Peter Lang has been designing jewellery in Australia for decades and when it comes to quality jewellery from an Australian designer, it is predominantly Peter Lang that I think of.
Recently, I had the pleasure to interview Peter. Please see the interview below.
So you started in the 80s?
I started in the very early 80s. I started off doing belts. It was through necessity. There was nothing available. Australia was a void of everything. A friend came back from London with a belt. I desperately wanted it and I hunted and hunted and couldn’t find anything similar. So I ended up making it myself. It was elaborate. It was stencilled animal print and embellished so I made it. Made it and others and then grew a demand. People saw it, so grew a demand. So then, I’m creative, it allowed me to express my creativity and also supply people with something that wasn’t available. It fitted two markets.
Self-taught. I then needed to go out and learn? So what do you do? Learn? Books, asking people – leather people and sourcing them – making mistakes and learning. Trial and error but I tend to think if you have a desire to do something, I tend to think you do it. You have a strong enough desire, you do it. I had the passion and I didn’t have any money. It was a passion of creating, a career in creating.
What were you doing at the time?
I was unemployed but I’d come from fashion so I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t my formal training. I was trained as a surveyor so I did that and then needed to go from there.
When did you go into jewellery?
Jewellery I went into in the decline of belts. Belts were a big fashion thing in the 80s. People wearing 2 or 3 with studs. Heavy duty and fun. Then all of the sudden it became minimalistic as it crept in towards the 90s. Belts disappeared into a fine ribbon and then it turned into jewellery going crazy. I then followed the trends. I was travelling then as a part of business to have a look to see what was happening.
And there’s no leathers here. So I used to go and import the right kind of red. Go to Milan, go to the tanneries there buy it and send it back. There were only one or two tanneries in Australia., people who sold leather. One was New South Wales that still exists. They would go and buy the offcuts and say that you have that particular colour of red. I would say “but that’s pink” and they would say “no, that’s red. It’s in my eyes, it’s red”. You would either have to suffer with the crap they had and the expensive prices or you go and find it. You follow your passion.
So that’s what I did. That then ceased and I had a factory with 10 people in it. 15 people maybe. I could see belts were declining. I employed 15 people to just make belts. But then rather than dropping out, I saw in travelling that jewellery started happening. So I grabbed some products, put them on the table and pulled them apart. I had a creative gay guy working for me so I created a fun party scene.
Had some friends, threw them some pearls and things and came back an hour later they made spectacular jewellery. They also had no formal training, were creative. So I created a fun party scene. People who were creative who couldn’t get a job elsewhere. Maybe they couldn’t write or maybe they couldn’t…but they were creative.
No formal training for them either?
Formal training is a bit of bullshit. You teach yourself. I taught myself jewellery. I could see that there was a market for it. I could see that it was a viable proposition commercially.
Took a lot less time in jewellery than in belts. Belts are time consuming. You have to cut and then you have to shape and then colour because you couldn’t get. You could buy raw hides but then you’d have to use a colour. So we developed different colouring methods. I was lucky enough to then get Chinese workers who were skilled from China. They came over and brought the skills with them because Australians didn’t know anything.
So then I started doing jewellery. I saw the benefit of jewellery and then started doing it. For me it was the frustration of belts because you know — Being creative, I created what I liked and what I’d like people to wear. So in jewellery, it gave me a whole new sphere of creativity because jewellery is what you’re wearing today. You couldn’t do that with a belt. It could but it wouldn’t be bought. It wouldn’t be afforded. But in jewellery they’d do so it gave me another freedom so then took a blast.
Did you have to learn how to solder and weld?
How do you learn? How do you learn? You don’t have to go to school. You just do. Same as anyone here. As I’ve grown I’ve got a chap who’s been with me 20 odd years, John, and he came from a company who used to cast. And casting is how that jewellery that’s around your neck is made. You make the mould and then you pour metal. I mean it’s not done now. Australia had it for a while but now it’s lost it because most of the people have gone offshore.
