Pharmacist finds perfect fit in clothing alteration business

Posted December 14, 2017 12:32:44

Clare Sheng was determined to stay out of her family’s clothing alteration business.

She can still recall every detail about the chores she endured inside the busy Rose Arcade workshop throughout her school years.

On a good day she would get to help her mum deliver mended clothes to some of Brisbane’s finest retailers.

On other days she’d find herself elbow deep in dirty dish water, scrubbing tea, coffee and noodles off mugs and bowls piled high in the shop’s only sink.

Almost 20 years later — and after vowing to never find work there — the young pharmacist is taking her mother’s alteration business to new heights.

Ms Sheng is the director of The Fitting Room, Queensland’s largest independent clothing alteration business.

Since joining her mother’s business in 2011, she has doubled its revenue, changed its name, relocated the workshop, and attracted an impressive list of high-end clients.

This year she also took home awards recognising her business acumen, multiculturalism and contribution to the fashion industry.

“Every garment that you’re fixing is like a problem you’re solving for someone, and every solution is different,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“When people leave in their perfectly fitting garments they feel really good about themselves and they’re very grateful to you.”

Ms Cheng looks at ease inside the latest incarnation of the shop, darting between the front-of-house styling rooms and a white-walled workshop in the back; a cordless phone is glued to one ear.

But this isn’t where she envisioned she would be after finishing her studies at the University of Queensland.

“As a Chinese girl everyone says, ‘Go do pharmacy. It’s a good job, it’s stable, you can go have a baby and come back, you’ll always have a job’.

“But when I started working I found I didn’t actually enjoy it.

“You were either a pharmacist or a pharmacy owner and that’s it — there’s nowhere else to go.”

Despite promising to never return, she found herself back at the family business after putting her pharmacy career on hold to start a family.

“As soon as I left pharmacy I knew I was never going back,” Ms Sheng said.

“There was a eureka moment when I thought, ‘Actually, I really like this and I can turn this business into something quite big’, and that’s when I started to take on the business role fully.”

‘They would close the door in my mum’s face’

Ms Sheng said the clothing alteration industry had a better reputation now than it did when her mother arrived in Australia in 1999.

Wei Ping Yu grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and migrated to Australia with her 11-year-old daughter in search of a better life.

Despite having limited English and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, Ms Yu made a name for herself in the clothing alteration industry and started Brisbane City Clothing Alterations in 2008.

“Back then not everyone was used to having non-English speakers around,” Ms Sheng said.

“There were a lot of difficult situations at school, in public and especially for my mum at work … especially being in the clothing alterations trade which is quite low on the social ladder.”

While Ms Sheng said she struggled with bullying at school, her mother faced it in the workplace.

“I have seen with my own eyes people treating her really badly,” she said.

“We worked with a lot of high-end retailers and they would close the door in my mum’s face while opening the door for a rich customer.”

When Ms Sheng took a more active role in the business she realised her mother’s attention to detail and relationships with clients were the qualities destined to turn its image around.

“She was the best at what she does but she devalued herself because clients have always treated her badly.

“She would only tell people, ‘I can do this cheaper, I can do this faster’, which is putting herself down when she can provide the best service and the best quality work.”

Now she is committed to giving other marginalised workers an opportunity to join the industry.

“A lot of the staff we hire are from overseas; we have refugees and women who are coming back after staying at home for a number of years.

“There is no class system and there is no need to think someone is better than someone else.”

New business model caters to fashion-savvy men

Ms Sheng will release a book in 2018 advising men how to wear, style and care for suits.

She also launched a men’s styling service this month to show clients how to improve their clothing and business etiquette.

Creating these new ventures was a matter of necessity.

Ms Sheng said she was forced to look for other income streams when fashion retail sales started to suffer three years ago.

“A lot of our clients were closing down, they were selling a lot less clothing, and that directly affected our business,” she said.

“That’s when I started to take more proactive action to try and get more clients by teaching them the value of dressing well.”

