Flinders Lane, Melbourne
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Flinders Lane is a minor street in the central business district (CBD) of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The street runs parallel to and to the north of Flinders Street and as a narrow one way lane takes on the name of the wider main street. The street was the centre of Melbourne's rag trade for the middle decades of the 20th century and is still home to small boutique designers.
The lane has been spared the overdevelopment of nearby Collins Street, with many of these buildings historically subject to strict height limits of around 40 metres. Despite the loss of some significant turn of the 20th century buildings, it is now known for its "SoHo" atmosphere. Today, the area is home to many boutique hotels, "loft style" apartment conversions, cafes and bars as well as connecting with a number of smaller lanes, including Degraves Street, ACDC Lane, Manchester Lane and Centreway which weave their way through the city.
Flinders Lane has many notable multi-storey warehouses, some included on the Victorian Heritage Register; including Leicester House (1888), Murray House, Chapter House (1891) by William Butterfield, Ross House (1898) by Sulman & Power, Milton House (1901) by Sydney Smith & Ogg, Tomasetti Warehouse, Manchester House and the Majorca Building (1928) by Harry Norris.
Flinders Lane, heart of the schmatte business - Jews in the Australian garment trade.
For a large part of the twentieth century, the garment trade was an important industry in the southern Australian state of Victoria. Since clothing was a big part of the country’s manufacturing, the Jews of the garment trade, initially migrants or refugees post WWII, made a large contribution to Australia’s economy. This multi-faceted industry, located in Flinders Lane, Melbourne and expanding during the interwar years, had its own economic and social history, gorgeous products, and vibrant life and camaraderie at its heart.
In the 1880s, big softgoods-importing warehouses established Flinders Lane in the central business district of the Victorian capital, Melbourne, as the heart of the trade, because of the Lane’s proximity to wharves and railway stations, and its centrality to Melbourne’s population. These warehouses, which dominated the Flinders Lane trade for the first two decades of the twentieth century, were not Jewish. A notable exception was the underclothing business of Lazar Slutzkin, probably the first Jewish clothing manufacturer in Melbourne.
Lazar Slutzkin arrived in 1893 from Russia. About the turn of the century, he opened a warehouse making and selling ladies’ white underwear. No ready-to-wear garments had been produced in real quantity before this; most goods were imported by warehouses. Lazar’s brother Sholem joined him in the business and eventually took over when Lazar retired. Both brothers were very religious; twice daily the business came to a standstill when they and their staff, consisting of fellow Jewish migrants, stopped for morning and afternoon prayers. ‘Makers-up’ (or ‘maker-uppers’) were not given material on Fridays lest they work on Shabbat.
Much of the early Jewishness of Flinders Lane was due to Slutzkin, as he employed so many Jewish newcomers to Melbourne and doled out generous advice when they wanted to set up their own businesses.
For over a hundred years ‘The Lane’ was an Australian institution. Through boom and bust fortunes were made and lost. Well known fashion houses like Henry Haskin, (who won Melbourne's Gown of the Year two years running) Charlotte of Fifth Avenue, Cherry Lane, Hartnell, and Saba flourished and fell, and characters larger than life wheeled and dealed in this little street that was the home and heart of Australian fashion manufacturing.
Large and small factories, Jewish retailers and especially woollen mills also existed outside Flinders Lane and indeed all around country Victoria. In the 1940s the government encouraged decentralisation and in the boom years between 1945 and 1960 when migrants created such a huge demand, it was easy to get workers in the country plants, which trained completely inexperienced country workers. So whilst the trade was not limited to Flinders Lane, the Lane still had many advantages. It was close to shops, department stores, transport terminals, and financial institutions, to suppliers, to the labour pool and the potential market. Buyers could come from the country and ‘do’ the Lane in one session; ‘comparison buying’ was important: they needed to survey the scene, and then backtrack to place orders.
For the manufacturers there was easy communication with rival firms. They could keep up with market trends and sometimes help with urgent orders – in this there was reciprocity of favours. And importantly, the ancillary services were within walking distance: pressers, machine importers, embroiderers, button coverers, and so on.
