For pretty much the entire afternoon, we have been in Peter Alexander’s world. It starts with Madonna, about midday. The cover shoot is only minutes away. We are in the Urban Angles Creative Studio in Grattan Street, Prahran, and photographer Jules Tahan’s vision is coming together. It involves several hundred balloons, a clothing rack of pyjamas, a clown hat, an industrial hair dryer and, right in the centre, the pyjama impresario himself, Peter Alexander. It is, in other words, a lunatic plan.
Incredibly, Tahan is relaxed. Not just relaxed, he’s breezing around like his enormous lighting rig is a beach rod and he’s out for salmon, humming bars of Lucky Star, the Madonna song he has put on to “set the right mood for Peter”.
Doesn’t he know we’re seconds away from asking the talent to change into sleepwear? And then to be OK with a 360-degree balloon assault?
But the real surprise twist is that Alexander’s also substantially calmer than me. This is, after all, Peter Alexander, the pyjama guy: who carries with him a reputation for being several other “p” words, often all at once, chiefly precocious, a perfectionist and definitely precious about protecting his brand. All of this was evidenced by a long conference call the day before the shoot. I had to share my intended angle on the story. Tahan had to spill his idea for the shoot. But despite the warning signs, none of these words are appropriate today.
The only “p” word that comes to mind right now is PARTY, as balloons fly, Madonna sings and Alexander turns it on. We’re still, somehow, “working”, but could it really be work when it’s this much fun? We’re all in Peter’s World, and it’s fair to say we prefer it here.
Alexander has famously said that the hardest part about his business, which he started on his mother Julette’s dining-room table but currently turns over $80 million a year, is “keeping the fun in what I do”. Today, we are clearly winning the good fight one high-pitched squeal at a time as the balloons spontaneously burst in the heat of the lights.
But ever since the little enterprise that Alexander started with his mother in 1987 to “help both of us get over the passing of my father” started booming, through the unlikely distribution channels of mail order and online, Alexander has found himself steadily dwarfed by its success. “I am probably the most successful direct-selling label in fashion in the last 25 years”, he says matter of factly. It’s probably true, too.
Demand outstripped supply from day one, because in the late ’80s and early ’90s, all the clothes in fashion magazines “tended to be black and minimal, partly because the ’80s had been so bright”. Alexander’s colourful, playful range of pyjamas and lingerie was a breath of fresh, cotton-scented air. “Magazine editors at that time were just grasping for anything bright and Madonna had started this trend of inner wear as outer wear with her exposed bras.”
The formative early days of the Peter Alexander business are the stuff of legend in the rag trade. As the business grew and buyers rapidly increased, Alexander was too embarrassed to answer the phone as himself, the name behind the brand, so he adopted an alias: “Matt from customer service”. His mother, who shared a seat next to him at the table, was “Kylie from accounts”.
The reality of Peter Alexander’s beginnings are just a little less romantic, and a great deal more to do with a combination of grief and the early adult panic that comes when you fear that life, and your group of friends, is going to pass you by.
“What was driving me in those first few years … was the fact that I had nothing else to do in my life and I was terrified that I would slip through the cracks,” he says. “All my friends were going to uni, I didn’t have a skill. So when I found something that seemed to come quite naturally to me, I was excited for the first time in my life. I thought, ‘I can do this, I understand how this works’. It was a great joy to go to work and see how far I could take it.”
“I would never have had the strength, the balls or the know-how to do it myself. One of my skills is to know what I’m good at and what I’m bad at; I don’t do what I’m bad at.”
There was a solemn edge to his excitement too. His father, a beloved figure, who “always said he knew (I) was going to do something special”, had a final wish that Alexander took very seriously.
“In his last days, my dad had made me promise him I would look after and employ my mother,” he says. “So the business was a very good distraction from the turmoil in our private life. We got super-involved day and night into making this work. Neither of us had worked in fashion, neither of us had any business qualifications, I hadn’t been to uni and mum had never worked a day in her life. It was really two idiots trying to get a great idea off the shelf. But we were there for each other, she supported me emotionally a lot. She really helped me calm those nerves, be a nice Jewish mother, give me chicken soup, all that sort of stuff.”
But the serendipity of “pure luck and perfect timing” led to other problems. “I couldn’t really handle the stress of the business. It was growing so quickly,” Alexander says. “I was feeling more and more out of control. The more successful I was, the more scared I was.
“That’s why I sold to the Just Group,” he says of his personal and professional turning point in 2000. “It was getting too big for me to control and my dream was never to run a big business, it was to have a nice life, so Just Group bought
it and they do all the icky stuff like warehousing, sourcing, banking, supply chain, budget, all that. I do all the fun stuff; the designing, the promotion, the advertising. It’s a perfect marriage.
