In a moment of sheer boredom, while unemployed and virtually broke, James Lillis went to his local pawnshop and traded in his CD player for a sewing machine. He had no prior experience in fashion, nor did he know how to use the sewing machine – all he knew was that he needed to keep his hands busy. He began taking sewing lessons alongside mothers and grandmas, honing his skills with whichever cheap piece of fabric he could afford. James’s penchant for stretch fabrics soon led to him making a pair of female leggings from an African tribal print – and that was the beginning of Black Milk. Now, four years later, James’s one-man operation has turned into a staff of 180, and a respected fashion brand that is dressing the legs of girls across the globe in brightly colour prints.
Growing up in Auckland, James Lillis admits to being a rather quirky child. “I was quite obsessive about things, which may have contributed to my current vocation,” he reflects. “I actually wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, but I was never very good at it, so I became quite aimless.”
As an adult he continued drifting between jobs and industries, trying to start different businesses along the way but never finding anything that fit him quite right. Eventually ending up in Brisbane, James was 33 on that fateful day in 2009 when he made the decision to trade in his CD player for a sewing machine. “I was unemployed and absolutely broke – I had no dreams or vision but I just thought I’d give it a go. Then I started making stuff and people started liking it and so I realised that maybe there was something there.”
The idea of a career in fashion or sewing had never crossed his mind until he bought that sewing machine. “If you had told me, or anyone who knew me, that I would get into sewing as a career, we’d have just laughed,” he says. “It would have been so ridiculous and left of centre to even suggest that – it was as weird as suggesting I’d get into dog breeding or otter racing.”
The first few years of Black Milk were tough. “I took some pretty big hits – lost my money, made it back, lost it again, then made it back,” James recalls. “But that’s what gave me a lot of confidence. Because I’ve been through those tough situations, I know I can handle it.”
Having had no fashion training, James says his designs come from a gut feeling. “I design very instinctively in a way and I just use my imagination. I imagine myself walking down the street and seeing a girl wearing the design on her legs and I think about what my response would be. If I would have wanted to take a second look, then I know it’s a cool style.”
Black Milk’s current Batman collection – part of the brand’s larger DC Comics collection with Warner Bros. – features prints of five characters from the Batman series. In addition to the brand’s signature leggings, the prints also extend to swimsuits, jackets, dresses and t-shirts. The connection with Warner Bros. originally came about when Black Milk approached the company about doing a Lord of the Rings-themed collection of tights. Following that success, the movie juggernaut was keen collaborate again and gave Black Milk access to its DC Comics catalogue.
But Warner Bros. wasn’t Black Milk’s first licensing partner. When James first started out, he had been trying to make some money designing t-shirts, and one of his designs in particular was of a beer bottle featuring R2D2-like shapes on it. He was soon contacted by LucasArts, which holds the Star Wars licence, asking him to take it down from his website. Disappointed, because the design had been extremely popular, James contacted a lawyer to see if there was any way he could get away with still selling it. The lawyer suggested that James contact LucasArts directly and ask it for a licensing deal.
“I had this small business mentality that a little Brisbane company – which was still in a garage at that point – couldn’t do things like that,” James recalls. “But then we contacted them and they said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ and so we created a whole Star Wars collection.” The collection soon went viral on the internet and Black Milk’s following began to expand even further to all different parts of the world.
Black Milk now has a staff of 180 – all based in Australia – and despite the potential financial benefits, James has resisted the temptation to move operations overseas. “You talk to anyone in the industry and they’ll think you’re crazy trying to manufacture in Australia – because of taxation, labour relations and all that stuff – and they’ll tell you to move it to China,” James says. “While part of me agrees that it’s incredibly tough, we’re here and this is where we live, so we have no desire to manufacture in China. It does mean we have certain disadvantages, but it also means we have to have a great team of people.”
Since its inception, Black Milk has only ever sold its wares through its own website, with not a single stockist elsewhere. “We have a policy that we’ll never sell through anyone else, simply because no one is as passionate about our clothes as we are,” James explains. “In the early days when I was just by myself, I was going door to door trying to convince people to be as passionate about my clothes as I was, but it was pointless and I kept getting rejected. So I decided I would sell it all myself.”
In that vein, there are plans to open a bricks-and-mortar iteration of Black Milk in Brisbane in its Newstead head office, as well as one in Los Angeles – due to open in October – but James stresses that the clothes will continue to be made in Brisbane.
The brand’s current focus is a new range of gymwear. “It’s hard to find gymwear that’s made in Australia,” James explains. “So we want to do some great made-in-Australia gym clothes and we feel like Australian girls are ready for that. I’m also getting excited about doing some menswear, which I never thought I’d say. But now I want to make some cool stuff for me.”
Now that he’s a long way from the days of struggling to make ends meet, James is happy to call himself a success. “I think my success is surreal in a way and there are times when I wake up in the morning and think that I’ve just had this crazy dream. It’s been four years of hustling and working hard every single day – and even to this day it can be 16 hours a day – but that’s how the business survives. We have incredibly passionate people who work hard every day and we’ve blazed our own trail and done something genuinely different.”
James says his inspiration to do what he does comes from the adventure itself. “I feel like this thing is exciting and I want to make it work and prove the doubters wrong – and prove to myself, in some ways, that I can create something amazing. It’s like a complex, intricate game that takes all of your wit, intelligence and energy to make it work. That gets me going, because I want to be able to stand up and say I built it right from the ground.”
Reflecting on how far he has come in recent years, James has some steady advice for someone in a similar position to what he was, unsure what to do with their lives. “I know a lot of people say follow your dreams and do what you love, but it’s not always that simple,” he says. “I followed what I loved for a long time and started businesses and then went broke. It might be a horrible truth, but you almost need that. Failures discipline you and they teach you the value of money and that it’s not a game. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it seriously. Nothing comes easily.”