Episode 54: How local manufacturing became the foundation for inclusive fashion with Kerry Pietrobon of Harlow
Plus-size fashion, Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, local manufacturing, sustainability, ethical manufacturing, quality, patternmaking,
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Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Welcome to episode 54 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Today, I've got the absolute pleasure of talking to Kerry Pietrobon creative director and co-owner of the Harlow. As you might know, I wanted to invite some business owners onto the podcast and highlight some of the amazing work being done locally. And when I thought of who was doing a great job of inclusivity, Harlow came to mind. Harlow is a women's wear brand that caters to sizes 12 to 24. And in today's chat, Kerry generously shares her experiences of building the brand over 10 years, including an incredible achievement earlier this year, that reminded her why Harlow is so important to so many people. Kerry is so passionate about making style accessible to everyone, manufacturing locally, empowering women, not to mention also being obsessed with fit and quality, and that really comes through in today's chat. Please welcome the lovely Kerry Pietrobon.
Hello, Kerry. Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. How are you today?
Hi Belinda. I'm pretty good today. Nice to be here with you.
Thanks for taking the time to join me today. I wanted to get started with a little bit about you and what your background was before starting your beautiful brand, Harlow.
I came to fashion late, I went back to school when I was 29, I went and did a TAFE course certificate for clothing in industries, but I had always sewn for myself and manipulated patterns and all that sort of stuff. So I'd always had a love for fashion. I'm a trained pattern maker. So I worked in pattern making for a vertical retailer and production and then moved into product development and design when everyone was still making in Australia. So way back then. And then I moved, I was working for a development company and we made for many companies. We made for Sportsgirl, Witchery, Target, and all the bigger name brands. And they were still all made locally. So it's changed so quickly. That was early two thousand. And how that really changed was like, within seven years, everybody was offshore. So that's where I started. And I've worked as a buyer and like I said, mainly design and development was the last, probably seven years of my life working and working for other brands. But I also was the concept person behind the start of a belle curve, which was at one stage design labor into Myer for plus size, and then it got bought by Target. And now it's pretty much the old Moda.
That's amazing. Starting in the industry when everything was made in Australia, it must have changed so much now compared to when it was then.
It has dramatically. And I have to say that was probably one of the catalysts behind me wanting to make in Australia, I had loved having relationships with our manufacturers, with our buyers, with everybody along the line with our fabric people, loved having in-house pattern makers. Not that that necessarily changed when we made offshore, but having all that sort of relationship and knowing that you could touch the quality from the beginning to the end and know what you would end up with, and you could stop anything going awry if that's the right word, along the way like it didn't wait until it arrived on a container and go, “Oh dear, this is not quite what I wanted.” So there was the control that I really liked about that. And knowing that that's what I wanted. I wanted to be able to offer up a premium product and know that it was premium.
So that's the big thing that changed because being offshore even if we had the units to do it offshore, it's the fact that not knowing, there are good things about doing offshore because they have so much more fabric to choose from. There are so much more things that they can do offshore that we don't have skills for machinery in Australia. So there is the good part of it. But the part that I didn't like was having items arrive that weren't to the quality that I had anticipated, and I'm a control freak so I didn't like that. But also I wanted to just know that I could do that and look, making locally doesn't mean that there aren't quality issues. So there's sometimes when we receive fabric that we think we've sampled in bulk.
And then it arrives and you foolishly, because you run out of time, just to make it up and then find out that it pills more than you would like, it shrinks more than you would like there are still issues making locally. And that's usually from the raw materials that you get, because anything with the manufacturer can usually like I said, be pulled up as it goes along. It's not like, or it can be changed. You can actually ask them that, I don't like this and they'll change it for you before it gets delivered. So there's a lot more scope.
Issues still happen here or offshore, but I really wanted to keep it here and I wanted the people that worked for my brand to be an extension of my brand and they're more like family. So one of our manufacturers has been with us since year two and we helped them during the shit times of pandemic by still giving them small amounts of stuff. And they've helped us by making smaller units of stuff for us so that we can keep going. And there are actually friendships and relationships there with even my fabric suppliers. That's what I wanted. I wanted to feel like I was a part of something and I wanted it to be an extension of me.