The business’s founder, Ms Yu, has stepped back from day-to-day alteration work and is now a part-time consultant who, conveniently, lives around the corner from her daughter.

And, bucking the trend of second-generation succession etiquette, Ms Sheng said her advice was always welcome.

“If I’m ever scared of trying something new she would say, ‘Well I started the business with no money, no English and no education. If I can do it, you can do it’.”

Topics: small-business, retail, fashion, family, careers, people, brisbane-4000

A short history of the high heel

Posted November 13, 2017 09:00:00

It’s a dilemma many women face when they go out — do they want to elongate their legs by wearing high heeled shoes for an event, or still be able to feel their feet at the end of the night?

After events like the Spring Racing Carnival, it is common to see many women abandon their shoes and limp home barefoot.

And while men are perceived to be well turned out at any event in flat shoes, the high heel trend, believe it or not, began with them.

“The origins of the heel relates to horse riding and warriors and the ability to hold tight to the saddle,” podiatrist and shoe historian Cameron Kippen told ABC Radio Perth

“Subsequently you had these macho men swaggering about in boots with heels, but they very quickly became fashionable for rich courtiers and kings in particular.”

The first recorded instance of a high heeled shoe being worn by a woman was by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century.

She was about 150 centimetres tall and it is said she wanted to appear taller at her wedding.

Up until that time, women had been wearing platform shoes, some as high as 60 centimetres, in 16th century Europe.

“Platforms predate heeled shoes, but because many women would fall over their platforms, and pregnant women would miscarry, they had to be legislated against,” Mr Kippen said.

“Shoemakers realised they could give women height but they needed to make them safer, so they carved out the front of the platform and created a high heel which was biomechanically more sound than platforms.”

During the reign of King Louis XIV of France, some 200 years later, wearing heels really began to take off — but again, among men.

“After de Medici died, that was the end of heeled shoes for women in terms of fashion,” Mr Kippen said.

“Women started to wear lower heels, but men liked this idea of towering above everyone else — and no one more than Louis XIV, who of course gave his name to an actual heel itself.

“He would parade around with very tight fitting high heeled shoes, very highly decorated.

“His critical badge of honour was a red heel, and he wouldn’t allow anybody else in the French court to wear them.”

Heels in the French court at Versailles were an important status symbol and restricted to the nobility.

“Wearing heels without permission — you would lose your head, literally,” Mr Kippen said.

“In those days there were fewer people wanting to be fashionable.

“Ordinary people would go about their business with no trouble at all, whereas it was the courtiers and those that had privilege and money that would want to outdo each other.

“Therefore, trying to emulate the royal family in whatever country you were in was something that was governed against.”

The right to wear heels eventually extended to the general population, but they remained chunky until after the end of World War II.

“We had to fight two world wars to have the technology to be able to make a stiletto heel,” Mr Kippen said.

“The secret of the stiletto heel was a small piece of metal which joined the inside of the shoes sufficiently that the heel and foot of the shoe could operate separately. It could actually bend and twist.

“It’s known as a shank.

“Once a shoe designer managed to work that out, then heels became more like what we see today.

“In the past heels were more like arch supports. They sat much closer to the middle of the foot, whereas now they can sit right at the end of the shoe.”

Initially, the creation of the stiletto heel was a cause of great consternation.

“In all the ballrooms at the time, the owners were very much concerned,” Mr Kippen said.

“These new stiletto heels could actually bore a hole in the floor.

“There was much warning and health foreboding about the things that would happen if you wore stiletto heels.”

Blisters aside, Mr Kippen said there was little evidence that high heeled shoes caused long-term health problems for wearers.

“We have lived half a century past that time and there is no evidence to show that people who wear these for a prolonged period would have foot or back problems at all,” he said.

Topics: fashion, history, women, perth-6000

Oxfam urges Australian fashion brands to end worker exploitation

Posted October 29, 2017 06:02:40

The Bangladeshi factory worker who may well have made your t-shirt could be earning as little as 39 cents an hour.

