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Here Comes The Crackmilk Comet
Posted by richard | January 10, 2012

If you’re one of the thousands of Crackmilk addicts out there, then there’s nothing I can tell you here that you don’t already know.

The rest of you, pay attention: the young Aussie label Black Milk, famous for its digital print tights, bodysuits and swimsuits, is rapidly becoming the coolest — and the hottest — fashion label on the planet.

And that’s no exaggeration. Though it’s barely two years old, Black Milk had to shut down its operation briefly in October to cope with a deluge of orders for its fall collection, Killer’s Vanilla.

It has 50,000+ Facebook fans who call themselves sharklets, sharkettes or just plain sharks, and who have their own word to express their primal satisfaction whenever a new BM order arrives in the mail: a guttural “Nom”. Don’t ask me what it means.

The most fervent among them call the addictive label Crackmilk. For those who can’t get their favorite styles, there’s a buy/swap community on Facebook with 3,000 members. And BM sharklets have a unique tradition: as soon as a new order arrives, they’ll post candid photos of the outfit on one of the company’s FB fan pages (seriously, there are thousands of such pics.)

Black Milk is a fashion comet, but it’s moving so fast it’s hard to keep up with it. Two years ago, founder James Lillis was sewing 5 or 6 pieces a day on his kitchen table in Brisbane. Last year, the company grew by 800% and — here’s a classic BM story — its Evil Cheerleader dress (above) sold out in 4 minutes in November.

What’s their secret? The featured item in the photos above and below captures Black Milk‘s appeal perfectly. It’s the Sick Of Men body-con dress, a polyester comic-strip that invites close scrutiny from anyone who sees you in it, but with such an in-your-face message that gropers will know enough to keep their hands off. It’s the kind of thing made for a high school dance floor.

Black Milk pulls its ideas from across the teen zeitgeist — that’s an actual romance comic in the Sick Of Men digital print — and has amassed a huge catalog of statement-making designs (many of them sold out) in a short time.

And, unlike other pop-art merchandising labels like (for instance) Ed Hardy or Hello Kitty, they’re not selling their own logo or signature look to people who like to broadcast their style allegiances. You know it’s a Black Milk piece because it’s just-this-side of kitschy, it’s usually wickedly funny and it feels like it’s 30 seconds ahead of the next fashion trend.

It’s not enough to say Black Milk has its finger on the pulse of young trend-hungry fashionistas. They also have an uncanny knack for identifying imagery and styles (remember last year’s Blood Spatter leggings and Vampire’s Kiss body?) that will instantly create a stir among the sharklets.

Of course, Black Milk‘s meteoric growth has created a few hiccups, mostly related to keeping up with demand. Designer/founder Lillis documented the label’s growing pains recently on his blog:

“We got to the point where stuff was selling so fast that I wasn’t allowed to create any more clothes,” he said. “I would go to the team and say “Hey, how about we make this really cool thing!?” And they would just look at me, show me the list that they were working on (pages, and pages, and pages) and I had to continually back down. I became a designer who wasn’t allowed to design, and a salesman who wasn’t allowed to sell. Which was frustrating. I just started floating around the office while everybody else worked. It was weird, and disheartening.”

After a blistering holiday season, though, Lillis and Black Milk are preparing to roar back with its biggest-ever collection (up to 50 pieces!) in February. Watch for more dresses and skirts in the mix and lots of shredded looks if Lillis gets his hands on a new cutting machine in time.

And while it’s fun to watch this addictive label explode, it’s also instructive to listen to its founder grapple with the conflicted psychology that comes with success.

“Sometimes I wake up a night thinking “How in the world did I get here!?” he writes. “I guess that’s the question you have to ask sometimes – what exactly are you meant to do when your dreams actually come true? It’s all well and good to shoot for the stars, but … what if you actually hit one? Bonk. Ouch.”

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