Yes, to bring the human element into business. Because sometimes you think of it maybe as a business transaction and you forget that these are long-term partnerships that you are building particularly in fashion, there's a lot of trust from either side that you have to have to be able to execute everything really well. And just going back to your point about quality, I think that production phase and monitoring is maybe a part that some brands starting out could forget about. They get excited about doing the design and getting these spec sheets done. And they see the sample. It's really important to be able to control the production side of things as well and make sure there are no surprises.
You have the same relationship with overseas supplies as well. If you make that relationship and you're lucky enough to find those people and there's Zoom, we've all got much better at that. All that sort of thing. And for me, having the human element of fashion was really important because so often people, and I'm generalizing here, people forget that clothing is made by human beings. They think it's just, a machine makes it, I'm going to say that's exactly what it's, but it just arrives. They don't think about the actual human element behind that. And when we are talking about ethically made sustainably made and a price point, you can't have all those things and remember that they're humans on the other side because I've got some horror stories about how some production people would talk to offshore manufacturers, it's that was really important to me was to me and I think making locally reminds me every day that there's a human element.
Definitely. There's nothing more humbling than actually trying to sew your own clothes. So if anyone out there, wants to understand how skilled you have to manage a machine, maybe give sewing your own clothes a try.
This is probably a nice segue in a sense to talk about what the catalyst was for starting Harlow. You've obviously talked about the human element and being interested in really working and, and making partnerships with people in your business. But exactly what was the catalyst for starting the brand?
It was the biggest one was the fact that I wanted women like myself or humans like myself to feel good, not to have the struggle that I had, the feeling of unworthiness that I had when I couldn't find clothing A in my size, B that fit me and C that I liked, so I wanted to make a brand where people felt good when they went shopping. And as anybody that's above a size 12, it's gotten easier. It is definitely much better. But every time you walked into that shop by either not having your size or it not fitting you or being looked up and down by lots of “like, why are you here?” It just made you feel like you were unworthy and that there was something wrong with you.
And there is nothing wrong with any human being on this planet. We all deserve to be here and we all deserve to feel good. And so I just wanted to take that burden away from other women that I had had. And I was privileged in the sense that I could learn to sew my own clothes and be when I worked in the industry, I traveled offshore overseas and I could buy from other brands overseas to have clothes to wear. So in my mind it’s about making women feel good, really that's really my catalyst and I want to show them, even now with how I show up and the way that we try and do our social media based on our smaller budget is the fact that everybody deserves style. So it's not about your size, your age, sadly, there is something to do with your budget when you're talking about our brand, because of the fact that being ethically, sustainably and all that sort of stuff and made Australia, it is set at a certain price point that shows that fashion is for everybody. We shouldn't be singled out and society singles us out all the time and that's not just plus women, single out humans in different ways constantly.
But being a plus-size human really, I personally always felt like I shouldn't be seen. And the clothing that was shown to me was always the same sort of thing. And I didn't want other women to feel that way.
Amazing. That's such a good place to start from, wanting to help women and to be able to make them feel confident. And I know just as part of society, like there's so much conditioning that goes into, as you said, women and everyone, how they should look, how they should act, and all their behaviors. And I guess it's important as well, to note that clothing does have the power to make you feel confident and change your mood. And it's not so superficial all the time.
I see it sometimes as armour in a way, sometimes, especially when you're having, even more so when you're having a bad day, like you've woken up in the morning and you're like, “Oh God, today's gonna be tough.” And you put on your favorite piece and it fits and you feel good and you automatically stand taller and you feel better on through the day, it does bring confidence and clothing does have a way to change your mindset.
Absolutely. Now I have to say, you aren't in this business alone, you do have a partner as well, a partner in life as well, Angelo. So initially, how did you go about dividing up the running of the business? Like how did that all work?
That was pretty simple in some degrees because he didn't come from a fashion background, not that you would not know that now, right up to speed now. But the design was my area. Talking to the manufacturers was my area because that's the background I had. Angelo took over the logistics and the stock and he does our websites. He does all the HTML in the background. He does all the finance which is one of the hardest parts of the business, and more important than designing because you can design the nicest thing in the world. If you're not keeping your finances up to date, that's not really gonna help you. So it's a super important part of the business. And it allows me to not be so bogged down with that because sometimes when you know exactly what's going on, you can be thinking financially, like I shouldn't make that piece because of this and it's going to cost too much.
