It may have been love at first sight for Emily Oberlin and Daniel Nielsenbeck when they met holidaying in Slovenia’s quaint capital Ljubljana in 2006, but it was a bigger love, Emily’s for recycled luxury fashion, that inspired the pair to set up their own unique consignment business ‘Bruce’ in North Fitzroy four years ago.
Understated and stylish, like their two Bruce stores, the couple have bucked the online retail trend and nurtured a loyal local retail following amongst the fashionable folk of Fitzroy in the intensely competitive vintage fashion segment.
A Manhattan native with the rag trade in her blood, Emily started as an assistant designer and later moved into buying and selling vintage fashion.
“Dan was an Australian living in London and I was from New York and we were trying to figure out how we could be together and we realised that it would be best if we both came to Melbourne,” recalls Emily, a self-confessed shopaholic. “I shop to relax, it’s my hobby.” So when they settled into the inner northern suburbs Emily felt there was something missing.
“There are hundreds of shops in New York catering to different tastes, styles, demographics and eras,” says Emily. “But a lot of the recycled places are in the south side of Melbourne, so we decided to start it ourselves and see what would happen.”
A small shop on the fringe of the Queens Parade retail strip in North Fitzroy was vacant so they moved in upstairs and started their own business on the ground floor.
Daniel ditched the corporate job. Emily flew back to the States and accessed some quality wardrobes amassing a collection of 350 pieces – labels like Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and DVF – to be sold ‘on consignment’ (50/50 split between the store and the owner) and Bruce was open for business.
It was slow going at the start, but they soon developed a regular local clientele who threw their support behind the business.
What the locals loved was runway fashion for knock down prices.
“A lot of people are surprised when we tell them that it’s second-hand, they think it’s new,” Daniel says.
The Bruce stores in Queens Parade, North Fitzroy, and Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, look and feel like a luxury boutique complete with Scandinavian styling, individual attention and hip music playing in the background.
Emily manages the stock and the pricing and Daniel takes care of the styling and the rest of the details.
“We are into style,” she says. “I really try to fill the space with items that are classic but have something interesting going on so people can wear them for multiple seasons.”
The Queens Parade shop stocks traditional luxury brands and suits occasion dressing. Bruce, Gertrude Street, opened in 2011 and is stocked with more avant-garde brands like Yohji Yamamoto and Commes des Garcon. “In that part of Fitzroy more people are going out and socializing at night, which requires different attire,” Emily says.
Online retail doesn’t mess with their business model. “I like to feel materials and get feedback from people. Online is fantastic but it doesn’t work for some,” says Emily.
And ebay? “I love it because people can buy online but if it doesn’t work we can sell it for them.”
They still travel to the States for new stock, but now receive most from locals with overstocked luxury wardrobes who are happy to move a few items for cash.
“Most people think we are very fairly priced. We make a big effort to find out what current market rates are and people are more likely to compare us with traditional retail, than online.”
Every Saturday a new batch of stock goes onto the racks at both stores – and these are their busiest days.
They are open seven days a week and have worked continuously for the past four years to build the business and the Bruce brand.
“We’re travelling OK,” says Emily. “We are in it for the long haul and the business requires constant investment and we are happy to do that.”
Expansion plans are on the horizon. “We talk about it constantly and think maybe next we’ll go online.” But for now they are focused on taking a well earned break and starting a family.
“Then in a couple of years we’ll start pushing hard again. We’d like to see some more Bruce stores, potentially interstate.”
Where: 284 Queens Parade, North Fitzroy and 150 Gertrude Street 150 Gertrude Street.