Yeah and that’s sad that we keep losing it.
Yeah but it’s the Australian public that’s to fault.
Definitely because we’ve just had an interest in cheap
They won’t support it. They mouth off that they will and as soon as you do “it’s more expensive”. I know from running the shop or having the shop here that “well this is made out the back and I care to give an Australian a job” “well I just want it for $5 cheaper”. It’s I, I, I.
Yeah I know everyone is so selfish and I think almost everything is made in China now.
Most people. I know that when I tried to get into bags, I couldn’t find anyone to make a bag because they had all retired or retrained.
When was that?
Um… that was in early 2000.
Because Leo Monk does bags and started here?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Leo Monk started out working for me doing belts. He was doing bags for a little while. I had an Italian guy who couldn’t speak any English or chose to speak very little English. Leo is from an Italian background so Leo was a little bit of an interpreter for me. So he worked for me, doing bags, this Italian man, who came out of retirement and started then doing handbags.
So I then for a second had a run here of bags. It went well but prices started to go up. Because you know I started doing proper costumes and “ooops too dear”. You know. So anyway, now they’re done in China, what I do in bags and belts.
How do you go about finding a manufacturer in China that you’re going to be happy with quality?
Well it’s trial and error. I’ve got some Chinese production girls here whose job then is to supervise production in China.
So they go over there? Or they get progress pictures?
No, working through internet, working through samples when they arrive and then telephone. You know so it’s all of the above. Um, so far so good. I do all of Cue’s production.
That was something I was wondering about because Cue is still largely Australian made as well.
Yeah totally Australian made. They’re one of the few remaining. You know that are, that support Australians. And they’re very good in supporting Australians. They’ve been excellent in supporting me, supporting a lot of manufacturers. I think they’re the ones that help the industry survive in this country. You know it’s an easy job to go off-shore.
And that’s the thing. The prices that they are charging. They’re not charging any more than your Witchery or other similar level, but the others are getting it all done off shore so they’re just not being greedy with their profits.
Yeah. They’re a very good company. One thing that I’m very proud of is that I’ve been able to work with them for so long.
I saw the post that they put up last Winter, of the choker? Crushed velvet looking with stars
Yes, it was in a grosgrain or a crushed velvet. They’re wonderful to work with and they’re creative. They go not with the norm. They go beyond the norm. So it’s been a great pleasure for me to work with them. Again, it’s down to what makes money for them.
That’s the thing. You’ve gone towards the fine jewellery trend.
Because there’s a demand for it.
That’s where fashion is going
Yeah so you have got to follow the fashions. You can’t do. We used to do what you’re wearing.
I know! I miss this
It’s there. I have fights with sales all the time. Not everyone is pencil thin, 18 years old with perfect perky skin. I went through it in the early days of the later 90s and it all changed to very fine jewellery.
Fashion’s very cyclical
It is very cyclical. But it was then you know like yeah you had to try to do what the customer wanted.
Of course, what the current trend is
Bottom line, it lasted for a short time and this lasts for a short time. We used to do a lot of what you’re wearing – not what you’re wearing – it’s quite over the top. Or even down to what we have. In doing the fine, and fine is trendy, what does sell because Australian girls aren’t pencil thin. They’re healthy girls. They’ve got skin that’s damaged by the sun. Not everyone is lily white and can wear a fine gold chain.
It’s something that covers you. You know.
The problem I have with the fine is how does one designer stand out from another?
They all look exactly the same!
You compete with the others. And everyone is doing the same and you’re no different. And with the market that there is
All the other stuff you’ve done has been so different that no one else was doing
Yeah but then it goes against the fashion. Fashion is not about wearing something that is outstanding.
It should be!
Yeah it should be but I’m a sheep. We follow what the magazines – as we know within a year or so we’ll go back. So that’s what it’s about. That’s old fashion. That’s new fashion. Okay, get rid of it, buy new. So it’s all about consumerism. That’s what makes the world go round.
