Natural Success: Lee Thompson
As Assembly Label celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, CEO Lee Thompson reflects on the brand’s journey from an idea between friends to the purpose-driven Australian fashion sensation it is today.
Meet Assembly Label, the iconic Australian fashion label. Homegrown in Bondi Beach, it is revered for its minimalist designs underpinned by sustainability and quiet luxury.
For this brand, it’s all about easy-wearing, timeless pieces crafted from natural cotton and breathable linen in a palette of muted colours and classic monochrome, inspired by Australia’s relaxed coastal lifestyle and built on friendship.
In 2011, the refreshing brand came to life when friends Daniel Oliver and Damien Horan saw a gap in the market and had a brilliant idea to fill it: a high-quality, low-fuss menswear line influenced by their sun-kissed, beachside surrounds.
"Among the three of us, who have all been very close friends even before the business started, we saw an opportunity to create a set of products with a certain handwriting that we found appealing," shares Assembly Label CEO Lee Thompson.
Starting in wholesale, Assembly Label quickly took off. It turns out the aesthetic that appealed to their friendship circle was just as appealing to the masses. By 2015, the brand expanded to include a women’s clothing line, which was crafted in a rather unique fashion.
"We didn’t take into consideration what the market probably wanted from us. Instead, we created our womenswear line based on what we wanted to make," he admits.
"We looked at our lives and the lifestyles of those within our friendship circle, and thought of the people we were inspired by and decided to make a range for that audience. Our womenswear line was created off more of a brand emotion than anything else."
This heart-led move was met with immediate success. Shortly after, Assembly Label opened its first retail store in Bondi. "Opening our first store was an amazing opportunity for us to create our own retail experience," Lee says.
"We could finally invite people into the physical world of our brand, right down to the design of the space, the culture and the sense of community." While that was the motivation, Lee says there were "zero expectations" upon the store’s opening.
"We were just happy for it to be open," he beams. "We finally had a space where we could genuinely interact with our audience and share our full range of men’s and women’s apparel. "We even started to portray brands that inspired us in categories ranging from footwear to homewares. It gave our audience a firmer idea about what our brand’s handwriting was. And we’ve just been on a journey from there ever since."
The journey has been nothing short of amazing, surpassing all of their wildest imaginations. "Far out, we never thought when the business started that we would be in the position we are in today," Lee says.
"It turns out, when you have a culture and value set based on achieving your vision and mission – and you come together as a group to achieve these aspects while focusing on the community and customer at the highest possible level, rather than being solely transaction-based – you’ll achieve far more than what you could ever have dreamed. It all becomes quite organic and natural."
This year, Assembly Label celebrates a decade of business success. It’s a success owed to passion, perseverance and a dedicated team of thoughtful individuals who believe that success comes not from one, but from everyone.
"Our culture creates a space where our business’s vision, mission and values come to life. We continue to push one another as a group," Lee says.
Every day we continue to be inspired by each other and as a result, our vision is brought to life.
"I firmly believe that it’s all about being an aligned group, encouraging one another and creating an environment that fosters successes. Every day we continue to be inspired by each other and as a result, our vision is brought to life."
The vision? "To create a discernible, minimalist lifestyle that inspires a way of living," he says. That encompasses everything from apparel to style, to life outside of work and the partnerships Assembly Label forms. It all comes together for a more mindful way of life.
"This mindfulness flows into the creation of the products that we believe challenge the status quo by being of the highest possible quality while being fairly priced at the same time," he adds.
"We never look at something and say, ‘Let’s increase the price point just to be in a different tier of brand.’ For us, it’s all about looking at the price point and asking, ‘Is that the best we can do?’"
This not only widens the brand’s audience, but it also invites people to come into the lifestyle. "It’s a unique approach," Lee confesses.
"Naturally, the way we look at the culture and the values of the business, they’re defined by our community. They’re defined by our radical candour and transparency. We try to push the fact that we’re a team focused on the higher purpose and vision."
A higher purpose
Being a brand built from the ground up without a huge financial backing of deep-pocketed investors has given Assembly Label a unique point of difference. It’s allowed Lee and the team to do things differently.
They’re able to move more freely and make decisions intuitively based on what feels right and creates an experience that brings its vision, mission and values to life.
"Since we, as a team, have built Assembly Label up from nothing, we feel like we are in such a fortunate position where we can give back to the things that we believe in through our success and the audience that we’ve created," Lee notes.
In the fashion industry, one of the biggest issues is sustainability. Each season, brands release new lines, tempting consumers to buy the latest and greatest threads to stay on trend. This frenetic pace of change is one of the reasons the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions.
That’s more than shipping and aviation (at least in pre-pandemic times) combined. To abate this dilemma, Assembly Label follows a sustainable strategy that focuses on an inventory that’s not too small and not too big, but hopefully, just right. "We have a strategy to never go on sale," Lee says.
"It’s one of the most sustainable things you can do when managing a retail business. "We don’t want to over-purchase. We just want to make sure that the value we create and the products we create are the right price at the right time. It really relies us on making sure that our buying methods are intuitive, estimating precisely what the customer demand will be."
Of course, the company doesn’t always get it right, so it does what it can and focuses on the next best thing. "We don’t want to just go on sale by reducing the price. As a way to give back even further, we started our choose-what-you-pay concept where if we go on sale, the customer can choose the price of the sale item," he explains.
"If they decide to pay more for the item, the difference between the lower sale price and what they pay is donated, and we’ll match that. Since its inception in 2017, we’ve been able to donate more than A$250,000, which is something the team and I are all really proud of. It’s both humbling and a privilege to have built a level of commercial success that inherently allows us a platform to give back."
The dream work
There’s no ‘I’ in team, a popular sentiment that Lee wholeheartedly ascribes to. A humble leader, he’s never one to gloat of his success or take credit for making Assembly Label Australia’s newest ‘it’ brand. Instead, he recognises every person who has helped build the brand along the way.
"Our success is owed to our team, our audience, our community and the people who have helped build this business," he says. "It’s owed to our first shop fitter Mr and Mrs White. It’s owed to our legal partner Law Squared and our digital partner and website developer The Working Party, both of which have become embedded in our organisation.
"And all of the people who have contributed and sacrificed while coming together to create our community and make it what it is today, the success is owed to them too. Assembly Label’s success is not just one individual success; it’s a bit of luck and a lot of effort from everyone involved. I think we all feel quite privileged to be a part of it. I hope we can continue to have a positive impact on our industry and our community beyond what it is today."
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