The joy. Joy came first. Joy of signing the paperwork to buy a business. So much hope and potential, and dreams.
We had worked hard our entire lives to build good savings and make investments for growth into our future. We consider ourselves smart and savvy people. We knew the business we were buying would need a lot of work (what business doesn’t, honestly?), but all the ingredients were there and the potential was huge. We were eager, we were ready and we were excited to roll our sleeves up.
I had always wanted to go into fashion. I can’t explain why. I had never studied fashion. In fact, I remember speaking with my husband about not being able to see how that opportunity would ever happen for me. And, then? We found Stella Phoenix.
For those who are stumbling across us for the first time, I won’t spend eons on talking about who we are, but to give context – Stella Phoenix is a demi-couture childrenswear brand. We create designer and luxury pieces for children (dresses, playsuits, jumpsuits), which our customers often describe as “perfection.” That’s something we’re very proud of. Our focus is thoughtful fashion; taking inspiration from yesteryear and innovation to push fashion into the future. We want fashion to be valued, and loved, and kept, and cherished and passed down. We create quality pieces that make moments and enable our customers to buy less and create more through our mix and match capability. We encourage our customers to curate their children’s wardrobes; teaching their children about colour, textures, fabrics, and at the same time, enabling their children to express their individual identity (and moods!) through what they wear.
We have a number of design mechanisms built into our creation process that ensure nothing short of a magical experience for our mini wearers – one of which (that often conjures amusement) is our twirl test. That’s right, each dress and skirt undergoes a twirl test and if it’s not perfect enough, we go back to the drawing board.
The minute I saw Stella I knew deep in my soul that it was always meant to be mine. It was love at first sight, a connection so compelling that it reminded me of the moment you meet someone for the first time but feel like you’ve known them your whole life. Something we loved most about this business, and we still do, is its diverse customer base spanning Asia Pacific, Europe, USA, Middle East. We deduced that diversity was a strength. While marketing to several different markets, and buying behaviours, has its complexity, it also has its rich beauty. Our idea was that the varying markets would complement and support each other; if one had a down turn, the others would help carry it through.
What we did not anticipate was a global pandemic that would hit 100% of our market – all at once – and completely obliterate the world as we knew it. Especially not 6 months into buying the business when we were really still getting our head around it all.
Perhaps this was naivety on our part. We could see that parts of the world may experience varying challenges, but we did not foresee all our markets going down at once.
Now, before we get in to the journey that has been, I’d like to preface this with a couple of things. Firstly, I’ve heard people saying:
“Who cares about fashion when there are real issues in the world.”
To that, I’d like to say, yes, by talking about our struggles we are not negating those who have had it worse- especially those who have died or lost loved ones to COVID. Secondly, we are not eliminating our gratitude, which we’ll cover a bit later. But, fashion isn’t just clothes – it’s special moments, it’s memories, it’s family stories and keepsakes, it’s a magical escape from what’s going on in the outside world – especially for children. After all, there’s nothing like an adventure in a Princess dress to brighten your day.
This business is our family, and our teams family and our suppliers family and our customers family. And our collective future. It’s lives and livelihoods. And all of that matters very, very much. One beauty the pandemic has given us is the ability to have real human conversations about varying degrees of human experience and vulnerability. Sharing our experience is just that.
When we first heard of the outbreak in Wuhan, we felt so sorry for the locals there, but we still didn’t realise the potential devastation en masse. We definitely did not imagine it would spread the way it has. Not sure what the experience was like for you (and please feel free to share!) To us, the COVID pandemic felt like a tsunami. At first, we were wondering what that faint ripple was on the horizon, and then by the time we realised it was a tsunami, it had well and truly hit the shore.
We did what any smart business people do, consolidate your ducks and activate your contingency plans. We decided that there were a few things that played to our strengths:
- Our pieces are seasonless and transitional statement pieces that can be worn on their own for summer or layered for winter. This meant we were not at the mercy of the seasons so, unlike other fashion brands, we could keep stock current even if sales slowed
- We have a global market which means that Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere shopping could bounce off each other
- We had moved our manufacturing back to Australia before the pandemic hit. We had strong supplier ties. We thought that would help us weather any supply issues because we wouldn’t have whole collections stuck in factories overseas
- We are lean and agile in our operations – this means we have the ability to pivot and respond depending on what our markets needed from us. Our team works remotely so we could continue through the lockdown. We don’t have huge overheads such as offices or commercial rentals.
At first, things seemed to be going well. We were in peak USA buying time and the sales kept coming. We noticed they were less than anticipated but it still seemed to be going well. (Side note: our goal for 2020 and 2021 was to scale our USA customer base. It’s an extremely strong market for us, one that brings us so much joy selling into, and one of the hardest-hit countries during this time).
What happened next brought us to our knees though. Because what we did not anticipate was multiple waves of COVID. Mutations of COVID. We sort of anticipated the world would lockdown and it would be squashed and we’d all move on in 6 months time.
Then, our stockists started closing. Those that stayed open became crippled by warehousing issues. We had pre-established payment plans that had never experienced a hitch before which completely ceased while they grappled with the devastation.
We were still optimistic that things would be okay at this point. We hired a fresh, talented team (side note: best decision of our lives) we reviewed our product quality, our production efficiency, we slashed costs. We also made a decision to adapt our business model to pre-order in line with our Mindful Fashion Plan. This was something we had already wanted to introduce but the time was never better than now when we were needing to use our energies wisely.
