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The True Cost

The True Cost
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I am going to start from the start, so bear with me. Its a long read and I would say takes up about 10 minutes of your time. But if you care about supporting the smaller brands that are doing the right things for the planet and for the people who make your clothes then I hope you will find the time and find something to relate to within my words.

 

I have been in and out of running my own business since I was 22. I don’t have a business background. I studied 6 months of my bachelors of fashion design and technology, then quit. I don’t have a degree, I didn’t even finish high school. The idea for Sabaii started when I set off on my first overseas trip to Thailand. I left Australia with no intention to come back and while I was travelling I decided the only way to keep traveling would be to start an online business, something I could run from anywhere in the world and fashion was what I wanted to do it in. Long story short, I ended up designing 2 leather bags in a tiny coastal village and decided I would manufacture them and re sell worldwide. I dove straight in with an Etsy store, worked with the family that made them, took photos outside their shop front using an old mannequin and beautiful red door. I remember the first morning I woke up after sending the store live and I had 7 or 12 visits, something really small but it was enough to ignite that flame that told me this was possible. I made a deal with the local Thai owners that I would pre sell online and contact them via email when an order arose. They agreed, I ran out of money and returned to Australia to work. I got a job in cafe and on the side I started to wholesale my product to boutiques. I had no idea what I was doing and because my brand was so new I would cold call businesses and ask them if they stocked what was then ‘Sabaii Leather’. I kept doing this for a few weeks, until I had peaked enough interest and then would email them asking if they were interested in stocking my label. It worked, but my manufacturing side did not. I was emailing, whattsapp-ing, calling, you name it and no reply. I ended up having to buy a plane ticket and fly back to Thailand, travel by plane, train and boat to speak with them and explain what I wanted to do and that it was important that we communicated via email so this could work. Safe to say it didn’t, I lost my potential suppliers and felt deflated.

 

Fast forward to late 2014 I was determined to not make coffee for the rest of my 20’s so I re-branded the label to what it is today. SABAII BOHEMIAN APPAREL. I incorporated ‘Bohemian Apparel’ because I knew I would expand into apparel at some stage and wanted to leave it open to grow. I spent the good part of 10 months searching for a manufacturing team. I searched everywhere from Australia, Thailand, India, Bali, Vietnam and finally was given a contact for China. It didn’t really gel with me, but I had no other leads so I went with it. The factory sounded good and after sending them my prototypes we agreed to do a small run of leather bags. I worked day and night at the cafe to save enough funds to place my first order. I think it was about $10,000 and I put all my spare time and energy into launching my label here in Adelaide. I launched in 2015 with 4 bags only to friends, family and local PR. It was small, I didn’t make that many sales but I organised the entire launch event on my own and I loved every second of it. It felt real. Things were in the beginning stages but I wasn’t sold on working with China, the process and the way they do business didn’t  feel right to me, I didn’t know enough about industry and only hearing horror stories that didn’t fit well with my ethos or the ethos of the brand I was trying to build. I wanted to explore the garment industry, I wanted to see these factories with my own eyes. I wanted to learn about what actually goes on behind closed doors so I could make an informed decision as to where SABAII products would be made and more importantly who would make them and how they would be treated. So I paid my way to venture with the state government on a trade mission to India for a week, to meet with manufacturing teams across the country and also showcase in a fashion show in Mumbai. Whist there we visited factories used by H&M, ZARA, TopShop, Spell, Sunday’s the label, A bunch of Australian smaller independent brands and some of the conglomerates in industry. Of the ones I saw almost all of them had poor working conditions, the workers looked sad they looked like they hated what they were doing. It was hot, dirty, fast paced and it wasn’t something i envisioned for my brand.

 

Almost 90% of factories I visited employed children under the age of 18. I spoke up about this issue, only to be shot down by the factory owners and without wanting to cause repercussions to the workers, didn’t ask the questions I wanted to, but the response from the owner was enough for me to see that a lot of these places are fu*cked. Kids working, little to no pay, threatened to work, threatened to be killed if they didn’t work, put into slavery due to debts racked up on purpose by factory owners to keep workers from being able to leave. This is actually happening, people are losing their lives over your dress. This is the cost of your $59 top. But is this the cost of a life? Apparently so in the fashion industry. They say you can either be part of the problem of you can be part of the solution. It money over morals here for sure. After seeing this, It was enough for me to know my way forward. And it was not by supporting these types of factories even if it meant I needed to pay more for my product to be made. I am not saying all factories are like this, but the majority are. The ones charging less and less to make your garments, someone, somewhere along that line pays. I returned to Australia with a world of knowledge and with so many beautiful memories and a few good names in industry. Let’s fast forward again to 2016 - I want to paint a picture of what goes on not only on the production side but also the financial losses small business like myself face daily due to trying to follow the best economic way’s to produce fashion. My rep from China abruptly left the company I was working with for the leather. I was about to release my second leather collection and the price was high and pressure was on. The new rep wasn’t understanding me, was making costly mistakes wrong leather colour, not the right type, not following sketches and poor communication due to the language barrier. I was again at a point of not knowing what on earth to do here.

