I’m on a video call with Stephen Bennett and Vinh Le at the Vince Clothing factory in Melbourne’s Brunswick East.
Stephen, the founder of Country Road, and Vinh, the director of Vince Clothing PTY LTD and Denimsmith, are no strangers to one another, having first worked together in the nineties.
Vinh was working at a different denim factory in Melbourne at the time, learning the skills of the trade before starting his own manufacturing business in 1992. Over the last 30 years he has focused on making Australian products for clients and his own customers – a variety of denim products and fashion apparel.
Stephen and Vinh first collaborated on quality denim garments for Country Road, and the relationship between them is being rekindled now for a similar cause.
In celebration of Country Road’s 50th anniversary – a major milestone for the Australian brand that’s known for its quality manufacturing and practical, hard wearing garments – an iconic denim piece from the brand’s 1984 collection has been reinstated.
And it’s being made on our shores once again, in the safe hands of Vince Clothing.
Back in the old Country
Reflecting on the early days of Country Road, Stephen speaks with energy as he recalls a thriving local manufacturing industry.
“The manufacturing industry in the early seventies was very positive,” he says. “It was a big industry. I started as a salesman and that basically led into working in a shirt factory. I learned what was important in manufacturing in terms of your staff, your machinery. So that was a good education.
“When I started Country Road, we were manufacturing virtually 80 per cent in Australia. We were buying factories. We had a shirt factory down in Camperdown with 60 staff, and then we had one in Collingwood, which I think had about 40 staff, and they were making pants.
“And so we had outside factories, internal factories, and we were importing a little bit, but then it all changed. The reduction of import tariffs meant it became less attractive to make in Australia.”
Country Road changed hands in the mid-nineties, but Stephen’s had been brought back in for the brand’s 50th anniversary, to breathe some of the founding values back into the brand.
“Elle Rosebury (Managing Director at Country Road) came to me and said, ‘we want to reignite some of the original core values of the business,’” Stephen explains. “And they didn’t have a great archive of what had been made in those days, but I had a very good archive.
From that started a discussion about collaborating for Country Road’s 50th anniversary, which led to the decision to reintroduce one of the brand’s most iconic pieces – the Country Road Workwear men’s chambray shirt.
Priced at $250 a piece, the chambray shirt stands out with its detailed stitching and quality construction – something that Stephen attributes to Vince Clothing’s craftsmanship.
“This shirt that Vince Clothing has made is simply world class,” he says.
“What Vinh’s got is a combination of excellent equipment, which he’s built up to do specialist jobs, which is the key. But then you mix that with highly qualified sewists and machinists that can finish the garment.
“Mechanical assistance is fantastic, but at the end of the day, it has to be brought together by people. And that’s the joy of manufacturing – seeing the combination of technology and the art and trade of sewing garments together.
“Vinh’s got some very qualified people in that area, and that’s why we’ve had a relationship for a long time in quality garments. So he was our number one choice for this partnership.”
All in a day’s work
It’s no secret that Stephen is a fan of onshore manufacturing and well made, quality garments. He founded the Country Road brand on hard wearing workwear, around the time denim was gaining popularity across the globe.
“I was fortunate to be at the start of the jean boom, which was the early seventies, and it came back from Vietnam, with the Americans, with Levis and everything,” he says.
“We started making shirts and I wanted to make the shirts to the same standard that the jeans were made. And that’s what started Country Road.”
When it came to choosing the fabric for the chambray shirt, Stephen says the key to the garment’s success was in the colour as much as the fabric finish and make.
“We basically launched as a womenswear brand made in a men’s factory,” he says, “so all of our garments had an androgynous look to them.
“So when we moved into specifically menswear, I wanted to separate the menswear from the women’s. So we came up with this concept of workwear, which was comfortable clothes that looked good. And chambray is a very good workwear fabric.”
“But the colour of it is quite grey, rather than rich. So we decided to use the same weave of fabric in a particular finish – a slightly rougher cotton that feels good on your body – and then we spent a lot of time perfecting the colour, and the colour made people look good.
“So we did it for men, but women used to buy heaps of them. So it became ubiquitous to the workwear brand.”
The road ahead
Vinh says he sees onshore manufacturing as a growing trend, driven by a shift in consumer attitudes. His manufacturing brand Vince Clothing PTY LTD could not be busier – and his email and social media inboxes are flooded with requests for his make and product.
“That’s why I’m now trying to improve our capability with more equipment and more technology to catch up with the demand at the moment,” he says.
“But we are in a strong position. We’ll get there.”
Stephen is hopeful for a resurgence of Australian made garments, not just by Country Road, but among the wider industry.
“Why did Australia stop making garments? We should never have stopped,” he says.
“It’s a wonderful trade for girls and boys to learn. So I’m hoping, and I’m sure Vinh is too, that people will come back to the trade because it’s a very good trade.
“Vinh makes tough, good looking clothing. And that’s really what the ethos of Country Road was from day one.”
So what’s the secret sauce to Vince Clothing’s incredible manufacturing?
“In my factory, quality is number one,” Vinh says. “Sometimes I do things a little slower and more time consuming. But you can see the difference in the garment. This is why I have been in business for many decades, and hopefully more to come.
“In my factory we work like brothers and sisters. We work together.”