Before you launched in the belts, you said you had a fashion background but you were between projects?
No, I worked in retail. I worked with a chain of retail stores. So I knew what was happening with that. I had a passion then for fashion, left that, did something else and then got back in with the belts. It was a way of entering, a way of being creative, of expressing creativity.
Do you have an all-time favourite piece?
Yeah you do. There’s a lot of favourites.
You’ve made thousands by now.
There’s a lot of favourite pieces but you know the favourite is seeing someone looking good and happy. I do like seeing people. I quite often see people come in here wearing old pieces. I don’t know whether they bring it in to show – I don’t know – but then you go out and you see things that are 10, 15 years old and I go up and say to them “that’s a nice piece” and they’ll say “thank you. It’s my favourite piece”. So then I get round to say “I made that!”
It’s great to see that they do instead of buy the likes of whatever for that week and throw it in the bin, throw it wherever. You don’t see my pieces in second-hand stores. I see them occasionally in vintage stores. I don’t see them in second hand stores and I scour second hand stores looking for new components to use and that’s part of the creation.
Now I’ve got a team of designers that work, I’m busy running a business and I oversee what happens but as far as sitting down to the nitty gritty of putting the stones in and joining jump rings and chain you know, I’ve grown out of that.
Sick and tired of that?
Well, not sick and tired. It’s just that you do need a younger eye to come in. I don’t know the likes of, not that I am likening myself to, but say Karl Lagerfeld, how someone like that could. They offer, as I do, offer my experience of years of experience of knowing what looks good, or of being a style master and knowing what looks great and letting the young kids design and what they know as being fashionable and then twist to use your expertise to make it what you think, a little more saleable, more wearable.
So you were saying about seeing people in the street or out and about wearing your pieces and the older pieces. You’ve had a lot of celebrities wearing your pieces as well. Any particular highlight there?
Probably Kylie with the opening of the Olympics in 2000 but that was only because it was shown throughout the world. And I did the headdress for her that she closed the Olympics with. So that was in a way a highlight.
I think from what I remember there was a major wind and luckily it was open, it was fixed on her head. She had to hold it on her head a couple of times!
You exhibited at The Box in Paris
The Box, The Box, The Box… Yes, it was run through Swarovski I think. That was a while ago. To get a bit of standing, it’s nice to say you are in Europe, but when it comes to actually making money out of it. It’s cost but also the fact that you’re here, they’re there. It’s easier for them to deal with the locals. I had an agent working in London —
Do you ever think that you will do jewellery for men?
Um… well I started in doing it for men. The belts was about guys, but guys don’t spend. Some do.
The gay men in Sydney? They do!
The women do. I’m not going to do jewellery just for gay men. It’s easier to deal with women. They buy, daily. Guys do buy. I did a wonderful range of belts for men and you know the best seller? The plainest you could imagine!
Yes I’ve done in the past.
Men don’t buy. Well maybe they do but it’s easier to deal with women. Specialise. That’s the key. I’ve got a factory full of crystals and pearls and beads and things. Men don’t buy that. “Give me something in a nice sturdy masculine brown.”
Look I do a lot of leather for guys. They might want a leather cuff. Girls like to be embellished. So hey as a gay guy, it’s nice to be embellished. Gay guys totally like to be embellished but they’re only a small population, percentage-wise and you know I wanna eat. I want to eat! I don’t want to go to McDonalds!
How do you keep motivated and inspired?
I suppose it’s just part of it. You just are. You have the passion for fashion. So you get inspired by everything. Everything inspires you. I know when I was designing it was being creative by anything that.
I’ve got girls here. The design team here. They get inspired by things they see overseas. You see things and work with exactly the same. Clothing manufacturers do exactly the same. Australia is in a bad position because we are seasonally behind. It’s a very lazy position. I’ve had designers who have worked for me who have said “Peter, please send me overseas. I can’t believe you haven’t sent me overseas” and it’s like “it’s the end of you if you do, you become lazy. You then rely on them and you become lazy.
