High Fashion for Every Woman

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-By Claire Suttles

Brothers Nitzan and Izhar Ronen had a vision: to provide high quality fashion to the woman of classic taste. Inspired by a genuine love of fashion and a family history in European fashion retail dating back to the 1940s, the pair founded the Dolina Fashion Group in 1980. The company began with the pair’s own Dolina label, but soon branched out to include a number of other, mostly Australian, brands. The business quickly became a fashion entity as it grew into the major department stores David Jones, Myers, and Grace Brothers. The group eliminated its major competitor, the House of Stitches, by acquiring it in 2001. Then, in 2003, the company branched out into retail when it bought the Maggie T chain of stores.

Acquiring Maggie T was a smart business move, but the decision was also motivated by a shared vision and “higher purpose” between the two companies. Maggie T CEO, Teri Naccarato, explains that both the Dolina Group and Maggie T “subscribe to a higher purpose, [which] is to serve the very important [plus size] emerging market to the best of its ability.” The Ronen brothers have long been committed to providing quality fashion in larger sizes. In the beginning, the brothers were “very forward thinking” in recognising an underdeveloped corner of the fashion industry. Now, Ms Naccarato reports, the two men have a dedication to their target consumer that goes beyond profit motivation. They “really love the market,” she says, and “think there’s a need for this product.” In fact, out of the nine Dolina Group brands today, all but three offer plus sizes. We have “such a passion here for accepting women of all sizes,” Ms Naccarato reports.

Likewise, Maggie T, named for iconic Australian supermodel Maggie Tabberer, was founded to serve “women who expected fashion, expected style, expected quality, but just couldn’t find their size.” Ms Naccarato explains that “Maggie was ahead of her time… for the vision, the guts it takes to stand for larger sizes.” Maggie stood for larger sizes partly because she herself had experienced the fashion dilemma plus sized women face. As her dress size increased, she was forced “to custom make her clothes or wear lower priced, very basic product.” Many fashion conscious women, after having children or simply growing older, are suddenly finding themselves in larger sizes. But, they “still have that same desire for high quality, stylish product,” Ms Naccarato reports. “What about a woman who is accustomed to wearing that kind of product?” she asks, “Where do they go?”

The Dolina Group stands out as one of very few companies offering high end luxury brands in larger sizes. Ms Naccarato believes that “everyone is jumping on the bandwagon of plus sizes – obviously it makes business sense if the world is getting larger – but I don’t think anyone is caring about the style consciousness or fashionability of these women.”

Maggie T caters to women who expect the same high quality luxury fashion that is typically only available in smaller sizes. The Maggie T customer demands superior fabrics: silks, Australian wool, angora, Italian linen. They also appreciate the careful attention paid to the craftsmanship of the pieces. The majority of other plus size clothing labels are unable to offer that same level of careful craftsmanship. Because of market pressure to compete with large discount chains and low prices, the “mass market has completely commoditised anything to do with ladies apparel, contemporary apparel or plus size apparel,” Ms Naccarato laments. “There is a huge price war out there for the basic opening price point casual product. [Because of this] the product has become very, very homogenous.” Maggie T, on the other hand, has always strived to occupy the higher end, luxury market. Because so few other plus sized labels dare to enter this arena, Maggie T has very little competition and offers product variety not possible in the mass market.

Because Maggie T is set up to do all the necessary predevelopment work right in its own building, the company has more control over the product and is able to offer greater value to the customer. The company cuts its own patterns, does its own grading, and sources its own trim locally in Australia, something that is very rare in the industry today. Maggie T also relies on a very small group of boutique manufacturers in Asia who are able to produce small quantities for reasonable prices. “Often, they will forgo the minimums for us and that’s really rare,” Ms Naccarato explains. “It is because we are able to… eliminate some of the upfront work for them and they in turn provide us with the flexibility of a relaxed minimum [which] in turn gives our customers a better price.” Because Maggie T is not locked into large, mass produced quantities, the company “is able to offer high quality fabrics and embellishments and still be quite affordable,” even when the amount of meterage required for larger sizes would normally raise the price of the garment.

Although Maggie T does much of the pre-work onsite, it is actually a relatively small company with limited staff. The company culture encourages continual learning, collaboration, and flexibility. Ms Naccarato explains that, “if you’ve got few hands on deck you’d be a smart leader to let them go and learn [as much as they can].” While some responsibilities can’t be shared – garments can only be designed my Maggie T’s world class designers, for example – most staff is able to jump in wherever needed. Ms Naccarato laughs that even she, as CEO, can operate the forklift to unload a pallet if they’re in a pinch. “It’s a culture of sink or swim together,” she says. Having a small but dedicated and versatile staff enables quick decisions and immediate action. “If we need to change something we can email stores and it changes within the hour. We can mark something down and by the end of the night increase sales by 30 per cent,” Ms Naccarato reports.

The company also has the flexibility to make minor last minute product amendments. Ms Naccarato gives an example: “Tab shirts are suddenly dead. We can quickly amend the shirt and take off the tabs right here before we ship it to our stores. It’s not something you see anymore in the marketplace. Because we have everything here, we can react.” Such direct control over the authentic design of the product also means the company can pay special attention to important details that mass produced brands can’t offer. For example, Maggie T Jeans have seams that are sewn forward an inch and a half and have a lower rise in the front to give an illusion of slimness. “It’s those tricks of the trade that people don’t do when they’re cutting corners and offering a $20.00 jean,” Ms Naccarato says. And she believes that these details are paramount, regardless of the cost or challenge. “It takes hard work to fit a size 24 rigid jean,” she explains, “but I want my customer to experience good fit and comfort without all the elastics all over the place. Sometimes my pattern makers tell me it’s impossible [to produce a certain look in a larger size] but I still force them to try.”

Plus size has traditionally been the stepchild of fashion and the lack of merchandise beyond the lower quality, uninspired product isn’t surprising. “Nobody ever finds it glamorous enough,” Ms Naccarato reports. “A lot of designers… are rather embarrassed about offering larger sizes and nobody ever really applies themselves to this.” This attitude comes in spite of the fact that roughly 60 per cent of Australian women over the age of 30 wear a size greater than 14.

The Dolina Group, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to stand for real women. The team wants to offer a healthier, more realistic image of beauty. The company’s goal is “making truly beautiful clothing” that inspires confidence and body pride. For example, Maggie T refuses to airbrush bulges from models’ waistlines. Ms Naccarato is also removing the word “plus” from the Maggie T lexicon, offering extended sizes instead. This relabeling fits the company’s new motto: It’s About Style, not Size. The new motto also reminds the industry that larger sizes have become the norm. In fact, due to consumer demand, Maggie T’s extended sizes will soon be testing a possible move beyond the company’s traditional 12 to 24 range to include smaller sizes. That extension is the epitome of the Dolina Group’s vision: offering high quality fashion to all.

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October 19, 2018, 6:23 AM AEDT