And there is the point that sometimes you need to cost it out and go that's not viable because I can't sell that at that price. And a customer, can't see the value in that. And you are maybe gonna sell four of those. You are being ridiculous. That's not how you keep a business going. You do need to still know that part, but the intricate day-to-day, runnings of not paying bills, which allow me to free my mind up to look at the design and stuff like that. So I do the social, design, sit on fits with our contract pattern maker, and probably a lot more stuff that I can't even remember and all the newsletters, all that sort of stuff.
I style our photo shoots, Angelo is now our photographer as well. So he's taken that up on the last four years. And it's been so freeing for us because it means we can shoot more often. And also budgetary-wise, it's just brought the price right down. We have a studio built into our warehouse, so he does that as well. So that was easy because of that respect, we weren't fighting over design or those parts, it just makes what do you, what's your skill? What's my skill set? And we split it up. Now we share things sometimes like we have a person that comes in and picks amd packs two days a week. But in between, if we feel like we've got a bunch of orders and we need to do things or somebody's unwell actually there's one day a week when we only leave one day between our things, we'll both pitch in and one of us will do the sale orders.
I do customer service as well. So it was just lucky for us. It was pretty organic. And then we still come together every morning and have a really quick meeting about what we’ve got on that day and bigger things we just discuss through. So theres things that we do together, we don't do something without talking to the other, but the other thing is we have roles and they don't overlap.
Who usually wins in those discussions around price and design?
It's probably both ways. It's a bit of both because the point is when I'm speaking it out loud sometimes to him, it makes me realize that that's not feasible. So I technically have still won because by talking to him and him explaining to me that it's best if we don't go down there unless I really believe in it. Like, if you really think we can do that, that's fine. But he talks me through to the fact that “No, no, no, this is the best decision to not do this.” And then it saves me all that angst later on with having stock leftover or I wish I'd use that money for something else. So nobody really loses. In the big scheme of things. It may not be what you think you want at the time. It's like, “But I really love that dress”. Later on even six months later, you might go so well. We didn't do that.
That's so true. And maybe just staying on cost as well. I know that this is a question I've wanted to ask for ages like many retailers often say, “Oh, it's really more expensive to do inclusive size ranges because the cost of sampling and production is so much more for larger sizes.” What's your view on that? Has that been your experience?
So my view on that is if you are just doing a plus size range, right? So if you're just doing like we do 12 to 24, it's no more expensive. But if you are trying to do sizes, let's just start at eight
and go all the way to 24, if you wanna do It right, it is much more expensive because technically it's two sets of patterns, two sets of fits, you're doing two garments. If you wanna do it properly, you cannot grade from a size 10 or even a 16 down to a six and then up to a 24. So when we do a size 16 we grade down to a 12 and we grade up to a 24. So there are some things that we know we can't grade just grade up to a 20 like we do a 24, 26.
But we can't go up to a 26. So we won't ,or we look at it differently. And then the grade changes. We don't actually refit that. And we take a chance on that 26 and we'll only make a few and then we'll tweak it each time. If that makes sense. Because if a brand wants to do from size 8, all the way to 24, they can't do one pattern. There need to be two lots of patterns. It needs to be graded differently for the smaller sizes because our arm holds changes, and our shoulders don't grow as much as the rest of our bodies do as we grow larger. Because our frame is relatively the same. I mean, we get extra padding here, but it's not the same as it does around our waist and around our thighs and around our hips, we don't grow taller by that much.
So brands, if they wanna do it properly, it actually is, maybe not twice as expensive, but it's like it's at least one and a half to one and a two thirds. Because yes, you've already done the development for the fabric and all that sort of stuff can be used between. And you've started with one pattern, that's the size in the smaller size. And then you've only going to tweak it for the next one. So the pattern making isn't as much, but you need to fit. It's a lot harder I think than people realize. So I think we shouldn't be so hard, but the hard part comes from customers because they areso tired of missing out. And so they go, but why, and if they're a big brand, they should be able to do things like that. Like the Targets should be able to do brands all the way through because they would've done a separate plus size brand. Anyway, let's bring them together and the price becomes a little bit cheaper, but as a rule, the short answer which I've gone on about is more expensive. It really is.
And I think t that is kind of a bit of frustration from people when they'll ask brands to be like, “Well, why can't you go up in, in larger sizes?” And then I guess when the brands might respond and say, “Well, it's more, it is more expensive.” I guess there's a bit of backlash from the customer too sometimes for not sort of including them.