That is the sobering message coming from non-for-profit organisation Oxfam Australia’s “What She Makes” report released today.

Deloitte Access Economics was engaged by Oxfam to analyse Australia’s garment supply chain and work out the proportion of the cost of a garment ends up in the pocket of the person who made it.

It found in the average Australian supply chain, just 4 per cent of the price of a clothing item is paid to overseas workers.

That is just 40 cents from a $10 t-shirt.

In Bangladesh, where wages are much lower, as little as 2 per cent of the clothing price goes to the workers who made it, the Deloitte research found.

Australian companies like Target Australia, Cotton On, Kmart, Big W, H&M, Pacific Brands and the Just Group all use overseas factories as suppliers, including factories in Bangladesh.

China is the main sourcing destination for Australia, followed by Bangladesh which provides about 9 per cent of the garments sold here.

Twenty-year-old Bangladeshi Fatima earns 43 cents an hour working in a factory making clothes for Big W, H&M and other global brands.

Oxfam’s report said she will often go without food and sleeps on a concrete floor in an apartment with 10 other people.

Oxfam Australia’s Chief Executive Helen Szoke said while the cost of living in certain countries is lower, the salaries paid in the garment industry still do not allow a worker to cover basic living costs, like food and housing.

“It’s predominantly women who work in Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia that can’t afford the basics like food and safe homes but are working long hours, often six days a week, producing the garments Australians wear on their back,” Ms Szoke said.

She said Australia’s biggest retailers should ensure overseas workers have enough to live off.

“Deloitte estimates that if big companies passed the entire cost of living wages to workers, it would only increase the price of clothing sold in Australia by 1 per cent,” Ms Szoke said.

She said that should be absorbed by the companies and not passed onto the buyer.

Australia’s fashion industry turned over $27 billion last year.

“Brands have the power to ensure workers are paid enough to live with basic dignity,” Ms Szoke said.

The minimum wage in Vietnam is the equivalent of 64 cents an hour. In China it’s 93 cents and in Bangladesh it is as low as 39 cents an hour.

However, a recent International Labour Organisation report found a large proportion of workers in the garment, footwear and textiles sector in counties exporting to Australia were paid below minimum wage.

Target, Kmart, Woolworths Group, Cotton On and the Just Group all list the locations of their factories on their websites.

Topics: fashion, design, arts-and-entertainment, charities, charities-and-community-organisations, community-and-society, australia, bangladesh, china

From fashion to farming: On-farm businesses taking the world by storm

Posted October 21, 2017 06:24:40

Former fashion model Vanessa Bell is riding a new wave of potential for on-farm businesses in Australia taking value-added products direct to the world online.

She has started a company from a farm at Goulburn in New South Wales, producing hand-knitted baby blankets from super fine merino wool.

“Being online is really good, it gives us an opportunity obviously to be on a world-wide platform, so we have blankets now in London and Switzerland,” she said.

“It gives us opportunity to be able to sell beyond Australia.”

Ms Bell started marketing her range this year under the brand Sara Jane Bond, named after her late great grandmother who produced a hand knitted blanket in 1940, which had become a family heirloom.

She said the birth of her son Charlie in early 2014 to her farmer husband Philip Bell was the genesis of the business idea.

“Being a newborn baby in this climate I kept struggling to find something warm for him,” Ms Bell said.

“My mother suggested I try my great grandmother’s blanket and then also standing on the deck and looking out, Philip was driving 1,000 head of sheep up the paddock and I thought I really need to do something with sheep, it makes sense to do something in the wool business.”

A near decade-long career as a fashion model on the catwalks of London, Tokyo and Sydney helped her focus on the luxury market, she said.

“I was incredibly fortunate to work with clients such as Giorgio Armani and Comme des Garcon and Christian Dior,” she said.

“For me, it helped me actually define the gap in the market to look for something that was about quality, so being surrounded by wonderful fabrics and construction and how those fabrics came together on the runway, that absolutely gave me an insight into what I wanted to be able to create.”

