Black Milk ribs swimsuit. Photo: Ashley Joncas Photography
James Lillis is your typical father of two, church minister-turned-fashion guru. In three years he has taken his label, Black Milk, from local markets in Brisbane to celebrity wardrobes and more than 300,000 Facebook likes. And he has done it with no background in design or fashion, no physical shopfront and a budget of zero advertising dollars.
Black Milk first made waves about a year ago with a tank dress featuring a super-close-up of actor Steve Buscemi's face. Defamer called it ''the Most Amazing Dress in the World'' while incrediblethings.com said it was ''what not to wear on a first date''. The dress wasn't for sale - it was, says Black Milk's marketing manager, Cameron Parker, ''just something from James's kitchen'' (something he does for fun) - but there are plenty of other off-the-wall items that are.
Lillis's staples are simple: leggings, tank-style dresses, maillots, tube skirts. That's because the pieces are really just canvases for digital prints that range from gorgeous to playful and ironic. There are the Hieronymous Bosch leggings, the musculoskeletal system catsuit, Beetlejuice suspenders, the Nintendo Game Boy dress, the C-3PO swimsuit.
In an era where cotton is king and organic textiles rule, Black Milk proudly declares: ''Give me nylon or give me death.'' High-resolution digital prints of old masters and far-off galaxies demand synthetics for crystal-clear clarity.
Lillis, 36, runs a slick online operation, with affordable pieces made locally and in Melbourne. Big collections arrive every month at 2pm, Queensland time, with smaller sets released fortnightly. This regular turnover (or ''nomfests'') feeds customers' craving for new designs and makes collectors' items out of deleted pieces. These are swapped by fans or auctioned on eBay. When an item is listed as out of stock, there's a line next to it that reads ''sewing more :)''.
The media-shy Lillis mingles with fans (''sharkies'') at Black Milk meet-ups and in the Facebook community. The label's anti-fashion aesthetic, Lillis's ebullient persona and Parker's ability to harness social media tools makes Black Milk a force to be reckoned with.
''I'd say if it wasn't for Facebook, Black Milk wouldn't even be around today,'' Parker says. ''As a struggling designer, broke, selling out of your kitchen, with very limited resources, if you don't have social media, what do you have to promote yourself to the world? Social media has given us a free platform to promote the brand.''
Of course, Facebook is full of millions of companies pushing their wares. ''That's where it comes down to product,'' Parker says of connecting with Black Milk's audience. ''You've got to have a good product and Black Milk was unique in terms of crazy leggings and no one really doing that … And we had a product that was a perfect demographic for social media: 16- to 30-year-old women.''
This year, Black Milk's Facebook likes have risen from 30,000 to more than 300,000. Parker attributes the sudden spike to Instagram's sudden popularity (he created an account for the brand on his Christmas holidays, just for fun) and collections such as the Sick Puppies Halloween special and the Star Wars designs that were launched early this month, with parts two and three to follow before the end of the year.
As he had with the Buscemi dress, Lillis made a couple of pieces just because he loved Star Wars; the fan base got wind of it and suddenly it was ''help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're our only hope.''
On his blog, Lillis, put it another way: ''Between June and July, Black Milk didn't grow at all; between July and August we grew by 42 per cent! … So we just keep on making clothes, hoping that peeps will buy them. And every so often I look at the stock room, FREAK OUT LIKE A SQUIRREL ON CRACK and then decide to release a new collection. It might sound unprofessional but it works surprisingly well.''
Amen to that, Reverend.