“The fact is I didn’t have a choice. I simply didn’t have the capital I needed to expand; the only collateral I had behind me was our family house, which wasn’t a nice way to go to bed. I much prefer having Just Jeans and Solly Lew behind me than my mum’s house!
“I’ve been able to expand into shops, thanks to the Just Group,” he says. “I would never have had the strength, the balls or the know-how to do it myself. One of my skills is to know what I’m good at and what I’m bad at, and I don’t do what I’m bad at.”
Since then, it really has been all good. Peter Alexander has accelerated to the top of the Just Group class. He’s grown from a $6 million cottage business in 2000 to an $80 million empire, operating out of 46 shops in Australia and New Zealand. Expansion is very much on the radar too, with 15 to 30 shops planned in the next three years, here and in Singapore.
The Just Group has reaped the rewards too, with Peter Alexander sales to September 2011 jumping more than 20 per cent, a trend explained by the “lipstick phenomenon”, which is people saving their money for smaller, often stay-at-home luxuries, such as premium pyjamas and surround-sound home-theatre systems.
Alexander’s advice to small-business owners is simply this: “When you’re starting off a business don’t try and be flashy. My business was what it was and I didn’t pretend it was any different. I used to have fashion editors over to my house, they saw that I worked there. I never rented a great office to make myself look better until I could afford it. I didn’t have employees until I could afford it. It was all about being true to myself and not living up to some expectation of what somebody else might want of me.”
Over the course of his career, the only expectations Alexander believes he has flaunted belong to his peers: “The fashion industry, particularly in Sydney, are very reluctant to accept me into their clique.” While his business idea ticked the most essential start-up boxes by being unique and filling a gap in the market – designer pyjamas, made of the softest possible fabrics and with the added quirk of being hard to get – its instant success certainly didn’t make him friends in fashionable places.
“I symbolise for a lot of people in the fashion industry someone who’s successful but doesn’t know how to design,” Alexander says, openly admitting that he couldn’t even sew a button back on to a pyjama top, let alone cut a pattern. “It must be annoying to them, but I let it be their issue because I know that I’ve got a skill that a lot of people don’t have, and that is the entrepreneurial skill, with the creativity to make a product that could be quite bland into something quite good.
“I’m much more a merchandiser-slash-marketing-slash-entrepreneur type of person so I understand their snobbiness. But at the end of the day I’ve got almost 50 stores now and I’m one of the most successful brands in fashion. I’m proud of that, but I do run it as a business, not a fashion empire. It’s very hard in today’s market to run a fashion company purely for the love of what you do in fashion, unless you’re somebody like Alannah Hill or Sass & Bide.”
And here, towards the close, we meet Peter Alexander, the conundrum. The warmly camp, colourful fashonista who knows everything about women’s fashion, but whose favourite men’s label is American Apparel, for “the fabric, the price
and the cut”. You get the feeling he is a powerful name in the fashion industry by luck and association more than choice, and whose domain is actually the most unfashionable part of the day: the end of it, the comfortable place to fall after a hard day’s night. The Peter Alexander Uggs after the Manolo Blahniks, the forgiving PJ pants after skin-tight Nudie Jeans and the impossibly plush terry robe after the hot shower.
What’s it like to be in a room with him? If you own a pair of his pyjamas, you already know. It’s warm and it’s normal, in the way that being with some people and wearing certain items of clothing can make you feel young again.
No matter where we’ve been today – the studio for the shoot, the boardroom for the interview – we’ve really been in Peter’s World the whole time. He is self-possessed in a magnetic, childlike way. When he talks, he talks most passionately about his latest ideas for pyjamas: recently he was inspired by a random girl on a Perth street who was wearing pink denim shorts and a sailor-striped T-shirt. On the other hand, any figures relating to that “icky” business stuff are clearly, and wildly, guessed at.
He’s visited “about 90 per cent” of the shops. There are “about 50” of them in total. His attempted launch into America “sucked”, because it was timed perfectly to coincide with the 2007 GFC. And turnover last year was “just way, way up, we beat 2010’s figures by miles”.
But it ceases to matter in his presence. And anyway, how charming is a founder of a multimillion-dollar business not having any clue about P+L sheets?
By and large, this is a damnably young-looking man-child who has never had to change his plan, or compromise his quirks, to succeed. His pyjama empire has led him to “more wealth than we ever imagined”, to a creative career and a life lived inside a world of his own making. While he is the face of his brand, a decision he made because “it’s not perfect and it’s more relatable”, his general celebrity rating is “about a two out of 10, where I want it to stay”.
In one of his Peter Alexander shops, or in his presence today, it’s naturally higher, but after just one foray into commercial television, via an episode of 60 Minutes in 2009, he’d had enough of the generic fame stuff. “I’m famous in my own stores because there are huge signs pointing to me saying PETER ALEXANDER. But when I walk out of that shopping mall I’m nobody again, which is wonderful.”