Crucial to the business model has been a team of dedicated local knitters who have helped design and produce the blankets.

“It’s beyond creating a beautiful product, it’s about really talented women coming together who have a vested interest in the wool business,” Ms Bell said.

“All of us are either married to farmers or have been farmers, it’s looking at creating something and bringing women together in the bush, which is a really important thing.”

Gostwyck also joins the online marketplace

One of the oldest wool growing enterprises in Australia has also been quick to embrace the new world of online opportunities

Gostwyck farm at Uralla in NSW was established in 1832, and sells its wool to high fashion knitwear brands such as Esprit and the suppliers of top end men’s suiting labels such as Saville Row.

Now the family-run enterprise is also selling a range of baby wear online.

“It’s been great, the stuff we’ve sold in Australia and also in Europe, the reactions have been very good,” said Philip Attard, who runs the farm that has been owned by his wife Alison’s family for five generations.

The baby wear is trading on the Dangar family history and is named after the first owners of the property, Henry and Grace.

Mr Attard said it was important to have a story in the online market, but face to face contact was still required.

“You have to be prepared to jump on a plane and go to the places where you need to show your product and explain what it is you’re doing,” Mr Attard said.

“People don’t know and unless you tell them they’ll remain ignorant about the improvements we’ve made here with the Australian merino.”

‘We want to bring jobs into the region’

Mr Attard is running the business from the 2,600 hectare farm, but patchy internet connectivity was a challenge, he said.

“It’s improved a little bit since the Sky Muster, but the speed and the amount of data that you need needs to improve,” he said.

“We’re hoping the amount of data will improve again but we need to able to get through into 100mb lines here in order to do those things comfortably and efficiently, otherwise you have to have an office in town and I want to avoid that.

“The other thing is we want to stay regional, we want to bring the jobs into the region not go down to the cities because that’s where the skills are.

“Those skills are really important for any business but we need to develop them here and keep them here and show them there is a better way of life in regional Australia.”

The head of the business school at the University of New England, Alison Sheridan, said Australian farmers were uniquely placed to capitalise on a global reputation for quality and sustainability.

Food and fibre producers could target niche markets with value added products and UNE was focused on producing graduates with the skills to help develop these online opportunities.

“As the agricultural producer you don’t have to have all that knowledge you bring that specialist expertise in and I think that’s what’s exciting for the employment opportunities of our graduates too is the increasing openness by our agricultural producers to draw in the expertise when they need it,” Ms Sheridan said.

“What I value about this is it’s opening up new opportunities for our regional economy so we tap into an international market and then along the value chain we connect with so many different dimensions of the economy.”

See the story on Landline, this Sunday at noon.

Topics: rural, agricultural-crops, wool, fashion, agribusiness, goulburn-2580, nsw

Do you have your hats ready for the spring racing season?

Posted October 13, 2017 11:53:19

Royal Randwick is hosting the richest turf race in the world this weekend — The Everest — and for many dressing the part involves weeks of planning.

Rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney has a long history but when it comes to the spring racing season, the Melbournites have an edge both on the track and fashion field.

Sydney milliner Neil Grigg says he has clients who pare back their look to match the mood in Sydney.

“It’s not has extravagant as Melbourne Cup, not as over the top,” he said.

“Melbourne has been going for much much longer, whereas Sydney doesn’t quite get the numbers … Sydney is still developing.”

Mr Grigg has been a milliner for close to 40 years, and says the lead-up to the spring season is a “mad time”.

“You don’t need to go as extravagant — but plenty of people do.”

He works on about five to six headpieces at a time, with each taking up to six hours to create.

What’s on trend?

Mr Grigg uses traditional fabrics such as silk and sheer crinoline for his headpieces, but has added some new materials for this season too.

“We’re starting to work with metals in the tiaras and crowns,” he said.

“We’re using leather in spring as well as autumn.

