*Click through photographs by Bess Maria Zewdie to see collections from Kitsch Place, Miss Brown Vintage, Grandma Funk and Grandpa Funk at the 100 Squared Melbourne Central store.

It’s 100 square metres of eclectic fashion, bringing market-style shopping to the retail space: introducing 100 Squared, your new favourite shopping destination. Since launching in 2010, the innovative retailer has plucked many a designer out of obscurity and placed them right in the centre of hustle-bustle retail, launching labels such as Get Frocked and Carpe Diem Jewellery into success. We had a chat with founder Justin Levy to learn more about his 100 Squared vision from inception to creation.

100 Squared is a unique concept in that it introduces market-style shopping into the retail landscape. How did this idea come about, and has it evolved or changed from what you originally envisioned?

I used to run a marketing and PR company, and one of the first events we did was an event called Fringe Bar Markets. Our client was The Fringe Bar on Oxford street, Paddington. The street was busy on a Saturday because obviously Saturday was the busiest day and is when everyone shops, and it was fashion stores. So they wanted to increase the amount of people going to their bar on Saturday, so they said they wanted to do an event to bring more people in. We came up with an event called Fringe Bar Markets, where basically we would clear out the bar on a Saturday, put in all fashion stalls, a sort of fashion market. It was all emerging fashion designers. People could shop, eat, drink, there was DJs, you could buy alcohol, buy food and shop, all in one place. The first week we started it, we had two designers. Four weeks later, we had 25 designers in this bar, so it took off.

That went on for about three years in total, but after the first or second year, all the designers started saying, ‘we’re doing well here, this is good, but we’re only getting one day a week of trade. This is good, but what else have you got, let’s do something bigger.’ I started looking around for other locations, and at the same time I met someone from Westfield. At the time, they were building Westfield Sydney, which was the new development underneath Centrepoint Tower. He said, “This is a good idea. Would you ever do this market concept in a shopping centre?” I said, ‘Perfect!’ So that’s when I came up with the concept of 100 Squared. The whole point of 100 Squared was to take 100 square metres of open air space and convert it into a fashion market, creative area. So it’s converting blank space, 100 square metres, into a creative hub.

So the idea grew organically?

In the beginning, it was meant to be a traditional fashion market concept. It was meant to change people’s perception, so when you walk through a shopping centre, you would never expect to see an open air style fashion market. From the designers point of view, the whole point was to keep the product, or the space, fresh in the industry. The original purpose was to rotate the whole space every six months. So every six months, we would rotate all the designers and put in brand new designers. The issue was after the first six months, and the reason why we were doing that was to ensure the space was new and interesting, but after the first six months no one wanted to leave. So I said to them, ‘Why don’t you want to leave?’ They said the reason they didn’t want to leave was because the reason why we did this was because we wanted to grow our business, and we could do that by having a permanent retail environment. Not so much just to make sales, but just to have a permanent presence. As an emerging designer, it’s quite hard to have a permanent business, or retail presence, in any key areas in Australia, because usually shopping centres are expensive.

So then the concept slightly changed in that it wasn’t, while it was good to have the experience of an open-air market or fashion market to the consumer, it wasn’t so good to the actual designer because they wanted permanence. So then I realised it wasn’t about rotating designers every six months, it was about turning young businesses into full-time retail business. So now we call ourselves a fashion incubator, so the whole point is to take designers, or young fashion businesses at their infancy and try and grow them into bigger and better businesses.

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What were some challenges that you faced in trying to realise such a unique concept in the beginning?

The hardest part was getting the landlords to buy in to do this concept. When we first launched it in a Westfield – obviously this is not their traditional type of retail model – so the initial challenge was to sell it through all their management levels, which took about six months. It wasn’t hard to get the designers, because we had a database from Fringe Bar. I knew there were designers out there who wanted this opportunity, and I knew customers are always interested in new retail concepts or experiences. So the last piece of the puzzle was getting the landlord to buy into it, which eventually we did.

