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I bought a global fashion brand and 6 months later the COVID pandemic hit…

March 27, 2021 · Life Style

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:

  1. 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
  2. We have a global market which means that Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere shopping could bounce off each other
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Comment (1)

  1. Kris Lewin

    Absolutely fantastic read. Credit to the entire Stella.Phoenix team. The resilience & pure grit to keep momentum through the pandemic.

    Reply

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Purchasing and Returns Info

By providing your email address during the order process you are consenting to us contacting you about your order. This includes updating you on the progress of your order, contacting to resolve issues with your order or following up with you if your order is incomplete.

Please choose your purchases carefully as Stella Phoenix does not accept returns or issue refunds for change of mind, natural wear and tear or incorrect sizing. 

We provide a comprehensive size chart on our website to help you choose the correct sizing. Please refer to our size chart prior to making a purchase as we are unable to exchange sizes due to limited stock availability.

Stella Phoenix takes reasonable steps to ensure that the products we supply correspond closely to the samples and images on our website, social media and in our lookbooks. Due to variations in production runs, computer monitors, device screens, printing colour differences and natural imperfections in fabrics (especially natural fibres) there may be slight variations in colour, embellishment, pattern or construction from time to time. Stella Phoenix is not liable for these differences and will not accept returns on this basis.

Stella Phoenix has stringent quality control processes to ensure the quality of our products, including two separate quality control checks. It’s therefore highly unlikely for a customer to receive a faulty product. It is your responsibility to check the product immediately upon delivery, but in any case within at least 30 days, and advise us of any faults or damage so that we can resolve the issue for you. 

If you have received a Product with a fault, damage or defect, please contact us immediately at [email protected] and provide evidence of the fault, damage or defect along with proof of purchase.

The faulty Product must be returned to us prior to us processing your exchange or refund. 

To return the Product to us, please arrange to post the Product to us by registered post so that the Product can be tracked. In the event the Product is deemed to be faulty, damaged or defective, we will refund your return postage costs, so please keep your receipts. We won’t refund return postage costs of products that aren’t faulty, damaged or defective.

If the Product is confirmed to have a major fault, we will repair (if possible), exchange or provide a refund for the Product to your original payment method, as elected by you. 

If the Product has a minor fault, we will offer a store credit if a replacement is not available due to stock limitations or a full refund at our discretion.

Please allow up to 10 days for the refund or exchange to be processed.

Nothing in this clause is intended to exclude any of your statutory rights as a consumer under Australian Consumer Law.

While it is always our aim to minimise impact to customers, given the unprecedented impact of Coronavirus, there have been some temporary service interruptions to our business (like with many other businesses).

Stella Phoenix has stringent quality control and safety practices to keep our staff, contractors and customers as safe as possible. COVID-19 has affected our business in a number of ways, including fabric shortages, supply chain issues, limitations on business activities such as photoshoots, participation in fashion shows and other events, manufacturing and also worldwide shipping delays and
cancellations. COVID-19 has caused a global reduction in flights. Subsequently, all locations are likely to have shipping delays, including express post in Australia. We ask customers to factor in potential delays when they place their order and to understand we cannot guarantee usual shipping times.

Despite the significant increase in shipping costs, we will continue to cover shipping on full priced statement pieces over AUD$129 as an ordinary part of shopping with us. Please note this policy is subject to change.

We thank all of our customers for their continued understanding and support while we do our best to continue to serve you during this time while managing a fluid and often ambiguous global climate.

Made-to-order is the future of fashion. Ethical and sustainable fashion is good for humanity, the environment, local jobs and our global communities. In line with these values, Stella Phoenix is now only releasing items for purchase via made-to-order whereby a customer submits their order and payment, and Stella Phoenix will subsequently make the ordered item/s. Stella Phoenix will provide an estimated timeframe for your items to be manufactured [which is currently 10 business days from the date we receive your order] and shipped, however we cannot guarantee manufacturing or shipping timeframes and have no liability for such delays. Please note: an order is not considered received until we have confirmed it via email and received payment. We may, from time to time, release samples, or other ready made items, at our discretion, where it doesn’t compromise our values.

All garments have a care label and care instructions are also available on our website. Customers are responsible for following the care instructions correctly. Stella Phoenix will not accept return of items where damage has occurred due to incorrect cleaning or care.

Australia

Stella Phoenix generously provides free express shipping on all orders delivered within Australia totalling more than AUD $129. For orders totalling less than this amount, a flat rate of $10 will apply for express postage.

International

Stella Phoenix generously provides free standard shipping on USA and Rest of World orders totalling more than AUD $129. 

For orders totalling less than this amount, the following flat rates will apply for standard postage:

NZ: AUD $15

Asia, USA and Canada: AUD $15

Rest of World: AUD $25

Stella Phoenix uses third party courier companies and mail carriers to deliver customer orders. Each company has their own terms, conditions and processes which are outside of our control. Parcels are delivered according to the terms and conditions of the selected courier or carrier. Stella Phoenix is only responsible for your parcel up until the point it leaves our physical care. All risk in the Product shall pass to you upon delivery.

It is your responsibility to take care when opening the Product or packaging so as not to damage it. From the time when risk passes to you, we will not be liable for loss or damage to the Product except as otherwise provided below.

A person must be available at the specified shipping address to sign for delivery. If the courier company allows, you may grant them authority to leave the Product at a designated area (for example, at the front door) when placing your order. If you do, you understand and agree that this authority gives us and/or our couriers permission to leave the Product unattended at the place specified by you without obtaining a signature confirming delivery. In such circumstances, you understand and agree that by granting authority to leave the Products, we and our couriers are released of all responsibility and liability for the Products delivered and left unattended, and that this responsibility and liability transfers to you upon delivery.

