Talitha Becker never aspired to be a designer. It was the business of fashion that drew her and she lost no time in learning the ropes.
“I got my first job in retail at 17, straight out of school and worked for Portmans, Sportsgirl and others,” recalls the founder and creative director of Melbourne’s Sass Clothing Group..
Its labels – Sass, Fate + Becker and Betty Basics – will feature at the Sydney 2019 Fashion Exposed Now fair and Talitha expects a warm response from buyers.
Her optimism is justified. All three labels have proved to be strong performers. And as she points out, “Last year was our best yet.” Given the tough market, that’s a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that Sass Clothing turned 21 in 2018.
“My husband (former banker, Sandy Cameron) suggested I should start my own label,” reveals Talitha at her stylish Collingwood headquarters whose upper level – lots of timber features, exposed brickwork and rich earth colours – is dominated by a large showroom.
It was a very different scene back in 1997 when she launched Sass. “For the first four years, I ran it from my kitchen bench in Adelaide,” says Talitha. “Sandy had been posted there, but when he was asked to do a second stint, I said, ‘I’m going back to Melbourne.’ “
It meant lots of commuting, but hard work paid off and when David Jones picked up Sass, Talitha knew she was on her way.
Now the mother of three sons aged 17, 15 and 12, she was raised in Portland, Victoria, by European immigrant parents. “They were practically penniless when they arrived in Australia, but my mother had such flair!” says Talitha.
”That’s what triggered my interest in fashion and in my early 20s, I got my foot in the door when I was hired as a sales rep by the Austin Group – now gone, sadly, but still an icon. Travelling to regional areas and meeting retailers was a great education.”
The great mentor turned her next boss, a Melbourne fashion importer who took his protégée to China on buying trips. “He’s a brilliant negotiator and I learned how business was done in cities like Tianjin and Nanjing,” says Talitha.”I’d walk into a meeting and there’d be 10 men there, all of them smoking. I also went on work trips to India. I did those on my own.”
Fate + Becker (originally named Fate) was launched in 2004 and Betty Basics followed in 2010. Like the young, edgy Sass, they are clearly distinctive – Fate + Becker providing timeless chic and Betty Basics devoted to wardrobe essentials which have recently expanded to footwear and accessories.
Sass Clothing’s 35-strong core staff includes an all-female design team, while production is handled by both men and women. Leading them are the indefatigable Talitha and Sandy, who quit banking to head up finance, logistics and HR.
Regular trips to the world’s fashion hubs are vital for inspiration, says Talitha, who recently returned from New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris. That first-hand immersion is reflected in Sass Clothing’s directional, carefully tuned collections. “You get the look – and good quality – without the sky-high prices.”
There are lessons to be learned from the company’s longevity. “A lot of young fashion entrepreneurs get carried away, but lack a strong foundation,” notes Talitha. “Typically, they start with a bang and take out loans in order to expand, but when lean times come, they go under.
“Our way has always been: Whatever profits you make, reinvest them in your business.”
That includes philanthropy. Six months ago, Sass Clothing launched its Betty Care Foundation in collaboration with Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital and plans to take the program across Australia and New Zealand.
“Many women including domestic abuse victims arrive at the hospital with only the clothes on their backs, so we created Betty Care fashion basics packs for them,” says Talitha Becker. “We may team up with a skin care company to give the packs an extra boost.”
A fourth label is a definite possibility. “We will expand again,” assures the power behind Sass Clothing. “I get itchy feet.”
– Zelda Cawthorne