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REWORK: Switching from denim to scrubs

06:00am May 12 2020

Nobody' Denim's John Condilis says protective clothing will become a permanent fixture alongside his jeans range.  (Supplied) 

Since John Condilis went from making trendy jeans to medical protective clothing to help fill horrifying shortages for front line health workers a few months ago, something big has become clear.

He’s in it for the long haul.

“This is a long-term strategy, it’s not a short-term fix,” says Condilis, the co-founder and chairman of eminent Australian jeans manufacturer, Nobody Denim.

After painstakingly working to meet the standards required to make non-surgical grade protective clothing, Condilis’ team last month produced an initial run of around 300 scrubs (the sanitary clothing worn by workers involved in patient care) for the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and plans to produce up to 20,000 more. Condilis says he expects the infrastructure he’s setting up will enable Nobody Denim to make up to 4 million masks, 300,000 gowns and 170,000 scrubs per year – and he’s waiting to confirm orders.

Condilis – who had to put his business with its 75 employees into “survival mode” as orders for jeans dropped off at the end of March – now also has his sights set on upgrading standards to meet the sterilisation requirements for surgical grade clothing if demand is there, along with other improvements to designs and materials.

It marks a major overhaul of his manufacturing operations away from solely designing chic clothing regularly spotted on high profile international celebrities and came after he learnt that most, if not all, protective gowns and scrubs used in Australia were imported, a situation he believes is unsustainable.

“Our approach is to set things up for the long term – not for one month or two months. We’re looking at this as an opportunity to bring some manufacturing back to Australia, that is actually a key essential, and set it up to be highly competitive globally,” he says.

Nobody’s move comes amid expectations of a revival in local manufacturing after the pandemic exposed the fragility of supply chains and heavy reliance on countries such as China. On Friday, the Reserve Bank warned that disruptions to supply chains were negative for growth in the region even as China’s economy come back online and would put upward pressure on prices, and thus inflation.

Having launched the Nobody Denim brand with his brother Nick in 1999 after spinning it out of a denim service business founded in the 1980s by their father, Jim, now 76 and still heavily involved, Condilis notes that the immediacy of the COVID-19 impact has made this downturn worse than the global financial crisis. He predicts a slow recovery, tipping retail trade to be down 30 to 50 per cent for the 2020-21 financial year. Despite being a negative forecast, it’s better than recent slump as retailers across Australia, the US and The UK – which make up around 80 per cent of his sales – shut their doors.

“By the first week of April, retail sales – in the ‘bricks and mortar’ stores – stopped. They just stopped,” says Condilis, who sources fabrics locally and runs all aspects of his family-owned business from design to distribution under one roof in Melbourne’s Fitzroy.

“We kept going with online sales, but even those orders dropped 10 to 20 per cent.

“(But) crisis pushes you to think outside the square. By diversifying into personal protective equipment, it will complement and sustain our business for generations. I have an ambition – it’s not how much can I turn over, but how many people can I employ? My ambition around four years ago was to get to 100 people. My ambition now is, how do I get to 200 to 300 people?”

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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