“I also use a fabulous material of silk and straw combination, so it just shines and glows.”

Mr Grigg’s hat of choice is the “very chic” pillbox.

“Beautiful pillboxes give you a lovely shape,” he said.

“Other than that, [try] a fascinator, which can be all feathers and flowers and frou-frou.

“Your face is framed by the hair, but you still get a hint of colour with a little shape around the head.”

Neil Grigg’s top fashion tips

Match the hat to the dress

“Say you have a blue dress,” he said.

“You might go with a nude shoe and a bag. You might put silver with the blue in your hat, so it gives you a lift, which you can pick up with jewellery.

“Don’t throw 27 colours into it. Alternatively, have a pink hat with a bit of a blue edge on it.”

Dip the hat

If you want to make it a bit more chic or add some style, give the hat a little dip on one side.

Pay attention to the way the hat dips though — whether it’s over the left or right eye — as it depends on whether the milliner is left or right-handed. The high point of the hat should sit in the centre.

For the men

If you are entering Fashions on the Field, you need a hat.

Doing it yourself?

Start with a solid base like a hat or fascinator and build up.

Think you can’t afford it?

Mr Grigg said hats start from about $30, and affordable pieces can be found at major department stores or craft stores.

“You might not have the most outrageous thing, but find something you feel fabulous in.”

Topics: horse-racing, fashion, sydney-2000

Merino farmers take ‘story’ of Australian wool to spin suiting gold

Posted October 01, 2017 08:15:29

They are unlikely partners — a Tasmanian wool farmer and a fashion designer — but this odd couple are having a big impact on the world of men’s fashion.

The collaboration between Tasmanian superfine wool producer, Simon Cameron, and Matt Jensen from MJ Bale has resulted in a collection of “single origin” men’s suits, all made with wool from Mr Cameron’s farm, Kingston.

“Simon is one of the best woolgrowers in the world,” Mr Jensen said.

“It’s allowed us to create some of the best suiting in the world — but directly from an Australian farm.”

Mr Cameron sends his bales of superfine to Italian woollen mill and fabric producer Vitale Barberis, in northern Italy, where it is woven into high-end suiting fabric.

From there, the fabric goes to Japan where Mr Jensen has his Kingston Collection suits handmade.

“We’ve kept it pretty classic — we’ve got three colours, a full canvas suit, which we handmade in Japan, [a] single-breasted suit,” Mr Jensen said.

Mr Cameron added: “It’s one of those things that you would probably keep for a long time because it’s a special product.”

‘Putting money back into, literally, the grassroots’

The wool from the Kingston is from unmulesed sheep.

That means more work for the farmer — but Mr Cameron stopped the practice of mulesing, where skin is cut off the sheep’s backside to avoid flystrike, long ago.

Careful management is still producing a healthy sheep and a high-quality superfine clip.

“We take out the backs, so that just leaves the two flanks,” Mr Cameron said.

“The main fleece pieces — the two bits from the sides of the sheep — are premium wool that gets put into a separate line.

“The backs get put into another line — it’s still good wool but it is more consistent in itself if it is classed that way.”

As part of the deal, MJ Bale is paying an additional contribution to Mr Cameron, which goes towards preserving native grasses and keeping the farming operation sustainable.

“We think it’s a good thing to be doing — to be putting money back into, literally, the grassroots of the country,” Mr Jensen said.

‘It’s a story right through Australia’

Kingston is not the only Tasmanian wool operation involved in a single-origin clothing range.

The historic Tasmanian wool property, Beaufront, sends wool to the Tollegno Mill in northern Italy, where it is also made into single-origin fabric.

“Our family has been farming here for 100 years — we’re really connected to the land,” Beaufront farmer Julian von Bibra said.

“We feel very strongly about our product — it’s a story right through Australia, in many ways, in terms of farmers managing the landscape and producing a product … we’re thrilled to be able to present that story.”

Julian and Annabel von Bibra feature in the Italian company’s marketing, where their commitment to the environment, their animals, and the production of wool from unmulesed sheep is highlighted.

