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Rags to Riches

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reporter: Liz Hayes

Producer: Phil Goyen

Sorry fellas, but you have to admit, Australian men aren't exactly famous for their fashion sense.

After all, you're the ones who gave the world stubbies and thongs. But we are pleased to say, all that is changing.

In fact, now Aussie blokes are telling the world's most beautiful women what to wear.

Two blokes in particular.

Peter Alexander and Henry Roth, are wowing them in America, the most cut-throat fashion market in the world.

Peter makes pyjamas, very flash pyjamas. Henry creates spectacular bridal gowns.

And both of them started from scratch, a real rags to riches story, you might say.

Full transcript:

INTRODUCTION - LIZ HAYES; Sorry fellas, but you have to admit, Australian men aren't exactly famous for their fashion sense. After all, you're the ones who gave the world stubbies and thongs. But I'm are pleased to say, all that is changing. In fact, now Aussie blokes are telling the world's most beautiful women what to wear. Two blokes in particular. Peter Alexander and Henry Roth, are wowing them in America - the most cut-throat fashion market in the world. Peter makes pyjamas, very flash pyjamas. Henry creates spectacular bridal gowns. And both of them started from scratch, a real rags-to-riches story, you might say.

STORY- HENRY ROTH: Fantastic!

LIZ HAYES: Henry Roth feels on top of the world and so he should. Strewth!

HENRY ROTH: Strewth love, look at it all! It's incredible. New York, New York, so great they named it twice, not once. I know Woy Woy and Wagga Wagga, but hey.

LIZ HAYES: This Sydney boy's been flying high in New York ever since he came here to design bridal gowns, 11 years ago. Is it true what they say? If you can make it here you can make it anywhere?

HENRY ROTH: There is no tougher city than Manhattan, than New York City. There is no tougher city than this city. I believe this is the dormitory of the over achievers and everyone comes here to get a bit of the apple that's why they call it the Big Apple. I just want a little piece.

LIZ HAYES: But Henry's taken a dirty big chunk selling thousands of his exclusive frocks to brides from all over the world.

HENRY ROTH: Let's give a little applause for our bride, ladies. Fantastic, let me wish you all the very best. You know in New York City, why we stand out so much is because we have not lost that Australian value. It's the Australian values of being real. And being decent, and being sympathetic and empathetic to human beings.

LIZ HAYES: How many brides will you see today, for example?

HENRY ROTH: I will probably see 60 brides today.

LIZ HAYES: It's the bridal Olympics.

HENRY ROTH: Right, look at the lines, I'm just beyond myself I am. I hope you like it.

LIZ HAYES: On the other side of the country there's another Australian designer dealing with dreams of a different kind.

PETER ALEXANDER: This is Robertson Boulevard and this is where it all happens. It's where all the stars shop. It's probably the most exclusive street now, the most sought after street in LA. Hello! It's amazing what happens when you have a shop in this town people think you're special.

LIZ HAYES: Peter Alexander makes pyjamas that those who buy them just can't seem to take off.

PETER ALEXANDER: If you see there's a lady who's just walked out who's wearing one of my nighties as a dress.

LIZ HAYES: His $50 million business revolutionised sleepwear in Australia. Now, he's hoping to do the same in America.

PETER ALEXANDER: Look, my name's on the footpath.

LIZ HAYES: That's fantastic.

PETER ALEXANDER: Do you mind taking off your shirt for me?

LIZ HAYES: I love this job.

PETER ALEXANDER: Was this a good story for you to land?

LIZ HAYES: Just like he does in Australia Peter insists on being involved at every level. Today, he's casting for next season's pyjama catalogue.

PETER ALEXANDER: How's that for a little body? It's getting depressing. No cancel lunch, everyone please cancel lunch.

LIZ HAYES: There's a plastic surgeon across the road, isn't there? How important is this part of the business for you?

PETER ALEXANDER: A model can make or break a catalogue. I bring out eight catalogues a year and if I don't have the right model there that catalogue definitely will... the sales can drop by 25 percent. So it makes a big difference.

LIZ HAYES: When Peter said to you he was going to make pyjamas, what did you think?

JULETTE: I thought it was a terrible idea PETER ALEXANDER: S At the time I didn't know if it was such a great idea myself, but I thought I'd give it a go.

LIZ HAYES: But did you really not know the difference between cotton and wool?

PETER ALEXANDER: No, I still don't know how to sew a button on a shirt. Mum still has to sew my buttons on a shirt.

LIZ HAYES: No-one loves Peter more than his own mother Julette. But even she was surprised by his success.

JULETTE: He couldn't read, he couldn't write, he couldn't do anything and I just thought, "Oh my god", you know, "I'm going to be looking after this child for the rest of my life."

LIZ HAYES: The early days weren't easy. Peter's dad had died and his mum had mortgaged the family home to start the business. But it literally began at the dining table?

PETER ALEXANDER: Yeah, it did. It literally started here.

JULETTE: And we went back to the house and looked at that dining room where we were sitting or where we were working and we said "It was so tiny, how did we do it?" There was no place. I mean the table took up the whole place and yet we managed to run this office.

LIZ HAYES: For a decade, Julette was the other half of the business. This home video capturing the arrival of the very first Peter Alexander originals.

PETER ALEXANDER: This is how a millionaire starts off his business.

LIZ HAYES: I guess what I find extraordinary Was that you were playing the role of three people in those early days.