And I think also often some people don't go into the thing about the development side. They'll just go, “Oh, it takes more fabric now.” and it does and it 100% does right. Take more fabric. But that's not where your biggest cost is. It's the development. So I think that when they go more fabric, it's just like at 6 and a 14. So when you are coming back as a customer, you’re like, “there's always more fabric.”
And I think the biggest backlash has been for brands that have a different price point for up to a 16 and then they'll put a different price point for plus size because they go, “It takes more fabric.” But if you want that customer you should be amortising that across the whole board and everybody should be paying the same price.
Absolutely. I think it evens out across the breadth of the size range. And then I guess maybe going back to an earlier point about society and the rules that people put on women and people who identify as women, I feel like there are a lot of rules around women's wear and style dos and don'ts and how do you sort of consider that when you're putting together a collection, do you stick within those rules or do you throw the rule book out or how do you approach it?
So Harlow is at it’s core and is pretty much me. So what I mean by that is I have a simple, not sophisticated, more minimalistic approach to dressing, but I like things to stand out. Like, I love a bit of leather. I love a bit of sequins. I love a bit of animal frame, she's got like, “We dress for her in a rock chick.” So that's how we sort of do it. So when I design, I don't design and say, “Oh, we can't do that because that's showing too much leg.” It's more like I would never do a mini dress because it's not what I would wear. So it would never happen. So it's not because it's not what you shouldn't wear. It's just like, it's not my aesthetic.
When I design, the only thing we tend to do that's different in that respect is we are lucky enough that three people, our fit model, myself, and my pattern maker all similar, we all wear the same size. We've got slightly different measurements. One's a lot taller. I'm the shortest one, our bodies are different. I'm all back. One of is all front. Somebody doesn't have a bottom. Somebody's got that. So what happens is we fit the garment on the fit model first. So I and the pattern maker can really see the big picture first. And then afterward, when we are making the changes, we will pop it on me and we will pop it on Kerry, our pattern maker. So it just happens to be confusing that we're both named Kerry and we'll make sure that the changes we've made will allow us to wear it as well.
So we don't fit into one body type or shape. We try and fit as many bodies when we make tweaks because everybody is different. Even if somebody had the same measurements exactly. As our fit model, if they have a different posture, the garment will fit differently. So there are so many things that can go that are different. So that's probably the design process. I don't think of anything except for the fact that will that be uncomfortable or not uncomfortable?, not uncomfortable, will that fit allow us to fit two different kinds of body shapes? And then I might go, “Okay, so we're not gonna do that slim line dress unless it's got some stretch in it,” because at least that way if somebody's a bit more pair or a bit more, whatever, we can. So design features come in that respect but I've already come up with an idea of what I want so often like we've got a tie front dress coming in this summer and that's about, “that will allow different busts.”
We have elastic in the back of our empire line so that it still fits somebody, let’s say, we're doing between a size 14 to a 16, and our small, the 14, the elastic will be tighter on us. So it will still give her a nice fit. But the 16 or the little bit to the side will stretch out the elastic and still give her a nice fit. It's not gonna look too big on one and not. So we do look at that when we design. When I design it's really all about fitat the end of the day. So it looks first. And then it goes into the fit it’s part of the design process. You can't separate them. You just can't.
And we used to make only when we're a lot smaller and it was just pretty me much me behind, it was just me and because Angelo had a day job. We used to do a lot more, just stretch and we've moved into non-stretch, as we learn all the team together, we are working out ways how to fit more bodies. We do buttons in certain places. We do all that sort of stuff. So that it doesn't mean that you're just stuck with stretch if that's not what you wanna wear.
It's so clever. I think because the design's one part of it, being able to execute it and almost engineer the garment to make it do what it needs to do is a whole other side of the process as well. Isn't it?
Even height, like, “What height do you fit for?” Like, there's all of that sort of stuff. It's knowing generalization. And for a long time, we just went by, I went by the gut, and then finally we did a survey to find out what our customers, how tall they were. And we found out that they were between 165 and 170. So that's what we fit for now. So we don't try to miss out anybody that's taller than 170, but we don't have that in front of mind because otherwise if you go for longer, it's actually gonna, 80% of our customers are gonna have to shorten it. So we have to go with the majority, but we do try and put sometimes bigger hems so somebody can let it down. I try, there's very rarely do we have special things on the bottom of our pants, but there are a few because we know that then if you wanna shorten it, it's a lot harder. It's not an easy shorten. So the design execution is definitely part of the fit and the pattern making is part of it. And we try to make things as easy to get on and off as possible as well.
