Alexandra: This year has been a real blood bath for the fashion industry in Australia. What advice do you have for designers going into 2014?
Carla: A lot of designers that have closed down due to consumers buying less and the climate being difficult are now back working for the industry, and I actually believe this will work for them because they will learn a little bit more about business. Australia offers so much opportunity to young people that sometimes these young designers who graduate from fashion college want to create their own label perhaps a little too soon without enough business experience or backing. Today a fashion label is expensive to start. I started with very little money and experience but times were easier then and costs were lower.
Alexandra: How did you approach your brand to ensure it became a sustainable business?
Carla: By achieving each growth area step-by-step and learning as I went along. I didn’t go international and I didn’t even go national for the first couple of years. I learnt as I progressed and I didn’t expect to be an overnight sensation, and I certainly wasn’t! But today because of social media, and the media being what it is, young designers always feel that they should be successful straight away, or if they have an early success they think, ‘Wow I have arrived’. I said to someone recently that the sobering thing about fashion is that you are only as good as your last collection. If your last collection was not good, the market will tell you so. Consumers will not buy you. And if you have one or two of those seasons, you are out. Because being in business, you can make money, more than you would if you were a wage earner, but you can also lose a lot. You can lose the lot. I take each day as it comes, and I don’t worry too much about the competition. I worry more about what I am doing, and whether I am managing it as efficiently as it can possibly be. Nowadays being a bigger business we can afford to be a bit more frivolous, but I still manage my business that way. I have seen really big businesses at the top one moment and the next moment they are out. Lisa Ho for example and Collette (Dinnigan), so it really has been a very sobering impact this particular recession.
Alexandra: I also think many young designers care very little about the business side and don’t want to understand how to run an actual company. They just want to start a fashion label and wouldn’t even think about partnering with the right business person.
Carla: Absolutely. I actually think they need to become more professional and understand it is a business. It is creative but it is a business and that’s what people forget. And look, everyone in the fashion industry works very hard, and we all understand that, but you have to consider what didn’t work last season so that you are not making the same mistake again and again because you can’t afford to make too many mistakes. It’s interesting, I saw Katie Page this morning, she runs Harvey Norman, and she said ‘Retail is a bit like the media’ and it is absolutely true. When I was chair of SBS I found that sometimes you back a program and it just doesn’t work. So what do you do, do you keep it running or do you take it off? You don’t stop it all together, but you find something else to replace it that might work. Equally, if you have a product that is not selling, you have to put something else there because it’s the consumer or the audience that make the decisions. They are the ‘voting public’. With both media and retail you need a creative product that is appealing, but the trick is you have to understand who your audience is and you have to be in contact with that audience. But also you cannot go too far away from what you want to do, or go in a completely different direction. You can’t upset the audience, you have to respect them. Sometimes people think, ‘Oh I don’t like the people that are buying my clothes I wish it were someone else.’ It’s not about you, it’s not you that makes that decision! You have to give a variety of choices.
Alexandra: You have done this incredibly well, providing quality garments across an array of ages.
Carla: Unbelievably, yes. A lot of Year 12 girls buy our clothes for their formal and then their grandmothers or mothers are buying the garments for their weddings, as well as the brides and the bridesmaids and everyone in between. It’s about caring for your product. I have a wonderful team of designers and pattern-makers. Yesterday we were refining the collection and going through everything so carefully.
Alexandra: Another thing you do exceptionally well is this work-life balance.
Carla: I had a lot of help. You can’t do without it. And I had a live-in nanny for twelve years. Without that I would not be in business today. This is where I feel that if it (having a nanny) were tax deductible it would really make a difference for anyone who is starting a business, or has a small business. If you work for a bank or a law firm it is different, but when you are the head person in that organisation you can’t really take six months off! When you run your own business it’s not a nine-to-five job.
Alexandra: It is 24/7. I also believe there are simply not enough incentives for young mothers, or enough childcare options. Many women cannot afford live-in care, so if it were subsidised or tax deductible it would really add to our economy in a huge way, ensuring people are driving strong businesses and at the same time providing more jobs for the childcare industry.
Carla: That’s right! This is really what the problem is. There are not enough childcare options. And if you leave (the business) for six months it really is too long. I personally think women should only leave for three months and the company should somehow maintain contact, even just once a week. I found with my first child that it is a natural phenomenon to want to be with that child. I had to be drawn back into work kicking and screaming after six weeks! It’s been shown that children with mothers who went back to work are more likely to end up themselves being heads of companies than children with mothers who stayed home with them.
Alexandra: That is such a sensitive topic, and for someone like me it is easier to say, ‘I just would never take time off’. But people get very funny about the choices other women make.
Carla: I think it is about their own values and justifying their own values. I mean, it is a great experience to have children, but it is not who you are. You want to leave a legacy behind. I had that feeling when I was six years old. I looked at my mother who worked and I thought, ‘Women work so hard’, and as well as working hard they also nurture everybody and I thought, ‘They get no credit!’ I was the same as you. I wanted to have a business. I didn’t want to be just a wife and mother. For me, it was never enough. I wanted to set an example and show my daughters their children wouldn’t be bereft because their mother is running their own business. And I was a single mother at that point, so it was hard, very, very hard.
Alexandra: What made you so resilient?
Carla: Well I always thought, ‘I could be a mother stuck out in the ‘burbs. I could have been a woman totally dependent on her husband with no ability or knowledge as to how to make money and I thought, ‘I am so lucky’ and I became a strong feminist at that point. But I also didn’t quite know how I was going to manage it. You know the needs of a business. And you know that you just cannot take time off.
Alexandra: You can’t really ‘catch up’ at all and you can’t put it on hold.
Carla: Not at all. In the early days, it is a young business. It is really difficult. It is a wonderful privilege to have a business, but it’s a big commitment – you pay a price. I have had my business for so long and there have been people involved in my business for so long, so I feel responsible for them.
Alexandra: Being a young company, there is always a sense of responsibility to make this work for the people that are backing you. It is akin to being the head of a family, and doing whatever it is you have to do to keep it together. To also always remember the big picture.
Carla: Absolutely, it’s a big commitment and it’s a responsibility. I think it’s very hard. People work so hard to do what they do, and you think your business is doing fine and then suddenly there is a change in the economy. That’s when it becomes really tough. The income isn’t there but the overheads still are.
Alexandra: In terms of managing and ensuring you can continue this responsibility, what do you do each day?
Carla: I believe in keeping fit. I swim every day and I watch what I eat. I eat very healthy food. I keep to this size so I can try on the samples. I try on every sample because I want to feel them, because I know if something will work or not work. I can see it on other people, but I can’t feel it when other people are wearing it. I try on the first sample and I try on the production sample. If I do that, I feel assured that it is a great garment. So for me, health is important. I also like my social life. Between work and your friends, you have a fairly hectic social life but I think if you keep fit and you eat properly and sleep you can do it all for the business. A friend of mine who is an architect is like you. He doesn’t sleep much. And his parents were worried but the doctor said, ‘Well he is one of those fortunate people who can do twice as much as the rest of us can.’ I have a reasonably high level of energy and I am organised and I disciplined. I have learnt to be disciplined and to prioritise. I think through each day about what I am going to do and achieve, and how I am going to get there. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you do that. You have to think ahead and plan your days so you can maximise your time. I have always believed your time is very precious and you shouldn’t waste it. I like to cut it really fine, so I can do all the other things I have to do. It’s the only way.