Run on your own creative juices. Work with what you’ve got, your creativity. I mean in my time when I started there was no internet but I know that then I was creating and doing and creative juices seemed to flow at the same time that I put out belts and then you’d see in magazines ones that are much the same. You go in a similar direction. You know or you might hear from someone who come back or in the days when I could afford to travel, you’d see what was happening. You’d bring back ideas of what it is and create from that. Go off and do your own tangents. But also working with what the retailer wants. You can design as much as you like but if it’s not what the customer wants, it’s not worth doing.
If they’re not going to buy it
So how much of the production is made here now.
Leather goods, all produced offshore. Jewellery, probably 30% produced here and the rest is produced offshore. Especially at the moment with the finer look, we can’t do it here. It’s too fine. It needs to be done in brass. It’s too costly to do. So for the retailer and the customer who want affordable pieces, it’s much easier to produce in China. They’re much better with what they do than what my people can do, they have the facilities, and they have the machinery. I get a great job. I deal with one company in China and yes, you can swap around and ask questions about how you source it.
I’ve always prided myself on quality. So you then try, I’ve gone through dozens of factories. My first lesson was learnt when you pick something up out the bag and it falls apart as you pick it up. You know?
Do they use Swarovski crystal? Do you supply crystal or do they source it and invoice you?
No. They supply it. I don’t do Swarovski stones as much as I used to because it’s too glitzy. It’s beautiful but it’s too sparkly and it’s not the look of today. Again, fashion goes through its cycles. There are times when they want to be blinged to death but myself now, I like to have the colour and I like to have the different stones. China do some good stones. They’re not as brilliant in their cut, they’re not as fine, but that’s what I like about it. I used to deal with Swarovski stones and strip the backing off it so it was more of a crystal rather than a brilliance. So it’s just working with what you can do.
Trial and error
Yes, trial and error for that modern line, China’s much better at it than Australians can be.
How many staff do you have in production here?
I’m probably down to very, very few. Probably got half a dozen where I used to have 3 dozen.
Was that when you started making it offshore?
Yeah, I was making it off-shore you know so bang.
When you were making it all here, how were you remaining competitive with everyone making it offshore price wise?
I wasn’t. Part of that was the reason that I needed to go off-shore because you weren’t competitive and I could get this for that price but bottom line, I’ve never been greedy with mark up. The greed came from retailers. I’d see things that sold to them for $50 and they were selling for $500 and that was “you know, I need to get my mark up.”
That’s quite a mark-up.
Yeah but if you sold it for $100 or $150 you might sell five of them whereas this is still sitting on your rack but out of my control.
Do you still do PL by Peter Lang
That was the start of making offshore. The PL was a diffusion range for price orientated and the fact of there’s a lot you can do with China that you can’t do here. But then it gets to minimums. You can’t just buy one piece. They’ve got minimums, they’re not huge but they’re not small. Unless you’ve got big retailers. I mean I can deal with Cue, because they’ve got a lot of retail outlets and they can buy certain quantity you know the minimums, MOQs – Minimum Order Quantity – You know they need to do it. I know here even just someone pulls out the stones, etc. to make one piece. I say “Don’t. Make five, make six of them. You’ve got it all out make six.” It take the same time to make one as it does for six by the time they get it out and have the momentum happening.
We spoke about Leo Monk earlier because he started out making the belts. Am I right in thinking that Ryan Storer is your nephew?
Yeah, he’s my nephew. He’s doing well. He came up from Melbourne and came up to Sydney. I knew he was creative and he was working in a café. I said “here’s an opportunity, come to Sydney”. I gave him an opportunity. I’m gay, I don’t have any children. I gave him an opportunity to you know build a craft, “see if you like it”. He’s very good.
You must be proud of him them. He’s made quite a name for himself with the ear cuffs.