PETER ALEXANDER: Yeah, it was funny. It was this idea that people rang our office and we thought, they thought we were a big corporation and we were just literally two schmucks sitting at a dining room table in my mother's house and people got every intimidating speaking to Peter Alexanders - JULETTE: "Can I speak to accounts please?" "Yeah so, Oh, just hold one minute please, accounts here" (laughs)

PETER ALEXANDER: So it was a bit like that. "Can I be put through to the stockroom, "cause my parcel's gone missing" and I'd go, "Sure" and I'd go, "G'day, Jim at the stockroom." and we had to pretend we were much bigger than we were because we were such idiots.

LIZ HAYES: What started as a mail order business has turned into an empire. 30 stores across Australia, New Zealand and now America. And it's not just PJs any more.

PETER ALEXANDER: I've done a range called the... It's a day-wear collection and it's called the Roberston Boulevard collection And if you read the label carefully it says, "Exclusively for young Hollywoods. "If you're not rich and fabulous put this down." LIZ HAYES: His cheeky concepts now adorn everything from undies to ugg boots but each starts life on a list.

PETER ALEXANDER: I just start writing down, you know, names and fabrics and colours and details. Diamante brooches, like art deco, things like that. I'm not a sketcher per say, but I just, that's how the concept starts.

LIZ HAYES: For Henry Roth the challenge is to take the traditional wedding gown and make it new again.

HENRY ROTH: We're talking what you did 40 years ago and we're now putting it into the 21st century.

LIZ HAYES: Henry trained as a lawyer but couldn't resist being part of the family bridal company.

JIM ROTH: I think one colour not two colours.

ANNETA ROTH: Well, I think two colours.

LIZ HAYES: A business his mum Anneta, and dad Joe started in Australia after surviving the Holocaust. During World War II, Anneta was forced to make uniforms for the German Army. Every day she dreamt of making wedding dresses. To her, they're a symbol of hope. Both of you particularly like the bridal business.

JOE AND ANNETA ROTH: Yes.

LIZ HAYES: Because?

JOE ROTH: That's my wife's story.

HENRY ROTH: We're emotional people and our fashion comes from the passion of what we do.

MICHELLE ROTH: Also Liz, I think for my parents it's very much about continuity and about hope. So for them, the bridal industry is, yes, about making people happy, but it's also about generations continuing. The possibility to continue.

HENRY ROTH: I never realised to what extent my parents being Holocaust survivors has shaped my every day, my every minute of thinking. My motivation, how I treat people, why I create things, why I do fashion and it's really, really profound.

LIZ HAYES: With that history and humility, 11 years ago Henry moved to New York to work with his sister Michelle. Was it much of a culture shock to go from Sydney to New York then?

HENRY ROTH: You know what Liz, I can't even begin to explain to you the massive shock, the cultural volcano that is being in New York compared to Sydney, Australia It felt like I was eating glass for breakfast, it was that tough.

LIZ HAYES: But Henry needn't have worried. New York not only embraced his designer gowns, but made him a television star along the way.

HENRY ROTH: In pursuit of the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Joan.

LIZ HAYES: It seems to be you worked it out, you cracked the marketing code? HENRY ROTH: I think we really did crack the marketing code. I'll be really honest with you. I mean, I think, you know, we were on every TV show you can possibly imagine. 'Inside Edition', 'Good Morning America', 'E Networks', we were on 'E Entertainment', we did our own books., absolutely.

LIZ HAYES: And who could ever forget Judge Roth.

HENRY ROTH: And Judge Roth. I find you guilty. You are guilty.

LIZ HAYES: His biggest role was as the Judge on 'Style Court' a weekly show where people are found guilty for crimes against fashion. But his first love remains everything bridal. And it's here he's in his element. Kleinfelds is where brides from around the world come to choose from the best designers. And today, Henry Roth is king.

HENRY ROTH: Liz, when it's at its peak, there's 150 people are doing alterations. Right. So what do you think? This is your dress? WOMAN: I think so.

HENRY ROTH: Can we give a little applause to the bride. Fantastic, let me give you a congratulations. So many veils, so little time.

LIZ HAYES: Happy customers have meant big bucks for both these Australian designers. For Peter Alexander, financial success came in the form of a very generous offer from clothing giant, the Just Group.

PETER ALEXANDER: I remember thinking, "God, I wonder if they'll offer me like, $1 million?" and I was thinking, "What would I do with $1 million?" And you know, to cut a long story short, I won't tell you the actual figure but it was like a movie where they write an amount on a piece of paper and they pass it to you, and they passed it to me and mum and we looked at it and we were like, "Oh my", it was just one of those moments where you think, "Am I worth this?" And you know we just...

JULETTE: Peter's lawyer said, "Should I try for more?" and he said, "No, that's enough."

PETER ALEXANDER: I said, "No, just take it! That's enough, I'll take it." This is their first offer, I said "It's a good offer, let's just take it."

LIZ HAYES: It was a deal made in heaven, but there was a catch.

PETER ALEXANDER: I said, "I've got two conditions." "One, is I bring my dog to work. "And one is I bring my mother to work."

JULETTE: In that order? PETER ALEXANDER: Yes. And they, they were fine with the dog, the mother, they weren't so sure of. JULETTE: Damn!

PETER ALEXANDER: So anyway, I must say the dog lasted longer than my mother. LIZ HAYES: Both Henry and Peter still marvel at what they've achieved. But after spending time with them you can't help but think perhaps the simple secret to their success is their extraordinary passion for the job.

HENRY ROTH: I don't think I could just be involved in just an ordinary frock. It's just a special frock and what it involves is people's humanities and it makes what I do make sense. liiha You both seem still like, you can't quite believe it? PETER ALEXANDER: Well...Can you? JULETTE: No!

PETER ALEXANDER: Who would have thought that one day in my life you would see Peter Alexander and then hear, "Tick, tick, tick?" I mean, that to me is success!

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