We were designing a new collection. And then… The fabric shortages hit – globally. And, the thread shortages hit. And, the hardware shortages hit: and we had to re-design our collection 4 times. That means 4 times as many costs and resources and time.
And then, 3 months behind schedule, we tried to do an ordinary thing that we really took for granted: a photoshoot. A photoshoot in Melbourne was cancelled, due to an outbreak. A photoshoot in Sydney was cancelled for the same reason. And then we looked to Brisbane and an outbreak took off here as well. That means 3 times the costs and resources and time.
I sat down with the team.
“We are going to do something radical. A collaborative remote photoshoot that is COVID proof. This has never been done before to my knowledge. I’m going to approach photographers to see if they are interested. What I need from you is a photoshoot concept that can be done in lockdown.”
That’s how the Dollhouse theme was born for the collection shoot of the first drop of the Brave Collection.
If you know anything about photography, you’ll understand that bringing 5 photographers together on a collaborative shoot, photographing remotely, shipping samples around the country (in a time where Australia Post was crippled) and trying to bring that together in a cohesive theme is extremely difficult. These photographers, who would ordinarily be competitors, took the charge. They came together as a team, they helped each other, and we, against all odds brought together a flawless shoot. They were all in various stages of lockdown during this time, one photographer was in hard lockdown in Melbourne, and we’re eternally grateful to them. Really.
And then, just as I was feeling like we were getting somewhere, the next blow came. Our manufacturer in Australia had been smashed with work from everyone bringing production back. And he could not manufacture for us. He didn’t have the capacity. At the 11th hour.
Absolutely distraught, I phoned everyone I knew crying. No manufacturers had capacity. Because what I had failed to appreciate in all of this is that the offshoring of manufacturing over years had reduced the Australian industry to micro size. There’s a shortage of skills, there’s a shortage of supply and capacity. A shortage that cannot be solved overnight. Something that will take years to replenish should support for locally manufactured goods continue. This coupled with increased demand: disaster. The kind of disaster that meant your usual contingency plans were turned to water. They meant absolutely nothing.
I have compassion for manufacturers in this situation. They are also doing the best they can in out of the ordinary and uncertain circumstances. But for us, this blow was devastating. It had the potential to end our business right then and there.
With the help of my amazing network (thank you!) we found a new manufacturer who had opened her books up to help smaller brands, like ours, that had also found themselves in the lurch, like us. It’s moments like this that we’re reminded no matter what happens, there is someone full of ingenuity who will take the opportunity to do something amazing. It seems simple, opening books. But it just wasn’t. It has been a huge piece of work for her, a massive feat to take on. She’s singlehandedly saved a lot of businesses. Every time I see her, I want to just hug her gleefully, but obviously I can’t because of social distancing.
This lifeline was such a relief, but the reality was we were also competing for space with other brands. It was chaos – and on top of that, COVID slowed manufacturing, supply and shipping substantially already – more so when you are squished in with other brands.
I never anticipated the hardest problem we would face would be getting product to market. Because as a products business, if we can’t get product to market, our customers have nothing to buy. So as we sold out, and our stockists struggled, and we limped on trying to get new product to market, our revenue dried up.
By the time we launched the first drop of our new collection, Brave, we were 12 months on from the launch of our last collection. I was stricken with grief, excitement and pride in the team. On launch night I was trying to swallow my grief and fear while we celebrated, but it was like a balloon in my throat.
Getting to that moment was an enormous achievement. But who knew what the future would hold? In fact, right now, who knows what it holds still? I have no idea what the future holds or how any of this will end up.
6 months later, we are still here, on crutches, in a swamp, making our way through, with mud on our face. While Australia has come through the pandemic quite well (so far), people forget that we are reliant on the rest of the world who are in 3rd and 4th waves of this pandemic. 99% of our customer base remains snared by COVID. Our costs have increased significantly, including shipping costs. Shipping routes are cancelled daily without notice which impacts our ability to get product to customers and stockists. Supply of materials is a constant juggle.
That said, we have a strong loyal customer base who are banging down our door for new pieces. We’re seeing new customers coming on board all the time. We’re signing new, thoughtfully selected, stockists around the world. Our payment plans have started flowing again. The sun is coming up.
Our accountant told us:
“The goal of every business for 2020 and 2021 is to survive. Just survive.”
I won’t lie and say that I’m not exhausted. That my dreams over the past couple of years haven’t been crushed. That I’m not scared. After all, even the best leaders feel fear. Or, that I haven’t contemplated giving up multiple times. But, I am also incredibly proud of our team who have continued facing the wind every day, working in chaos, in a situation where we cannot plan anything because the state of play changes daily and weekly.
They have said to me that the circumstances have forced them to think differently. To come up with new and innovative ideas that enable us to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. To re-think what we make and do, and why we make and do it.
I am also incredibly grateful to our loyal customers. Who’ve appreciated what we’ve been through to bring beautiful pieces to them in unprecedented circumstances. But the truth is, we’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting to continue to bring joy and beauty to children during one of the darkest periods in history.
We’re also fighting to continue changing the face of fashion – to have a more positive impact on all the communities that fashion touches – to create jobs and change outcomes for children in the future. This, ultimately, is what keeps us going.
We want to look back on 2020 and 2021 and say, “We made it and we’re better for it.” If that’s the greatest achievement over these two years, that will be remarkable enough for us. Because that will be a platform we can leap from to achieve big things.