 

I uncannily received an email from my old rep explaining she had started work for a new company, and that if I was to bring my business over she would be able to offer better prices. I knew her and trusted her so I made the shift. It then began to change and the price went down but MOQ went up, to  equal a $30,000 order. It might not seem like much to some, but when 40k is your yearly wage, its a shit tonne of money to part with and not know if you will sell your product. I worked my ass off to save enough to pay for this. 2 jobs. Every day. While still trying to build this business. She said I could pay in instalments to make it easier. So I paid 10k then another and then I borrowed 10k to finalise the order (my first injection into the business) to only find out it was a complete scam and I lost all of the money i invested overnight. It was total disbelief. I couldn’t fathom how this could happen so being the person I am, I decided to fly to China to somehow fix this, find the company, speak with them face to face, I don’t even know what I was supposed to do but I had to do something. Of course it didn’t go to plan. China is huge, the company didn’t exist, I spoke with a private investigator while I was in Hong Kong to try and help me, apparently this happens a lot in China and there is not a lot you can do about it following their governing laws. I wanted to curl into a ball and never wake up. I was in a foreign country alone, with no idea how to make this work. So in order to not cry myself to death, and to gain what I could from being there I spent 2 weeks sourcing fabric samples, looking for new manufactures and trying to stay positive for what had happened. The idea of clothing has always been in my mind and always what I wanted to do, I just fell into bags and leather. Despite everything I mentioned earlier the factories in China were significantly better than what I  thought and what I had experienced in India. And after researching, visiting and seeing with my own eyes I could see there was some room for work within China, with the right people and a lot oversee. In the last week I stumbled across a small shop selling beautiful lace pieces, things I had never seen and I figured I had nothing left to lose so I purchased a handful of items and bought them back to Australia late 2016. I got home and inevitably broke down. My work, my money, my time and my energy had been so invested in SABAII that when it fell to pieces around me I didn’t know how to handle it. There are only so many times you can tell yourself you are doing ok and believe it. I had a small amount of existing leather stock and this tiny amount of clothing - we’re talking one sample of each. And no money and no direction. So naturally I spent my last $1000 on a one way ticket to Europe leaving June 2017 and gave up on the idea of owing a world renowned luxury bohemian label. I always find that the universe pushes me to breaking point. Its not until then, when I throw in the towel and say (let’s be honest, cry and weep) that I cant do this anymore, is when I get thrown the life raft. Always. In December 2016 my life raft came in the form of the opportunity to take part in the Adelaide Fringe Festival at the Garden Of Unearthly Delights, to set up a pop up shop for a week. It was $2500 for the week and I was so close to not doing it because that’s all I had saved, but figured I still had some bags, I had the clothes and I had nothing to loose really besides my saving’s for Europe and being someone who doesn’t easily give up, I said yes to the first week and set up my first ever pop up shop. because I had no stock, I sold on a pre order basis. People would come in try on, fall in love and then I’d get them to place an order and then would ship it too them when they arrived. In pure disbelief I managed to sell a substantial amount of stock in the first week. never had experienced anything like this before and I didn’t expect it either. It felt as though things were changing, that I had hit that magic spot all successful entrepreneurs talk about where all your hard work pays off. I continued trading for the entire 4 weeks of the fringe and took in my regular yearly income in just one month. It was mind blowing. I never expected that, especially without actually having any stock to give them on the day and it changed my mindset dramatically.

