Made in Brunswick

The Otto & Spike story:

a head start to the local revival

Made in Brunswick

The Otto & Spike story: a head start to the local revival

The Mananov family’s gamble has paid off. The tide is turning on globalisation and the future looks good for the Brunswick beanie

Les Mananov sitting on his retirement lounge chair at Otto & Spike with son Anthony and daughter-in-law Kirstie.
Les Mananov sitting on his retirement lounge chair at Otto & Spike with son Anthony and daughter-in-law Kirstie.

The Mananov family’s gamble has paid off. The tide is turning on globalisation and the future looks good for the Brunswick beanie

Kevin Murray
Monday, May 1, 2023

I

n April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, the writer Christos Tsiolkas predicted that “when we emerge out of our isolation, the world will be smaller and our horizons will be local”. Now we are on the other side, we can look around at what is still made locally.

For many years, we’ve suffered long-sightedness: we see clearly what’s produced from far away, but we are blind to what’s made locally. We take for granted now that most items in a souvenir shop will be made in China, regardless of where the shop is located. We would never expect to find a cute koala keyring that was actually made in its native country.

Get more stories like this delivered to your inbox

We presume the same with a humble beanie. It’s an egalitarian item, expressing shared identity as members of a particular sporting tribe. In central Australian Aboriginal communities, senior men and women stay warm during cold desert nights with beanies that support the Eagles or Tigers. Alice Springs celebrates this with the annual Beanie Festival. But for the rest of the year, it’s “made in China”.

There’s a remarkable exception to this in my suburb of Brunswick. One little factory has continued to make beanies, along with other knitted items, despite the exodus to China.

The story begins in 1959 when Les Mananov migrated from the Macedonian town of Bitola. He started as a paperboy in a gritty inner-city suburb, before training as a mechanic in textile factories. He met his future wife at Knitting Mill on Lygon Street. She had come from Sicily in 1954 and walked into a job at a knitting mill as a machinist and overlocker.

Eventually, Les started his own business, upstream of the existing knitting mills, making fabric lengths for others. At that stage, there were around 600 knitting businesses in the area. He kept his LMB knitwear factory on the corner of Victoria and Sedgman Street for 25 years, until 1991.

In 1990, the couple divorced and the business split. LMB Knitwear moved to the corner of Thomas and Albert Streets, where their son Anthony started targeting surf and skate culture. First, they supplied Quicksilver with a jumper from recycled wool, which proved popular. Next, they were producing their beanies. Outdoor labels like Rip Curl and Nike soon followed.

“All these other surf brands just came from everywhere and we were just off so we had a really good run from 1994 to 2004,” said Anthony.

Then the wave crashed and production ebbed to China. Their European clients started complaining about freight costs from Australia. In 2004, textiles icon Fletcher Jones closed its Brunswick factory after deciding to take its work offshore. It seemed Brunswick’s vibrant textile industry was all moving to Asia. When would LMB Knitwear follow?

Not the Mananovs. Instead, Anthony determined that they would develop their own brand.

“We needed to create our own products that no one can take away from us.”

So the label Otto & Spike was born, named after Anthony’s two children. He recruited Alasdair McKinnon (who started up The Boroughs Store, Brunswick’s legendary craft store). Alasdair remembers a difficult start.

“The GFC hit and frightened the market. Fortunately, Otto & Spike was very reasonably priced. We did a trade show in the same year, 2008, and came away with small orders. They sold really quickly and our repeat orders were greater than the initial sales at market.”

Anthony Mananov outside the Otto & Spike factory.

Over six years, Alasdair promoted the local brand at trade fairs and industry nights. The closure of Holeproof and Pacific Brands provoked popular calls to protect local production. He got coverage in The Age newspaper and ABC Radio National.

“The outpouring of support was amazing, the phones and emails resulted in lots of small orders and an immense amount of brand awareness.”

As Otto & Spike became known, they needed to develop unique designs. High-value products were the key, as Alasdair remembers: “The strategy looked at examples of international brands/manufacturers that had worked against the tide of offshore manufacturing by creating high-value products that they could successfully manufacture in their home country.

“This required communication with consumers that highlighted the importance of local manufacturing, design and quality, combined with the use of local natural yarn and a focus on upcycling, recycling and machine longevity.”

To help, Anthony’s wife Kirstie came on board as a designer. She provided a vibrant colour palette. 

In 2014, Otto & Spike got a big break through the AFL. The “Fibre of Football” campaign celebrated the link between sport and the local wool industry.  The AFL needed local manufacturers. Otto & Spike started making scarves and beanies for football tribes out of Australian Superwash Merino wool. 

Beyond their own business, they’ve found the scarves to be a popular way for charities to fundraise. One inspiring project was with Coburg RSL, where Les is a member. They made a successful series of Veteran scarves to help keep the doors open. It helped Coburg RSL resist the lure of easy money poker machines. 

Otto & Spike also played an important role locally at the start of the pandemic. Before they became widely available, their locally-made masks were delivered around the neighbourhood. 

Otto & Spike is here for the long term. Anthony has just invested in new knitting machines from Germany that function reliably 24 hours a day. They were able to put in a bank of solar panels with the support of the local council.  And they opened their own shop on Victoria Street, Brunswick, which is run by Anthony’s sister, Anne. 

The challenge for Otto & Spike today is more with supply than demand. Skilled labour is still essential though harder to find these days. Most prefer not to be working five-day weeks anymore.

The Mananov gamble has paid off. Their hope in a market for locally-made products was well-founded. The tide is turning on globalisation and the future looks good for the Brunswick beanie. Maybe one day in the future, when the tech crash causes mass unemployment, they will even start making hand-knitted beanies. The future is in their hands—and on our heads.

This article was originally published on ‘Culture Makers’, a newsletter written by Kevin Murray.

Subscribe here.

Read Brunswick Voice in the language of your choice:

Translations by Google Translate. Contact us if your language is not here.


Sign up for our mailing list

Get our latest articles and current events around Brunswick straight to your inbox.

Sign up for our mailing list

Get our latest articles and current events around Brunswick straight to your inbox.