Black Milk is a Brisbane clothing brand gone global.
James Lillis is an inspiration to us all.
The story of Black Milk - in his own words.
BLACK MILK'S STORY
So you want to know the story behind Black Milk, huh? Are you sure you're ready for it? It is part thriller, part adventure, with a little dash of horror thrown in. It's pretty intense. If you really want to know how it happened, very well—grab yourself a cup of coffee and a bag of chips, settle into a nice comfy chair and I'll tell you the epic tale that is... the Black Milk saga.
Our story starts a long time ago in a little yellow house, outside an unusually loud train station surrounded by mango trees in Brisbane, Australia. I was broke and working odd jobs here and there in order to achieve my financial goals, which included such grand ambitions such as...paying rent. And buying noodles.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn't particularly good at anything so I just got work wherever I could.
Then one day when I was unusually bored, I decided that I wanted to do something... with my hands. Most people would have bought a guitar, or a bag of golf clubs, but I...I bought a sewing machine (pretty random, I know). To this day I'm not sure why I did it. I just wanted to...sew something! (Yep, still sounds strange...)
Of course, being broke I couldn't afford a sewing machine, so I took my CD player (!) to the local pawnshop and got a little cash for it. And that is how I bought my first sewing machine. Of course, I had absolutely no idea how to use it, but I didn't care. I would just have to figure it out! That was all part of the adventure. Next step - fabric.
I went down to the fabric shop with a grand total of $6 in my pocket. I looked at all the fabrics... silks, cottons, all out of my price range. In fact there was only one fabric I could afford...nylon lining, at $2 per metre. It wasn't particularly nice fabric, and being a lining, it needed to be stretched so it didn't look shrivelled up and wrinkly. I had to make something with it that would stretch.
The first garment I sewed was for myself. It was a tight shirt that consisted of four pieces of nylon lining, all stitched together by someone who clearly had no idea how to sew. It was way too short, cut completely wrong, and had a neckline that was nothing more that a hole. It was tragic. And I LOVED it.
I was so proud of myself. I wore it constantly.
Next I went to a shop that sold dance fabrics. I could only afford a small bag of scrap fabric. One piece I bought was a shiny pink stretch lycra. I took it home and stared at it, and touched it. It was...beautiful. It was then that I fell in love with stretch fabrics.
From that moment, things changed for me. Although technically very broke, I was still working odd jobs and I started saving. If I got ten bucks it wasn't just ten bucks... it was half a metre of printed fabric! Three dollars meant I could get myself a new packet of needles. And if I managed to get myself a hundred bucks - well, that meant I could get an oil change and a service for my sewing machine! (In fact, to save money I would eat mangoes from my tree for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yummy...)
On the weekends I would go to sewing machine shops to try and get sewing lessons. The shops were full of mothers, grandmothers, and.. .me. Yeah, I stuck out. I didn't care, in fact, it appealed to my bizarre sense of rebellion.
It was around this time I made my very first pair of leggings. I bought a tribal African print that I thought it would look great on legs. I drew up a pattern, cut it out and made a pair of leggings. I talked to a friend who had a friend who agreed to be a model for me to see if they fit. She put them on, and they were terrible. So I cut them again, and sewed them again. Slightly less terrible. I must have recut those things ten times...and finally, they fit.
It was at that point that something remarkable happened. Something... unexpected.
She asked if she could buy them.
She took out her wallet, gave me some money and walked off with my leggings. I couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day. I was stunned - some girl was willing to actually pay money for clothes that I had made!
So I threw myself into it with a passion. I bought new machines, and would spend 5-6 hours a day on the sewing machine trying to figure out how to sew properly. It was pretty tough in those early days, and on more than one occasion I came close to hurling my sewing machine out the window and going back to my life of odd jobs. Most nights I would go to bed well past midnight, covered in bits of fabric and thread.
However, I never forgot what a buzz it was creating clothes that women wanted to wear. And when people asked what I did for a job, I could say... "Well... I guess I'm a fashion designer..."
The next step - I had to actually go out and sell the stuff!
I went door to door, trying to get shops to sell my clothes. Most said no. Some said, "We'll call you next week" and, yeah, I'm still waiting for those guys to call. One shop I visited said yes and agreed to let me display a few of my pieces in a corner of their shop. I lovingly arranged five styles of leggings that I had designed and wondered which of them would sell. I went back a week later - and they gave me every single piece back.
I bought a tent and went to the markets. I turned up at 5:30am every Saturday and stood around in the sun all day, trying to sell my leggings. I would earn enough to pay for the site, get a few cups of coffee, and maybe a little fabric for the week. Not exactly... awesome.
However, despite this, something very special was happening...online. Girls were finding my leggings, not through shops, not at the markets, but through my blog! I would talk about all the things I was making... and they would email me asking to buy them. It very soon got to the point where far more girls were buying clothes at my little online shop than at my tent at the markets.
So I made a big decision - I would only sell online.
I talked to a few people in the industry who told me I was making a big mistake and that I would go broke within the month. Apparently, online selling was only for companies with 'real' shops. But the problem was that 'real' shops weren't interested in my clothes! So I went online.
And that's where we have been ever since. :)
That was 2009. A lot has changed from those early days. Instead of me sewing everything by myself at night, we have a fantastic team who create all your Black Milk pieces - and yes, we make all our pieces ourselves, right here in Australia. Instead of trying to get our clothes into 'real' shops, we're online - and loving it. Instead of selling to a few girls at the markets, we now have a community of the most amazing girls you could hope for who are passionate about the brand (understatement of the year).
Of course, some things will never change. I still love making clothes. I love seeing all the different ways girls style their Black Milk pieces. Yeah, I even still love eating mangoes.
So who am I?
Just the guy with the coolest job in the world. :)
Image Credits: Black Milk Website, photo of James Lillis from Brisbane Times story by Lisa Maree Williams
Brisbane Times Story: Geek-chic: Behind the nylon cult of Black Milk 12 November 2016