It's so important. And even just that little tip there where you talked about, considering what's on the hem of your pants and allowing an extra sort of length to be able to take them down. I mean, that's a really simple way to promote sustainability in a sense, because you're allowing that garment to be worn by different people, particularly if it's not one owner if it goes onto another owner and they need to let it down, what are some of the other ways that you kind of approach sustainability and ethics within your business? I mean, you've already talked about local manufacturing.
So ethics is probably just the biggest thing that comes down and it comes down to the way I try and live my life. I don't get it always right. It’s just treating others how you wanna be treated. So that comes from whether they're putting the studs on buttons or delivering the post or like our postman also is like, we all know his name, all that sort of stuff. So ethics for me is about everybody that touches our garment. And it also works with how, when customers come to us with a complaint it's like listening and customer is usually always right. And even if they're not right, is it a fight worth having because the fight then just annoys you and you're better off to just sort it, do it, go on and move on.
So there's about the way you deal with everything is our ethics. We try and use natural fibers where we can, and that's been a big shift in the last five years. I say, we used to use a lot more polyester spandex, and we've gone to like linens and cotton and we do use rayons and viscose, but they're still better for the environment than polyester is. And also we pre-shrink everything. So we make sure that we finish the garment, we wash it. So when the customer gets it, it won't shrink after they've washed it. So they know that it's being pre-shrunk. So sustainability, we just try and use, we don't know where our fabrics come from. I'll be honest. It's a minefield out there. I know where it's come from, but I don't know the yarn, I don't know any of that.
That's not where we are in, and it's not a thing that you get unless you specifically go to certain manufacturers or mills, and then you are very limited by what you can use. So I asked the question, and I have to go with the fact that the answer is, yes, it was ethically made. But if somebody said to me, “Oh, you don't know a hundred percent.” I say, “Yeah, you're right.” I don't, but I try and do the right thing where I can. So we work with agents and sometimes we work with people here. We try and do everything as sustainably as we can. We reuse our plastic bags. we do put our garments and plastic bags because otherwise, especially with Rayon or Viscose it slips everywhere.
And you end up with this mess when you're sending it out to customers. So when we take them out, we reuse them until they're falling apart. So we don't use one bag and throw it away. We constantly reuse. Like we have cardboard boxes where we keep our stock and we've had some of those card box boxes that have been with us for 10 years, it's not plastic. It doesn't get thrown away. We bought them from a place that's already been made. Some of them are secondhand. It's really small ways we try not to make an impact on our business because at the end of the day we're fashion, so we only make what we think we're gonna sell, which is why we often sell out the last two years have thrown that out a little bit in the water, but as a rule, we pretty much always sell out. And that means that we know we're making the right amount and then we're not left with garments that aren't being sold.
We make quality so that you're supposed to have that garment in your wardrobe for five years, 10 maybe, or hopefully it goes to the op shop where it gets passed on. We even have one of our customers start up a by-sell, swap page for Harlow. So we will talk about that. So people can do that and resell it. So we believe that our garments should be worn over and over again. And that's why we make them the quality that we want. And we try in our messaging we often show lots of different ways to style it so that you can wear it from work to the weekend to going out. So you don't have a garment just for work. You don't have a garment just for going out. You actually make you, you've got less, but you're using it more. So just in our messaging, we have a lot of that outside of our stuff. We just try in every small way to keep it as sustainable and ethical as we can.
I think that's an important point to know and people often think, “Oh, it's sustainable.” It has to have this certification and has to be this fabrication. But quality plays such a big role in that. And like we said, the execution of the garment to make sure it fits properly and it does what it needs to do. So there are a lot of things that need to come together to make it sustainable.
Where you touched on that is in the pattern making. I did forget about that bit in the pattern making we try and utilize as much fabric. So when it gets laid, we don't have a lot of fabric left over. There's not a lot of wastage and our major manufacturer keeps all small offcuts and they all go to, I've forgotten what the company name is now, but it's a place that makes the speed bags.
