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  • Stephen Crafti

Man of the Cloth

From his trailblazing Trellini boutiques to his work with Japanese brands Comme des Garçons and Shiro Sakai, Tony Newsham’s enthusiasm for fashion retail is unparalleled. By Stephen Crafti
Tony Newsham in an advertisement for Comme des Garçons at Trellini in 1987. Photography Courtesy of Tony Newsham.

From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, the Trellini boutiques were the epitome of high fashion in Australia. Where else could one find such exquisite merchandise so artfully displayed? 

The Bourke Street, Melbourne, store in the 1980s. Photography courtesy of Tony Newsham.

When I was a student in the early 1980s, visiting the Bourke Street store in Melbourne was a welcome distraction from my town planning studies (although my budget was limited to the twice-yearly sales). Trellini’s founder, Tony Newsham, then in his early 30s, was usually there, personally adjusting each collar or cuff, driven by a passion for retail one can only dream about now. 

“Retail comes down to five points — product, [store] position, persistence and people, which all contribute to profit,” says Newsham, who has had an illustrious career over many decades. His more recent role, managing Japanese designer Shiro Sakai, demonstrates his ability to spot exceptional talent.

Raised in northern England, Newsham sailed to Melbourne in 1972 at the age of 19 seeking a better life. His first position was as a “tailor boy” at Rarity, a menswear store operated by John Bernell and Rick Toranto (one of the founders of Coogi knitwear). Five years later, at the age of 26, Newsham opened his first store, with “the pursuit of excellence” at the forefront of his mind.

A Jean Paul Gaultier ad from 1988. Photography courtesy of Tony Newsham/Jean Paul Gaultier.

His Trellini boutiques pioneered many of the fashion labels that are now household names: Versace, Armani, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Jean Paul Gaultier. “In the early 1980s, there was a strong androgynous look, so even though I imported menswear, many women were buying the oversized Japanese clothes,” Newsham says. These clothes were beautifully displayed in minimalist stores, featuring a lot of steel and concrete. The fit-out for the Elizabeth Street store in Sydney included concrete treads over a shallow moat. 

Newsham experienced the highs and lows of the retail cycle, including vast fluctuations in currency exchange rates and quota restrictions. When he started to import Japanese fashion, the Australian dollar-to-yen exchange rate was riding sky-high at almost 300 yen. By 1996, when the Trellini stores closed, the yen was a paltry 80 yen to the Australian dollar. Although Newsham also designed and manufactured under the Trellini label, using local manufacturers and knitwear by local designer Maureen Fitzgerald, storm clouds were forming. With his dream crumbling, Newsham left for New York, taking a six-week position to develop product for Club Med and oversee production in the United States and Mexico. This led to a full-time position with Club Med, which took him to Paris for the next few years. 

With his past success and having previously been the largest importer of Comme des Garçons in Australia, purchasing well over $100,000 in one season (a fortune in the 1980s), Newsham was offered a full-time position with the brand ­— reporting directly to its founder, Rei Kawakubo. After seven years, he achieved the position of executive vice-president of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Based in New York, he lived above the Comme store in Chelsea, designed by British practice Future Systems (founded by Jan Kaplický and Amanda Levete) and overseen by Newsham. He quickly showed his ability to boost sales exponentially, with orders from Barneys New York increasing from $US50,000 (about $74,750) to $US1 million ($1.49 million) in just a few seasons. Sales increased not only for Comme des Garçons but for all the labels under the Comme umbrella — including Tao, Junya Watanabe and Comme’s more accessible Black label. 

Shiro Sakai autumn 2024 photographed by Kenji Takeuchi.

In 2012, after more than a decade in this role, Newsham headed back to Australia. A few months were spent fishing, but given his past record and energy, it wasn’t long before Newsham was itching to represent Shiro Sakai, who had worked alongside Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe for nearly 20 years. “I heard of his departure from Comme though a short email saying that he was leaving Tokyo and that New York was always his dream. I advised him not to travel there in winter,” Newsham says. 

After seeing Sakai’s first two collections for the Chicago-born, New York-based label Creatures of the Wind, with just 18 pieces in each collection, Newsham answered the call to assist Sakai establishing his namesake collection. Now, with retailers such as Selfridges in London, Leclaireur in Paris and Blake in Chicago all stocking Sakai’s designs, neither Sakai nor Newsham are slowing down. “Shiro’s designs are classic, with an extraordinary sense of tailoring and craftsmanship learned over decades, working with some of the best in the industry,” says Newsham, who likens his designs to that of Azzedine Alaïa in terms of cut and tailoring. 

Given his depth of experience and longevity in the fashion industry, Newsham can “join the dots” between earlier fashion trends and what’s happening in fashion today. He notes the recent resurgence of oversized silhouettes and androgynous fashion, which echo the early ’80s. “I’m always excited when I see new things, even if they’re inspired by the past,” he says. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 88 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Man of the Cloth”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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