BRISBANE, Australia — Fandoms are communities that take root and grow around cultish aspects of pop culture. Think Potterheads (fans of Harry Potter), Trekkies (Star Trek followers), Bronies (male fans of My Little Pony) and Beliebers (Justin Bieber fangirls). But aside from cosplay and the occasional fandom-related t-shirt, these communities rarely intersect with the fashion industry. Until now. They call themselves ‘Sharkies’ and they worship at the altar of Black Milk, an Australian fashion brand specialising in shiny printed lycra.
Black Milk was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 2009. As the story goes, founder James Lillis, on a whim, decided to pawn his CD player for a sewing machine and taught himself how to sew, creating a line of acid-bright stretchy nylon leggings. After struggling to find stockists, Lillis decided to sell his product exclusively online, marketing them to the growing number of girls who discovered the leggings through his blog Too Many Tights. “I was a guy, who was just starting to make women's clothing and really had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I think people really enjoyed tagging along on that journey of discovery and felt an affinity for my own growing enthusiasm for clothes.”
Black Milk has since grown from five people huddled around a kitchen table to a company of over 200 people with offices in Brisbane and Los Angeles. Its monthly new releases often sell out immediately, sometimes within seconds, and the label’s Brisbane factory sews up to 2000 pairs of tights per day to keep up with demand. While the company declined to reveal specific revenue figures, Cameron Parker, head of sales and marketing, described Black Milk as a “multi-million dollar business.”
Black Milk eschews traditional advertising and sells exclusively via its own website. Indeed, what has really driven the growth of the company is its community of fans. “The brand actually started out of social media, through a blog and a community around legwear and girls commenting and being very much part of the design process from the beginning,” said Parker. “It’s why the community is such a big and powerful part of the business. It’s where we started.”
Cleverly, Black Milk has also tapped into existing fandoms by releasing collections related to other pop-cultural phenomenona, such as Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Star Wars. (An R2D2 swimsuit attracted a cease and desist order from Lucas Films, but the two parties eventually signed a licensing agreement). “The whole licensing stuff came from the customers,” said Parker. “The first thing we dabbled in was Star Wars and we kind of did that illegally. And then customers started asking for Batman and Harry Potter, and other massive fandoms.”
“Most brand advocates are motivated by the desire to be play an active role as main stakeholders,” said Cristina Forlani, an account director at social media agency We Are Social. “They like to tell other people about their experience with the brand, share their knowledge with others to help them make better decisions and to be rewarded for this.”
Lillis nicknamed Black Milk’s fans “Sharkies” because of how quickly and ferociously they devoured (or as the fandom says, “nommed”) the company’s products. The community has embraced the nickname and Black Milk has responded with Sharkie-emblazoned products. Mary Waley, a Canadian Sharkie who discovered the brand in 2012, said that Black Milk inspires such devotion from fans because it has fostered a community from the very beginning. “They listen to us and ask for our opinions,” said Waley. “For example, when they released the price for a pair of hosiery, we felt it was too expensive so they dropped the price.”
Indeed, many of Black Milk’s business decisions, design choices and marketing initiatives are born from listening to what their customers have to say in extremely active Facebook groups. “I’m in all these groups,” Parker said, referring to the 70 private Facebook groups used by various communities of Sharkies. “I’ve got a 24-hour focus group going in 70 groups.”
It was through these groups that Parker and Lillis found out about the real world meet-ups organised by Australian fans who wanted to meet fellow Sharkies in their local area. Word of these meetings quickly spread to US customers, who arranged a gathering in Las Vegas. Parker and Lillis flew from Brisbane to attend, prompting the start of SharkieCon, an official, weekend-long meet-up for hundreds of Black Milk fans that takes place in Las Vegas each year. This year, the brand also organised SharkieCon Euro in Majorca, Spain. “There is nothing more powerful than sitting down for a whole weekend and listening to what [our customers] want,” said Parker.
Jennifer Post, a Black Milk fan from California, has attended every SharkieCon since its inception and said it was unlike anything she had ever seen. “With what other fashion brand do you have fans of the brand getting together to share in the joy of it all?” she said. “Sharing styling tips, taking selfies, meeting people in person that you have chatted with online for hours at a time.”
The depth of brand advocacy for Black Milk can be felt in the way community members create their own art, songs and photography for the label. One Sharkie even creates her own designs that she sells in a Facebook group called ‘For the love of nylon’ using old Black Milk pieces. The company has been quick to encourage user-generated content about the brand, which it integrates into its marketing strategy and e-commerce platform. “Selfies, man, our business is built on selfies,” said Parker. “We saw all this content coming through and thought, what can we do with all of this? We need this on our website! This is what sells the gear, not our models.”
“For an online business where you can’t try on the gear, that was absolutely fundamental for us to sell online,” he continued. “That was the social proof that people needed to buy.”
Collette Barr, a UK-based Sharkie, said that seeing the clothes on a fellow member of the community encouraged her to buy more Black Milk products. “There might be a piece you never liked or thought you'd suit but weren't sure,” said Barr. “Then a Sharkie will post a photo within the group wearing said piece, looking fabulous, and that sometimes makes you want it.”
Parker acknowledges that one of the challenges will be continuing to scale the brand, while maintaining its cultish appeal. “We need to grow to be sustainable, but we don’t want to lose that edge and personality and grass roots feel,” he said. The brand plans to delve into menswear, expand its current womenswear range and open its first physical retail store at its Brisbane headquarters.
“From our side of things, we don’t know what we’re doing,” he acknowledged. “It’s not like I have experience in this, because there’s nothing like this. But we love it. It is incredible when you have one-on-one time with these girls and they say: ‘Oh my God, you don’t realise, this brand means so much to me.’”