I think I saw that on Instagram.
And they give it to them and that’s what they do. So it has another life. It doesn't even go into a landfill.
And we're actually working with not quite launched knitwear manufacturer fingers cross will be able to do fully fashioned knits in Australia, which then becomes zero wastage because there's only the tiny little bit that gets left at the bottom of the machine, which is about this much that's wasted and everything else is just made and they can make an order too. We are moving towards thinking about next year, doing some pre-orders so that we make only what is needed and then you quantify maybe 10 extra pieces afterward so that we actually try and minimize what's going out to the world. Because it's not even about the cost that it is to us. It's just the fact that we don't want to add to what's going on out there.
Exactly. And I guess, you would get a better read on where the customer's at too would help you to get more accurate in that process as well. We've touched on quality a little bit, and that's the core part of your pieces, but I guess we'll move on to another question that I guess people might be interested in you to answer because you've had such an extensive career in fashion, working for other brands and businesses before starting Harlow, people might assume that you maybe had a little bit of a head start. Had a bit more experience to avoid some of the pitfalls, but does that feel like that to you? What have been some of the biggest challenges so far?
I'm gonna say yes and no, there's a yes, there are advantages and there are no, disadvantages for me, would've been the first time when we started me thinking that making a hundred units or something was small because I'd be making 5,000 and that's not small when you're starting out. So that would've been our biggest thing. So our first year we had stock left over and lucky we were small, but there are things that you think you know, and so you think, “Oh, but I'm going much smaller.” So you think, “Well, it's a no-brainer because you have that experience.” So yes, there is experience, but most of my experience was in wholesale. So we are retail. We used to wholesale a little bit, but we don't anymore.
We're just direct to the customer. So what I had was, yes, I knew how to put a garment together. I was a pattern maker. I was involved in production. I had made locally before. So I had all of that experience. 100% I had a head start in that respect. So I would say, yes, but I wouldn't be starting a business on my own before I've worked for somebody else. That would be my number one advice to anybody thinking about starting a brand would be, unless you've got a big follower, unless you were an influencer that started something, or you were a sports person, or there was something where you had people that were already coming to you, and you had money to pay for that experience.
So you can get the experience I had. If you have a good chunk of money to start your business, then you can buy that experience. So you bring that in by paying for it. So that would put somebody in the same par as me if they could pay for that experience. I would just say, I wouldn't have ever started a business without having some, not in fashion without having some experience. There's so much to learn. And I had 15 years' experience before I started. And there was still so much for me to learn.
What's been one of the biggest challenges? What's one thing that you just thought, “Wow, that's something I didn't expect.” Like, even though I know all this and have all this experience, what's the one thing that you've gone? “Oh, that's a surprise.”
I'd say that having customers are probably the biggest thing. And I think that's because we're online only. So we don't have a store that people can walk past. And I would say that nothing's probably been a surprise. Look, it hasn't been a surprise as in because when I think about it now well, I should have known. But just how much working cogs there are in a business to keep it going from social media to newsletters, to pattern making, to ordering fabric, all that sort of stuff? It's a lot.
it's a lot. And maybe working for other people, you often don't get the side of like, you don't get it insight into the financials. You might be reading a sales report. As a buyer, you said you would've been on top of the financials from a certain point of view, but marketing took over the other aspect of that and there are other areas, logistics, and departments that look after everything. So there are a lot of cogs.
But one of the most exciting things recently is that Harlow participated in a dedicated plus-size runway as part of after pay Australian fashion week in May this year. And I was so thrilled to see a brand included in the lineup, but what was that like? How did it feel to be a part of that?
It was amazing. And I would say it was amazing for me as a woman above a size 12 first and foremost, even if I didn't take my brain into consideration of seeing people that looked like me, walk the runway, being celebrated for walking the runway for not being hidden. Being celebrated for their beauty. And then second for me, even with not having my brand in there is that there are six brands on there that I could now shop from. It's changing. Things are changing. So for me, that was the first and foremost, I was surprised at how much emotion came up from that. Like how, and it really helped with me, I think after the last couple of years it's been quite tough. It was like, “This is why I like it reminded me again, this is why I do this.”
This is why we do this. It's because this matters, it actually really matters. And then second of all, seeing my items as part of Australian fashion week is just, I never thought we would walk a runway that big, and being chosen by Chelsea Bonner of Bella Management who chose us when there are other brands to choose and she thought that we were up there and I keep saying, “Well, why did she go, why would I not choose you?”