Customers will receive an email confirming who is managing the delivery of their order, along with a tracking number. If your parcel does not arrive as expected, your first port of call is to contact the courier company or mail carrier, quoting your tracking number. If unresolved to your satisfaction, please make contact with us as a second step.

Stella Phoenix is not liable for delays or failure in delivery for circumstances that are outside our reasonable control (including third party policies and processes). For example, error or omission by courier companies/mail carriers or customs/importation processes. We are also not liable for delivery issues associated with limited access to the property or inaccurate/incomplete contact/address information provided by customers.

Delivery timeframes:

Delivery timeframes are approximate and provided as a guide only. Actual delivery times will depend on the courier service and your location.

We estimate our orders will be made in 10 business days from the date we receive your order. It will be packed and shipped by us within 1-2 business days of receiving the finished item/s from our sewing team.

Australia

We use Express post. Once shipped, please allow 1-3 days for Australia Post to deliver your order.

Rest of World

International deliveries will be sent via DHL and may take 7-14 business days depending on where you are located.

We recommend our customers make adequate time allowances for shipping delays when ordering to avoid disappointment. If your order is urgent, please email us at [email protected] prior to ordering.

The order price does not include or cover any applicable importation charges, taxes and duties for customers in the country where the order is to be delivered. The customer is responsible for such taxes and duties. Stella Phoenix has no control over customs or importation processes specific to each destination. We are not liable for customs delays or non-delivery of items due to customs policies and processes.

We reserve the right to refuse any order placed with us for any reason, at our sole discretion.
Only approved Stella Phoenix wholesalers are permitted to wholesale our product.
All orders placed with Stella Phoenix are for domestic use and products must not be resold unless previously organised.

Any retailer interested in wholesaling Stella Phoenix pieces is required to fill out a Wholesale Application Form.

Approved retailers will be required to sign a Stella Phoenix Wholesale Agreement. All terms and conditions pertaining to our wholesale relationship will be as per this agreement.

Please note that minimum order amounts apply and product must be paid for upfront. Stella Phoenix does not wholesale on consignment. For drop shipping arrangements, product must be paid for upfront and a quarterly warehousing management fee applies.

If retailers wish to avoid this fee, it is recommended they ship the product upon purchase and manage their own warehousing.

Stella Phoenix may decline a Wholesale Application, for any reason, at our discretion. We reserve the right to revoke our Wholesale Agreement at any time, for any reason.

This contract is governed by the laws of Queensland, Australia and the Commonwealth of Australia and such other laws which are applicable in the country where the consumer is resident.

Stella Phoenix puts a lot of effort into providing a personalised service to our customers. If you have any questions or feedback please email us at [email protected] as we love hearing from you.

Please also email us if you have a complaint. We will endeavour to respond to your complaint within 5 business days of acknowledging our receipt of it. If you submit a complaint and do not receive a written acknowledgement, please contact us again to double check it has been received.

We pride ourselves on the quality of our customer service and will make every reasonable attempt to resolve a problem or complaint to the mutual satisfaction of all parties.

In the event that you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your complaint, you may refer the complaint to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

From 2019 onwards, all new Stella Phoenix pieces come with a certificate of authenticity. Each certificate will have a tracking number and other security features to prevent certificate fraud. If you receive your new item without a certificate of authenticity, or you suspect you’ve received a fraudulent item and certificate, please email us immediately at [email protected]

Please note that any suspected copy or fraud of our products, certificates, branding or IP will be referred to law enforcement agencies and vigorously pursued.

Please ensure you keep your certificate safe. If you decide to apply to ‘sell back’ your items in our pre-loved program, you will be required to provide it.

Stella Phoenix may choose to offer samples for sale at a discounted price. These items may have been worn and may also have minor faults or defects. The known faults or defects will be disclosed to the customer prior to purchase, however the customer accepts that there may be other faults or defects unknown to us. The customer purchases the product knowing it may not present or perform to the standard of a new, full priced garment. Stella Phoenix is not liable for the faults and defects on sample items and will not accept returns.

Please note that any third-party website or platform advertising discount codes for Stella Phoenix are not authorised by us, nor will be honoured.

Stella Phoenix cares first and foremost about the safety and wellbeing of our little customers. We therefore have stringent safety practices that we implement in our design. Our pieces undergo stringent quality control before being shipped to customers. This safety warning is a friendly reminder for parents, guardians and supervising adults.

Our pieces may contain small parts, including but not limited to sewn-in buttons, removable buttons, studs, sequins, beads, appliqués and other embellishments that may present a choking hazard to babies and small children.

Stella Phoenix Gift Certificates are valid for a period of 3 years and expire either on the expiration date as specified on the certificate, or in the case that the company ceases to trade or goes into liquidation.

Gift Certificates are not transferrable for cash, must be spent before the expiration date and are non refundable.

The Gift Recipient is non transferrable.

In instances where the purchase total is less than the Gift Certificate amount, no change will be given.

To redeem a Gift Certificate, customers must use the unique one time code on their certificate at the check out. Gift Certificates cannot be used in conjunction with any other offers or discounts.

In instances whereby Stella Phoenix suspects Gift Certificate fraud, the order will not be honoured, at our discretion.

If a customer submits a PayPal claim (or other third party payment provider claim) for a refund and that refund is awarded by PayPal or the other third party, the customer has 7 days to return the relevant item/s to Stella Phoenix at their own expense.

If the item is not returned within the specified timeframe, is lost or otherwise not received, without valid reason, Stella Phoenix will vigorously pursue criminal charges with law enforcement for stolen goods at our sole discretion.