“Our partners, Tollegno, have visited our farm,” Mr von Bibra said.

“They now have a feeling of what goes on in Australia — if we can be selling our story we represent farming more broadly as proud Tasmanian and Australian farmers, and it’s that opportunity that’s great.”

The Italian mill’s confidence in Beaufront is paying off.

It is working on contracts with clothing companies in America and Europe, and with Country Road in Australia.

“Country Road is a client of the mill, Tollegno in Italy, that bought into the concept — they saw the opportunity to tell the story and do it locally,” wool broker and deal negotiator, Alistair Calvert, said.

For the family, it is a special reward to see garments made with their wool.

“As a farmer you produce a raw product — bales of wool — and often lose the fact of where that wool ends up,” Mr von Bibra said.

“To follow it through to garment stage, to be closer to our customer, to meet the various people in the supply chain, has been an amazing opportunity.

“It keeps us focused on what we are doing.”

Topics: wool, agricultural-crops, rural, fashion, design, tas

‘We have needed this’: French fashion giants ban size-zero models

Updated September 07, 2017 15:53:53

French fashion companies LVMH and Kering have signed a joint charter vowing to stop hiring size-zero models worldwide in response to continued criticism the industry encourages eating disorders.

Key points:

  • The pact bans the conglomerates’ labels from using models below an Australian size 6
  • The charter requires models to submit a medical report every six months
  • Curvy model Abby Valdes says the move is long overdue

The pact adopted by French corporations LVMH and Kering, which own brands like Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, incorporates — and goes beyond — a new French law that requires models to provide medical certificates proving they are healthy before they can work.

While the French law set to take effect on October 1 requires both male and female models to present a health certificate obtained within the previous two years, LVMH and Kering said their charter would shorten the timeframe to six months of the job.

The pact also bans the conglomerates’ labels from using female models below a French women’s size 34, which is typically equivalent to a US size 0-2 and a UK/Australian size 6.

The French law initially included a minimum body mass index (BMI) requirement, but it was removed after lawmakers deemed the doctor’s certificate an adequate safeguard.

In addition to fulfilling physical requirements, the charter requires each brand to put a dedicated psychologist at the disposal of fashion models during working eithers — either by phone or in person at the workplace.

The two groups said they introduced the charter with the hopes of setting a new global standard for the fashion industry.

“We hope to inspire the entire industry to follow suit, thus making a real difference in the working conditions of fashion models industry-wide,” Kering chief executive Francois-Henry Pinault said in a statement.

‘We have needed this’

Model Abby Valdes, who wears the average Australian woman’s clothing size of 12-16, has applauded the companies for bringing their standards in line with those of the consumer.

“I’m really proud of them for doing this. They need to uphold it,” Valdes said.

“I hope that this is the beginning of a long, long, list of others who follow suit. We have needed this.”

Valdes is one of Australia’s most successful plus-size models, having worked with labels such as Tommy Hilfiger and Marina Rinaldi over the span of her decade-long career.

But she still continues to experience discrimination on a regular basis within the industry.

“I have been living in New York for 10 years and certainly had a stylist or two look me up and down and just say, ‘I don’t know what to do with you’,” she said.

Valdes said it was time the rest of the industry started to shift its mindset to promote a healthier and more realistic message across the board.

“We’re real people and women, we want to see ourselves everywhere and these minus sizes and size-zero sizes, I don’t know anybody in my real life who looks like that,” Valdes said.

“I think when you’ve got a size that doesn’t exist, like size zero, you’ve got a problem. When you want kids to be in a size that is minus, you’ve got to take a look at that.

“We’ve got a voice to express ourselves … it’s high time they stopped trying to tell us what we want because we’re the consumers.

“It’s time we tell them what we want and we are.”

Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney are among the major labels to adopt the new casting requirements.


Topics: fashion, womens-health, health, women, france, australia

First posted September 07, 2017 15:26:18