I wish I had been told a lot of things before I started my children's fashion business Oobi, about 12 years ago. Oh, wait. I was! I was given so much sound advice, all sensible, all very serious, kindhearted, business-minded.
Don't do red for babies
Nobody looks good in yellow
Tutus aren't for day wear
Tone it down a bit...?
Green doesn't sell
Some advice is good (have a business plan, work with great people, have a job where you can bring your dog every day), some advice is bad (see all of the above, oh, except the green bit, that is true).
I've always marched to the beat of my own drum. My first range for Oobi was considered pretty 'out there' when I launched. Children's retail was a sea of "pink for girls and blue for boys" (plus unisex or 'neutral' yellow and beige - anyone remember those days?) and that was the tone of the time. And it wasn't even that long ago.
But I did red. And red, and more red. Red with dots, and red with pink, and red with navy (boys) and red with aqua (neutral) and of course red apples. I did knitted knee-high baby booties with leather soles in red with pink polkadots (really), I did shorts with suspenders and multicolour buttons (girls AND boys), I designed my own fabrics because you couldn't just buy the wildness in my heart! I saw a niche in the market and by god did I fill it! I pushed it and pushed it and giggled and played. I put my blood, sweat, tears and late nights into a magical range that was fun, quirky, out there and unique in the children's fashion market.
And yep, it was a huge flop. Huge.
I couldn't believe it. I had designed and printed my own fabrics, I'd put so much love into the range, how could it not sell? I'd left my university degree half way through!
This is the most devastating thing for a designer or business owner. How can you put your EVERYTHING into something and have it not work?
As children we're often told that if we work hard, that it will pay off. And nobody feels the sting of that mistruth more than a small business owner. Sometimes you work and you work and you work and there's no pay off. And there's no pay cheque either.
Everything is on the line and you've probably invested your hard earned savings. You've learned boring things like how to do your taxes and charge GST, you've done a 5 year business plan and gone to seminars, taking notes and drawing pie charts. You've done all that box ticking to make sure that your business sings, and then your designs, the thing you KNOW you're good at, is the thing that fails you.
There are so many articles about how important it is to run a sound business, especially if you're a "creative type". I can probably walk into any library's business section or do any Google search that will tell you that because you're creative you'll find it hard to have a business brain too. So you know all that (and you can take that mistruth or leave it too).
But what I want to talk to you about is how to deal with failing at the creative side. Because you got your BAS in on time, you did the marketing, stayed up all night...but nobody bought your creations. Ouch.
But I'm here 12 years later and I'm here to tell you that eventually there were some customers who loved my designs because I stood by them. And those customers started to buy Oobi, and support the brand, and importantly, they told their friends. And then, the orders started coming... and then I realised that there was a world of customers out there who responded to those little touches that make us Oobi. Those little things that are just a bit different. Just a bit quirky.
It's not for me to tone it down, to make sure that there are no 'failures', to play it safe. Because that is a sure fire way to kill your brand and your business. You have to have the freedom to make mistakes, to push the envelope, to give people some time to GROW to love it. Because design isn't always appreciated from the start. Sometimes you have to allow people the luxury of learning to like it. And that's cool. But that's never going to be something that opens the doors of every store.
You can't design to a committee. You can't do something just because it's trendy. And you can't complain if you try something first, it doesn't sell, and then someone else makes a fortune out of it. That's the bugbear of the 'Early Adopters' as the social commentator Everett Rogers so brilliantly coined it in the '60s.
Be an early adopter, stick to your guns, make it a little bit different and 100% you. Make sure that you can stand by every single thing that you produce, make, design, buy or sell. Because customers aren't stupid. They can smell a rat and they will love you for your uniqueness as long as you never water that down.
So yeah, I get a lot of "if you would do this, then we would buy more" but in the end, it's not those garments that capture the imagination of the people that I design for. And I know that that's what the people I design for love me for too. And they might forgive me a mistake (or 10) along the way. And take note, I'm still here and I make a living out of my small business and I employ people too. And, darnit, I get my BAS in on time too!
And I'm not saying that you can't be conservative or preppy, pretty or neutral. As long as that's you! And it has to be you, it has to be honest and it has to be genuine.
So my advice is different from the advice that I was given. And that advice is to go out and buy that crystal ball that all the advice-givers seem to have. And if that doesn't work then make your own future, predict your own path and march to the beat of your own drum (oh, and remember, green doesn't sell).
Alexandra Riggs is the founder of Oobi and oobi.com.au. Alex has been in the children's fashion industry for 12 years, starting her company from a garage in Sydney's Bondi. Oobi is a children's fashion label with ethically made garments for girls newborn to 11 years, all designed exclusively by Alex in Australia.
All fabrics are either reprinted vintage prints or exclusively drawn and designed by Alex for Oobi and hand screen-printed in Jaipur, India. Alex travels to India regularly and works exclusively with two family run businesses there, employing many women and artisans in the screen printing business.
And what you really want to know... Oobi the name of the brand comes from her mum, Freida, who had a store in Melbourne in the '60s and called it "Oobi Things" because... it was the '60s. Alex and her family always called anything different, quirky or hard to describe as "Oobi" so when she started a children's fashion line, well, it had to be Oobi. And it's pronounced... oo-be!
Photo Credits: Oobi