I think so many of us are like, we're just doing the things. And that was what was good about that day, it allowed us to stop. We're just constantly doing the next thing. And it was like, “You could actually stop and go, yes, this is why we do this. It's worth it. And we need to keep going. So it was magic. It was magic to see my brand and also just see women on the runway and well, humans and in the audience and people were so excited to be there. So excited to be there and see a reflection of themselves on the runway and not be hidden. There were up to size 22 walking that runway, if not 24. And we've been lucky in the past, if we've seen a country road size 14, walk the runway. There's nothing wrong with that either because if the brand works towards those sizings, they need to reflect their customer walking down the runway. Whereas my customer needs to see themselves reflected walking down the runway. So it was good professionally to see our stuff. But personally, this is so good for everybody involved.
Absolutely. And you've been in business for 10 years now. I read that you started in 2012, so rounding out 10 years. What an absolute kind of point to celebrate, having that chance to walk the runway in that way.
It was magic. We have a very small team of staff that are all part-timers, nobody works full time. And all three of them flew themselves up to walk down the runway.
After the last two years, it was like, “I would love to fly you up but sadly.” They were like, “No if you can give me a ticket, we'll come.” And they wanted to be there. And that just reiterated, not just for us as Harlow that we have the right team that all together, all five of us made the right team because it's not me. It's not Angelo. It's all of us together that have made a team that wants to be there, which is I'm sure you're the same working in the fashion industry. There are a lot of times that I used to cry myself home.
So that's nice to know. There were so many amazing things about that. It was just so many amazing things. What was really good also I think for Angelo as well, was that so many people were mentioning even him like he wasn't being forgotten. Because often he gets forgotten because he's not the, I mean I'm out there and I'm the face and he's just as important in this business as I am.
Absolutely. I couldn't agree more and so I guess that's probably one of the proudest moments that you've had recently. Is there something else that you are most proud of as well in terms of Harlow?
I think I'm proud every day or time we get a review. Anytime somebody takes the time to write an email to us. It is just an email. Sometimes you think of it’s only an email but it’s not, how many times have you thought I should just say hello to somebody, but you don't send an email, you get an email telling you, they're so thankful that you exist all that. So every day we are proud and I am proud, but it's more a fact that I'm just so touched that we have such an amazing community. It's because they care that we exist and they would be sad if we didn't. That's important. I think sometimes we forget, I'm sure you're the same. We're very bad at celebrating the small wins on the way through. But every now and again, I shut the studio door as we leave and I go, “This is all us.” I remember what it was like when we first started.
This is our business. I try when I can. I'm not very good. As most people, we forget to look at the small things, but knowing that we can change the way that women live just by making the right skirt for them is important.
Exactly. And there are plenty of brands out there that could maybe not exist and not as many people would care about it. But to know that your customers are so invested in your whole story and journey and are right there with you is like wanting to celebrate an amazing feeling. And so I wanted to bring on some business owners to the podcast to talk about sustainability and ethics. And to highlight people who are walking the same path, as a lot of other people who own their businesses in the fashion industry, what would be the one piece of advice you've got for business owners in the early stages of their label? So either maybe starting out or a year or two in.
Okay. So my first one is to work for somebody else. We've already talked about that. My second one is to go slow and test. So what I mean by that is if you can, when you are starting out unless you're an influencer, you've done something else or you've worked a lot on people being invested in your brand, coming out. If you can get away with making 10 pieces and selling out, figure out what somebody's buying, buy, and keep your stock levels down to a minimum so that cash flow will allow you to make the next thing and move on as quickly as you can mentally from a mistake. And what I mean by that, it could be any mistake, but it could be what we call a “dog” in the industry where it is like you thought it was great. You thought it was gonna be awesome. And only three people bought it.
It's like, “What are you gonna do about it?” Get it out of your warehouse as quickly as possible so that you can let that go. So for us, there have been different things where thankfully nothing's ever only just sold three things, but things about, you discount is number one, then we've also donated, we do things like that as well. Get over your issues as quickly as you can, but learn from them. And the testing is as you put out a new style, if they love that and bought that really quickly, then you need to do that again. If it was a dog, don't do that again. Learn constantly as you're going through and don't necessarily have to reinvent the wheel every time you go if something's working well, put a new bumper bar on it, do it in another fabric, but also then don't stay with it too long.