 

It didn’t come with its downfalls though because not everything in life is peachy. I may have made that, but I reinvested half on stock, a third on the stall fees and about a quarter in shipping. There were manufacturing delays, many of them. Raised MOQ’s from the manufactures that I had no choice but to adhere too considering I had already pre sold pieces of that style, shipping costs I had to wear as I didn’t charge my customers for shipping as i was being ‘kind’ and SO many hours of packing hundreds and hundreds of orders, plus all the little setbacks like running out of labels, not having any stickers. The list literally goes on. On top of this I had angry emails from customers who didn’t want to wait any longer and started calling me a thief, a money stealer, a liar and all the names under the sun. I even had a group of middle aged women attack me on social media and then get my personal phone number and group bully me on a Sunday evening in the four walls of my home. This was despite me explaining the situation and apologising for the delay’s. So the highs and the lows of this are intense. After that, I debated wether or not to go to Europe as I had just had this big success so should I stay and ride the wave? Or should I take this once in a lifetime opportunity and travel, for me to places i’ve only ever dreamed about? I decided to go to Europe & I wasn’t sure if I would come back. After 4 months I felt the universe was pulling me home and pulling me back to SABAII so I repeated the process with a new collection I released in July while I was gone and joined back up with the fringe for my second year. I ran the same successful pre-order system and walked away feeling very unsure of what I was doing. Yes I was making money but the ethics and morals weren’t there for me 100%. Late 2017 I made the bold move forward. After not feeling entirely true to my values and the the values of the company I decided to move production to Bali. I wanted to practice what I felt was the right way forward in my heart and I wanted to take the brand down the most ethical path I could. One that promoted sustainability, equality and change. It wasn’t just the technical issues with china involving quality and logistics but more so my morals and my want for a product that spoke true to me and the brand, this was my driving force. I wanted to stop and get back to what I love and what I do well, designing and producing my own range. So I flew over to Indo in October 2017 and spent the remainder of ’17 and most of 2018 flying back an fourth from Australia to Bali. I spent time on the ground researching, trialling, visiting factories and agencies and finally setting up a manufacturing team and factory. This involved getting a solid, talented and trustworthy team together, designing a new range from my head and my heart, sampling each design, sourcing natural fabrics and trimmings, developing my own sizing range, setting up the embroidery (so much harder than I ever anticipated) and finally receiving the final product which was delivered to me Early December 2018. It’s my first fully designed collection. And is the one that you are looking at online today. SS19 ‘Coming Home’. It was a long hard year with no where near enough financial reward to keep me going, but passion has funny way of pushing you forward.

 

Its a tough gig. The work that goes on behind doors is never really spoken of in such honesty and light. People think it’s this easy, pretty way to make money when the reality is you spend far more on producing a quality garment than you will probably ever get back. It is near impossible to compete for pricing with the larger brands and established labels. My manufacturing costs are more than their RRP. These costs exist because I choose to run my business and every aspect of it with care, integrity and sincerity. I am hands on, and I value knowledge and real life experiences. I have morals. As a small business owner in a sea of competitive pricing, fast fashion and the mentality most buyers have of ‘I want it yesterday & I want it cheap’ it’s a hard game to play. I’ve spent the good part of 7 years searching for ethically run factories that pay workers above minimum wage, that workers are above the legal age to earn an income, a place that ensures a safe and happy working environment, one you can walk into and feel the good vibe’s and an overall sense of family. It’s been f*cking hard & it is so disheartening when I see large brands just swooping in and charging a fraction of the cost of what I can because I choose to work with my team, and pay them bloody well. This is the true cost. Open your eyes, do your research and actually give a shit about where you spend your money, who it goes to and what that supports!!!

 

It is not all doom and gloom though. Even though the monetary cost is high and the lesson expensive, I’ve had some massive wins. I’m in VOGUE on a regular basis (paid ads, but I have Vogue as a contact in my phone which I think is bloody awesome) I’ve been featured in cosmo, have had stockists overseas in the US, Germany and Australia. And I’ve managed to achieve this entirely on my own. From the name design, logo, setting up my e-commerce store, financing  to marketing, developing and running socials, designing the garments themselves, manufacturing them, customer service, pop ups, wholesale, photoshoots I’ve done it all and I’ve done it predominantly on my own. Which has been the best thing & the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I really commend you if you are still reading this and please stay with me for this last little part. The best thing about this is at the end of the hard work, the tears, the stress and the setbacks I get to walk away with a tangible product that I have created from my mind and made a reality. A product I get to style, and wear and show to the world. There is nothing quite like receiving the final sample before production. The one you can put on and walk around in and know that every part of your heart and soul is in this garment. That is the magic of what I do and why I do this. I’ve written a lot here and have covered many of my highs and lows, but If you were to sit down with me I could talk for hours on the up’s and down’s of business and what its actually like trying to make a living from what you love to do. I hope my words inspire you to look into the brands you love and support them. Find out why they do what they do. And look at this from a global perspective, and not just from the shop window.

 

Love,

Laura

 

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