Inner East Review
Wednesday, 6 December 2023

Friends with Frank's slow fashion label is breaking new ground and enjoying huge popularity

Updated May 4 2022 - 12:44pm, first published May 3 2022 - 5:00am
Designing a business that is a first in fashion
Designing a business that is a first in fashion

The fashion label Julia McCarthy started as a side-hustle has come a long way in 10 years.

Friends with Frank (FWF) has just issued the second release of its autumn/winter collection - featuring an alpaca-mohair-blend cardigan with matching singlet, "big, chunky wool jumpers" and classic items in this season's colour range of "chocolate browns and lovely blue hues".

As McCarthy sits for a half-hour interview in her Wangaratta St showroom, which is closed for the day, several people come to the door wanting to browse or buy clothes.

"I really hate turning people away," she says.

Over a decade FWF has made a name for its classic coats, built a strong online business, expanded into apparel, opened its Richmond shopfront and inspired a devoted customer base (evidenced by more than 51,000 Instagram followers).

The business, which produces stylish, flowing garments in usually neutral tones, now employs 10 staff and supplies 40 wholesalers around the country.

It has also recently shifted some of its manufacturing on-shore.

It all started with a rabbit fur jacket. "I wanted a rabbit fur jacket - a simple, classic jacket that was well made at an affordable price," McCarthy says.

Not being able to find one, she designed a prototype - handwoven and "ethically sourced" from by-product fur - and had a sample made.

When it turned out well and proved popular with friends and family, she ordered more pieces to sell to them.

Then, with the encouragement of her partner, Tom, she decided to turn the endeavour into "a bit of a business".

That meant five years of operating pop-up weekend stores, building an online presence and packing products late into the night, until she could quit her day job to turn FWF into a serious brand.

Friends with Frank creative director and founder Julia McCarthy in her Wangaratta St showroom. Photo Morgan Hancock
Friends with Frank creative director and founder Julia McCarthy in her Wangaratta St showroom. Photo Morgan Hancock

With an associate degree in Fashion and textile merchandising from RMIT and a decade's previous experience in fashion retail management, she had the background to do it.

And Tom - a former lawyer with an entrepreneurial streak - was keenly involved.

In China, where the bulk of the brand's clothing is produced, she has established long-standing relationships with her suppliers and set up systems to check not only the quality of the products but also the working conditions of everyone involved in making them.

In January 2020, FWF, by then a "sophisticated ecommerce store", took out the lease on its Richmond shop.

Another turning point came around 18 months ago when the formerly seasonal business branched into all-year-round fashion with the release of a spring dress.

The popularity of the 'Cleo' knit dress, which has since become something of a cult classic, led to a major expansion into other apparel, including shirts, skirts, trousers and cardigans.

Yet another major milestone, last spring, was the move into local production, a process requiring significant research, sampling, and sourcing of materials.

McCarthy says while it is a lot more work and much more expensive, the business is very proud of making things locally and plans to do more of it as FWF expands.

Even with the recent arrival of a baby, there is little chance she will step back from the drawing board.

"I would wear everything in our range, every range. It's very much my aesthetic," she says. "So I'll keep on designing. I love it."


Jenny Denton


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