Because we know that a winner can turn into a dog very quickly once you've done it for the fifth time. What I'm just saying is listening to your customer is my biggest thing. And that's by seeing what they buy, what they comment on your socials, probably not your socials so much because lots of people comment and don't buy. So it's what they've bought. The reviews you get, listen and learn from everything you've done, but go as slow as you can. Don't be in a rush to make hundreds of units. you're better off making 20 units at a time, 10 or 20 units at a time. And that taking two years and you are getting to a hundred units, then starting with a hundred units, starting with a lot of stock and being, gat the same place in two years time. So you're gonna get to the same sport anyway, but it's gonna be a lot less angst and you're gonna be able to listen. So just take it as slow as you can.
Such good advice.
Wish I had it.
I think I came at it a little bit like you, when I resonated earlier, when you were talking about, I'm only gonna make a hundred pieces, that's not a lot. I've been booking quantities of 2000 units or a thousand units, a hundred units is not that big and it is, it's a lot.
It's a lot.
So what's next for Harlow? I know that you might have book-ended, in a sense the last 10 years with that amazing runway, but what do you envisage as being next for Harlow?
I think we're pretty much keep doing the same thing, but we are listening more to our customers. So we're taking a little bit back more to our roots and that's sort of come through in this last collection because we drop constantly. It's not so much a collection, but more back to our rock chick roots with a bit more, we haven't done pleather in a while. We haven't done sequins and stuff. So we are bringing it back to that with a little bit of that aesthetic, but we're going to bring our brand down to a smaller offer and make it special. So we made a lot of t-shirts and stuff like that. And that was really great for a while. But we're finding that now, there are other brands coming along now that are doing those things really well.
So we decided the last probably three months that we're walking away from denim bottoms because to make it locally, we've always had to short margin. Unless we wanted to charge more, always had to short margin, and change your pattern every time because you can't get the same fabric constantly. It's a lot of work. A lot of it doesn't always turn out right, because the fabric changes. And we are not denim experts and at one stage there was nobody else making denim, very few. So we've decided to stop doing that, but I'm gonna start looking out and look at what denim's available and start spruiking that denim and putting it with our stuff and talking about this brand that goes to those sizes. And so we're not letting our customers down who said they still want denim. We'll show them where they can get it from rather than giving it, trying to be everything to everybody. Other people are starting to do other areas, we can actually come back to what we're really good at and what they need and tell them about other places where they're needing. Not everybody has to be everything to everybody. So that's our biggest change over the next 12 months that is coming around.
I think we haven't quite talked about it yet, but I think we're gonna do something to celebrate our 10 years. So we went live online. We launched in March 2013. So it'll be March next year. It would be 10 years since we launched. So we'll probably do something and we're just trying to do more of the same, better. And by coming down I can start doing things like more styling videos which our customers adore. I would never have thought about wearing that top with this or this, or this, with that. So it gives them more value for money as well. They realize that yes, our pants might be 229, but if I roll them like that, I can wear them to the football, I can do this, I can do that. And I can see why I could wear them. So it's about educating our customers about using their pieces in a maximum way. So that's probably what we've got going forward. And just to be here. The last couple of years has been tough.
Just to stick around would be good. It's been an absolute pleasure Kerry, to be able to catch up with you today. It's been ages since you and I worked in the industry. It feels like eons ago. I've always watched your brand from the side and it's been such an inspiration to see you stick to your guns with local manufacturing. Now to be a part of fashion week. And just to see the impact that you are having with your customers is just a real, joy to watch from the sidelines. So thank you.
It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
Where can the listeners connect with you and find your beautiful brand?
So we're online only. We are direct to customers and you can find us at harlowstore.com. We are on Instagram, @Harlow_AU, and on Facebook, Harlow Australia. So we're on TikTok, but we're not really.
Everyone's trying it. It's another thing.
I don’t know if I wanna be there, but I'm trying it out.
Awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time, Kerry. I'm sure the listeners have loved hearing about your brand's journey and gotten so much inspiration and knowledge out of today's chat.
No worries. Thanks, Belinda.
Thanks, Kerry. Bye.
Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch head over to belindahumphrey.com or you can find me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.