Yeah and you know I think that could be what you’re talking about with the fashion parade. He’s done a lot for stars. I know he sells on net-a-porter. I don’t think he deals with the retailers here. I think it’s part of the website.
Everything is going online
We work with online. It’s your customer base. When we changed from what was known as Peter Lang to this minimalistic look about 2 years ago, we were a bit late in changing over.
Resistant to it?
Not really. No, I had stepped out of the arena of that. Most of what I did then was Cue and I got great turnover from that so Peter Lang was you know minor and I had a designer in and she went off on her own tangent and I didn’t really keep an eye on her. I suffered the consequences of sitting behind with design and it was only Greg, my sales person, who said “Peter, this is what the customer is after”. You know.
So then, bottom line, you’ve got to be on the ball, alert, your head spinning around for fashion. With that, we got this new range, we put it up, we launched this new range on the website, and nothing happened, which is a disappointment. But what we had as a customer base for that older look, someone who wanted something with a bit more coverage, something more substantial. And even now, yes, into the modern, it’s something of substance and Greg would say “you’ve got an older customer base”. And it wasn’t until we analysed it that “no your customer base is of all ages”. I’ve always stuck with – I dealt in America for a while and there you target you’re going to deal with – you’ve got 350 Million people, here you’ve got 25. I’m a bit of a money orientated person. Australia, we’ve got a smaller population. If I market towards the 20-25 year olds, it’s you know miniscule. So you deal with 20 to 60. Give them a little bit of your range that will cope with everyone. Deal with everyone in mind.
You see them coming if you have your head in the fashion cloud. You see on the internet coming through. My ideal is to travel. A bit of cleansing. You’re bogged down by doing, doing. By travelling you open your mind to cleansing and new things.
What will we see in the next collection?
Along the same lines, it’s diversifying. We’re working with again what works. You utilise customer direction, where customers go. These days it’s gone away from being able to follow trends. It’s gone a little bit more with gut feeling. You don’t have the time now. Producing in China, we’re working with now Summer of next year. We’re half way into Summer for next year. It doesn’t go into stores in Europe until January of the next year. By then we’re busy working on the next season. So we’ve got to now work with interpretation. It’s wonderful. You get creative juices going. You then have to develop your own areas. You think a little bit of a progression from that. I think you can now work with a customer who is a little bit more savvy with what they buy. They’re not “oh it’s flowers”. It’s about yes, we do get a little bit of, “there’s a few things coming through for next season” but it’s a little bit more of a calculated guess and a progression of seeing and seeing what sells. Other types of looks work, I’ve seen that something more substantial works.
Especially dealing with the minimalistic which is a bit more foreign than what we’ve dealt in before, where we were doing embellishment and crystals, a bit more evening. People don’t go out as much or they don’t get dressed up to go out.
It’s a shame isn’t it? I like to get dressed up to go out.
It’s great to and it’s wonderful when you do see a group of people dressed up.
You go to the theatre, where people always used to dress up and now most people are in their jeans.
It’s true. In March, I was travelling and still made an effort to carry something good to wear. I was in London I went to see something at the theatre that was a opening night or second night and I was just surprised with what people were wearing and that was London. You know here in Australia, we’re casual and that’s part of the life you understand here. But as far as putting out jewellery, they don’t really go out to wear…. The great thing about having the shop open to the public is that you get to talk to people, see what they like and see behind the scenes of what they want to wear it for. The majority of our customers, it’s for weddings, you know for that traditional Peter Lang side was about bridal. Now that’s where it goes, it’s the tradition of weddings, you do dress up and you know especially the honour of dressing the bride and the bridesmaids. It’s a wonderful honour and to help them choose something that helps them mark that special moment in their life. You know makes you proud.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Do your passion, do your thing. Perseverance, and desire. It’s a desire to achieve, if you have a desire to achieve anything you get there. If you give up, where are you? At the bottom you know. So you go on until hopefully you find something that is for you.