was predominantly wholesale — and quickly began winning clients in Paris and New York.
Recalling the early days, he says “it was growth for growth’s sake. Yeah OK I was in Paris and was having these amazing meetings, but it just wasn't where my heart was. I came home and with my wife we decided strategically retail was the way to go, particularly given there was a clear gap in the market for what we were doing.”
With an increasingly successful e-commerce website, Christian was meeting up with five customers a day. “It got to a point where I said to myself, we’re ready for the next step. So we opened a store northside where most of our cult following of clients lived at the time.” Aligning himself to his customers’ needs has largely been the key to Christian Kimber’s success, and he puts it down to the lessons he learnt early on:
“Sure we didn't have that Tom Ford money to start” [laughs] “but I think it’s been the best thing for us, because it’s more real. It has allowed us to figure out exactly who our clients are, what they want and the right products for them. We’re not growing for growth’s sake, we’re growing organically based on the evolving needs of clients and increasing demand.”
Transitioning from a purely online business to a bricks and mortar shop front in the heart of Melbourne’s Fitzroy didn’t come without its hurdles. “The challenge, as with many small businesses, is that it takes about five years to be established, really”. But above all, Christian says running a small business is a mental game:
“It’s just about the grit and determination that you need to find in yourself in order to keep going… It really comes down to whether or not you love it. When you find something you love, it doesn’t feel like work; you have to feel that, otherwise you’re not going to have the grit to keep going.”
From the attention and care that Christian channels into every piece of clothing and every customer interaction, the love for his job is patently obvious.
“It’s just about the grit and determination that you need to find in yourself in order to keep going...”
The collection — which now spans clothing, footwear and accessories — is produced in small family-run factories in Italy and Portugal where Christian can guarantee premium quality and the wellbeing of the workers.
“There's nothing industrial about what we do. At our knitwear factory there’s a total of 15 people working there… Our key is finding partners who are focused on quality. Provenance is also so important. My wife and I always ask ourselves, would we want to work there? And if we would, then it’s a good fit”.
The brand champions the ‘buy less, buy better’ ethos, with enduring pieces that serve customers for life, not just the season. Christian is very conscious of the rock and hard place between which the fashion industry sits in the sustainability debate. “To be truly sustainable is really a hard ask. It's almost impossible. Essentially, we can just be as authentic and transparent as possible. We use Australian wool, we use a lot of European cloth. The calibre of the fabrics we use are made in mills that are at the cutting edge of sustainability and thoughtfulness.”
While many other players in the industry compromise on quality as their brands scale, for Christian that tradeoff is non-negotiable:
“I’m not interested in making anything in a way that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with, it’s just not our direction and I’d rather stay small forever… I would never compromise on product and experience.”
While Christian Kimber may not be reaching to dominate the global market, his expanding customer base at home is driving the brand’s growth locally.
Having opened a second store in Armadale at the request of his long-time followers, he’s now feeling the pull to open a third in the CBD as well as one in Sydney, where online sales are compelling. Rather than pushing to open in markets with untapped potential, the expansion of more stores is entirely led by customer convenience, to allow his devotees to enjoy the retail experience that Christian so fervently stands by.
“Nothing beats feeling the products…. What I want is that when you feel our clothing, your heart skips a beat. Whatever that feeling is, it’s just lovely… I could never produce a photo good enough to elicit an emotion like that.”
Further to the tactile aspect, he believes it’s the interaction that keeps men coming back. Working out of his second store in Armadale, Christian encourages customers to stay for an hour — as much to try on the garments as to have a chat. “We sell confidence, we don't sell products,” he says. “When people leave, they feel a certain way, and that's what I get energy from. If they come back, we know we’ve done something right.”
When he started the business, Christian’s passion was creating the products. Now he says that has developed into experience and client satisfaction:
“I want people to feel loved and to feel great in our stuff, and I think that it's not just about products, it's about making sure it works for them.”
As well as the ready to wear collection, Christian works with his customers to design pieces from scratch or even redesign garments they’ve had since the 80s. “It’s a very intimate experience, and we could never do that online.”
“We sell confidence, we don't sell products.”
Prior to signing up with Zeller, Christian had never considered the customer experience associated with a payment terminal, because it had always been the same. His decision to sign up for Zeller was a purely financial one: “we’re a small business, so in the end it just came down to who had the better rate.” A competitive flat fee — inclusive of American Express — and a hassle-free set-up was what initially attracted Christian to Zeller Terminal, but it was the customer experience that won him over.
“I love it. I really love it. Someone might call up and change their mind on the product and I can just immediately exchange it or refund it. They don’t have to come back in. For us that’s great. I just think it’s a lovely experience, and that’s what we’re all about.”
While the physical expansion of the brand will be a key focus for 2023, Christian is committed to keeping the label’s style fresh and new. Since its inception, the aesthetic has sat somewhere in between formal and casual. And conveniently, the Covid19 pandemic propelled menswear in that exact direction.
No longer needing to wear suits to work, but tired of the sweatpant trend of 2020, Australian men are looking for outfits that strike that balance, which Christian says, “is what we’ve always been about”. Looking to the future, the designer intends to continue trying to define Australian style, which he asserts is one inspired by lifestyle. “It's a different lifestyle to anywhere in the world, and so the way men dress here is different. We want to stand for Australian style.”
Designing all the garments himself, Christian works to mirror the colours of our landscape, using textures that feel casual yet sophisticated and shaping silhouettes that are laid back but still refined. “Only when it comes together does it feel Australian,” he adds.
When asked what he would go back and tell his entrepreneurial younger self, Christian says “take your time”.
“In any business, you spend the first three years just figuring it out. So you don’t want to dive too much into one area because you might change your direction. I’d tell myself you don’t need to grow as quickly. Now we’ve figured out what the right pace of growth is for us: snail pace.” he laughs.
He adds that it’s important to “get things right and do things for the right reasons, to grow organically.” This honest approach to business is a refreshing perspective in an industry that so often centres around ephemeral profit-driven trends, at the expense of quality and customer satisfaction. So it’s no wonder that word-of-mouth has been the brand’s most effective marketing tactic to date. Ironically, remaining humble and not overextending has been Christian’s biggest strength. Through passion, grit, transparency and care, Christian Kimber has built a brand he’s proud to put his name behind.
To read about other Australians growing their businesses with Zeller, head to the Zeller Business Blog and sign up to our newsletter to receive stories straight to your inbox.