100 Squared stocks a diverse range of emerging labels, giving young designers a platform of exposure that would otherwise prove difficult in a retail setting. What’s the process behind sourcing and selecting labels to stock in your stores?

The main criteria is to get a general understanding of their business, to find people that have the same mindset as us. We’re not looking for designers or retailers who just basically want to flog products, we’re looking for people who want to actually grow and develop their brand in the long term. We want people who actually want to work with us to become permanent retailers, develop their ranges, develop their retail skill set and grow their business.

Labels are rotated regularly, which allows designers to use 100 Squared as a jumping off point to then branch out further and establish themselves independently within the retail landscape. Could you tell us what some labels have been able to do after their time at 100 Squared?

About three years ago, we ran a nation-wide competition to find the next best up and coming designer. We ran it in conjunction with Grazia magazine, which is actually no longer around, we ran it through their magazine. People could apply, they sent me examples of their latest range and what they sell. The editor of Grazia and myself chose a winner. That winner was a brand called ToniMay, which is an accessories label. At the time, she was doing it as a hobby, and working full-time as a graphics designer in a company. She won the competition, and as part of the prize she could got one month free in our Westfield Sydney space.

At the end of the month, she did so well, she realised she wanted to build a full-time business. Six months later she went away and quit her job, did all the production and came back, and launched a space in Westfield city with us. She’s now been with us for the last two and a half years, and she’s also just opened a second space with us at Westfield Miranda. It just shows how someone took a hobby, it became a full-time job and business, and she’s actually now expanded not only from one location but to a second location. If you go to our website, we’ve got a couple of case studies.

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After establishing 100 Squared in Sydney, you’ve partnered up with Justin Watson of BAM Brands to expand 100 Squared throughout Melbourne. How do you think Melbourne’s fashion climate differs from Sydney? Have you had to change your approach in any way when tackling the Melbourne market?

Yes, it’s very different – very, very different (laughs). The fashion sense is completely different, and the style is completely different. The main thing is the climates. In Melbourne, we find the sales don’t spike as much as in Sydney. In Sydney, spring/summer the sales skew much higher. Whereas in Melbourne, it’s much more consistent for the 12 months of the year, because the climate’s more stable. Particularly in autumn/winter, they shop with a more sophisticated palette when it comes to a lot of their wardrobe, because they have to wear more layers. There’s much more of a vintage or retro aspect in Melbourne. In Sydney, it’s much more trend-driven. Whatever the latest trend is, is much more important in Sydney. In Melbourne, it’s more classic, there’s a lot of very heavy vintage and retro inspiration. We have a few vintage collectors in Melbourne, we don’t have any of that in Sydney.

In our three Sydney locations, we only have Sydney-based designers, and in Melbourne we only have Melbourne-based designers. The reason why is because obviously that’s where they live, but more importantly they know the local people and the local customer much better. The product they bring into the space…will be much more defined for the local customer because they are the local customer, and they know the local customer better. When you walk into all five of our spaces in Sydney or Melbourne, they’re all going to be completely different products, because the designers in there are local designers. They’re sourcing products for the local people.

What do you envision for 100 Squared in five years time?

They key thing is we want to double the business. We’ve got five locations, three in Sydney and two in Melbourne. We would like to get to ten stores, and be in more cities. I’d like to go to Brisbane and Perth as well.

Are you looking to head into cities that are unrepresented and don’t get much attention from the Australian fashion industry?

Yeah, so next week we’re launching a six week pop-up in in Karrinyup Shopping Centre, Perth.. A lot of designers are quite hesitant to go to Perth because of the distance, and they’ve also never thought of it as a main fashion capital of Australia. The customers out there obviously know what fashion is and know what’s happening in the fashion scene in Australia, they just can’t get access to the products, so we’re doing a six week pop-up in Perth from next week. I’d like to be represented in all four of those cities. We’re in Sydney and Melbourne now, but definitely Brisbane, even Gold Coast, and Perth.

One word or phrase to describe 100 Squared?

Pioneering.

100 Squared began their six week residency at Karrinyup Shopping Centre, Perth, this week.
For more details, visit their Facebook page.

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