With modern fabrics and modern manufacturing processes, it was a glamorous industry, but over the years the Lane hardly changed physically, and the conditions were far from glamorous. The decrepit buildings housed rats that ate the sequins off the garments. The vermin came from the wharves, and fox terriers were used to chase them between floors. With no air-conditioning it was hot in summer and cold in winter; open radiators to relieve the cold combined with the new, flammable materials and caused fires. No-one is willing to say to what degree fires and financial trouble went together. What they have said is that the manufacturer was always under-capitalised and took big risks, so that between the 1950s and the 1970s, there were plenty of bankruptcies with many fires starting at night or on weekends.
“Chaim Moshe! How was your fire?” “Shush. It’s not till next week.”
“The old caged hydraulic lifts struck fear into the hearts of their passengers who often preferred the stairs. These old buildings were worse than the average work place at the time, yet they were accepted as part of the experience.”
“With hindsight it was an area with built-in inconveniences – except togetherness – narrow street, tiny lanes and arcades, poor lighting and impossible lift access.”
“Flinders Lane was magic. If you were going out into the street, you’d have to take a joke out with you. It wasn’t just business, it was a lifestyle. You knew about everyone’s families. Competitors lent each other components. Everyone paid his debts before Rosh Hashanah so you never went into the New Year with a debt. But now it’s profitable to owe money!”
“When you took clothes out into the Lane you had to put calico over them to stop people pinching the design.”
“Flinders Lane was like a big, extended family. Friends would not step on each other’s toes; competitors could be friends. Jews liked it because it felt like back in the ghetto. It was a glamorous industry with glamorous women. I enjoyed the continuity of meeting people and the atmosphere suited my personality – I gained a huge family – all kinds of people – models, buyers as well as manufacturers - without the commitment.”
“There was always anticipation and excitement twice a year in preparing for the new collection. Each year it was like starting a new business. Those years in the Lane were extremely exciting.”
The number of clothing firms in the Lane reached 610 in 1939, and this level of activity was maintained until the early 1960s. But in the 60s and 70s these businesses began to leave, or they closed. With changing requirements for space and labour, rising rents and traffic congestion, many relocated to the suburbs.
The first cohorts of the clothing trade had aged. These entrepreneurs had high aspirations for their children, who mainly went into the professions. Dependent on the personality and acumen of the owners, the businesses were not saleable. Closing was simple: no more orders, the ‘girls’ were paid off, the machines sold and the premises vacated.
In spite of everything, Flinders Lane remained the centre of fashion innovation throughout the 70s, the marketing centre from which designs were contracted out to makers-up in the suburbs. The new entrepreneurs began with the bright, innovative and young designers of the 1960s ‘rat pack’ - Norma Tullo, Geoff Bade, Prue Acton, Kenneth Pirrie, Thomas Wardle. They were the first generation of important non-Jewish designers in the rag trade, and their descendants are there still.
This article is based on unique primary research undertaken for an exhibition in 2001 at the Jewish Museum of Australia: Schmatte Business – Jews in the Garment Trade. No-one had comprehensively researched this industry before the exhibition. Almost all the material comes from a series of about eighty interviews with people who had worked in the Victorian garment trade in various capacities; some of these are quoted above.
Non-rag-trade history Flinders Lane was once home to the 12-storey Queen Anne style Australian Building designed by Henry Kemp, which was reportedly the third tallest building in the world when completed in 1889. The building was demolished in 1980. Other significant buildings lost to development include the Champions Hotel on the corner of Swanston Street.
On Monday 18 June 2007, a shooting incident occurred on the corner of Flinders Lane and William Street when Hells Angels member Christopher Hudson shot and killed Brendan Keilor and wounded two others.
Flinders Lane runs roughly from east to west and it bisects the CBD (known as the Hoddle Grid) along its long axis. Flinders Lane runs between the parallel Flinders Street and Collins streets. It intersects Spring Street to the east and Spencer Street to the west.
- Karen Kissane and Kate Hagan, May 13, 2008. "Gunman was 'out of his mind, insane': victim", The Age. Retrieved on July 25, 2009