Salute to the (retail) sun: How Dharma Bums co-founder Debbie Lawson is giving yoga wear an ethical edge

Salute to the (retail) sun: How Dharma Bums co-founder Debbie Lawson is giving yoga wear an ethical edge

Debbie Lawson has spent her career working in clothing retail. But it wasn’t until the now 45-year-old Sydneysider took a break from corporate life and trained as a yoga teacher that she got the urge to start her own business.

That business is Dharma Bums, an ethically produced yoga and active wear retail brand that is now available in 60 countries. Lawson founded Dharma Bums with business partner Mat Guthrie in November 2013 and just over 18 months later, the business employs five staff and is expected to make $4 million in revenue this year thanks to double digit month-on-month sales growth.

I come from a fashion background. I worked in buying and merchandising in the UK for companies including Arcadia and Tesco, where I managed the childrenswear division before moving to Australia. In Australia, I managed the menswear department for Big W.

I took a career sabbatical to think about what I wanted to do next and what direction I wanted my career to go in.

I took a few years off and trained as a yoga teacher before going back to the buying and merchandising industry as a consultant.

But I found the teachings of yoga did not align ethically with the way many of us buy and consume yoga and active wear clothing. I made a decision to try to buy more ethically but it was really difficult. So I thought I would start a company myself and I would make all the clothes ethically.

I co-founded Dharma Bums with my business partner Mat Guthrie.

It was just the two of us at the beginning; it was a bit frantic and we were doing everything ourselves. Now it is much easier.

We used our own funding. We started out with a very small range of between 8-10 designs. We wanted to test the waters.

We tried to avoid looking for external investors because we wanted to be able to shape the company in the direction we felt it needed to go.

We have been exceptionally lucky because now we can continue to fund the business ourselves. But we would never discount the opportunity to take on an investor, either for financial support or as a mentor if there was some expertise that was needed.

I had previous experience managing the financial aspects of a successful business, from managing budgets to maintaining margins. It was key for us to keep our overheads low so we could invest money back into the company.

The other thing we wanted to do from the get go was build a company with very good processes. Mat’s background is in IT and building systems and so he was able to build a system to do exactly what we wanted it to do, while also managing the complexity of both wholesale and retail.

We now retail our products in over 60 countries and have wholesale partners in 25 countries. We expect our wholesale numbers to double by the end of the year.

Dharma Bums products are available from yoga studios and in retail stores in Melbourne and Dubai.

There would definitely be merit to be had if we were to get the products into larger retailers. But we are focused on building and perfecting our range before we look to do that.

We are getting close to being able to provide someone with a complete active wear wardrobe. In the next four-to-six weeks our business lines will increase by 40%. It’s exciting.

Initially sales were all about the pants but we have seen a real uptick in sales of tops and sports bras, as well as our leggings.

Our online sales have been exceptionally strong and it has happened quite quickly. Online is much bigger than what we see from our retail stores in Australia.

Selling our products through yoga studios also helps get awareness out there and fuels word-of-mouth. We find that when a customer buys one thing, they return. We get so many return customers.

Exporting to other countries is exceptionally important and Europe and the US are areas of huge expansion for us. I have expertise working in the UK.

We will eventually launch into other markets ourselves with our own websites and distribution centres. That’s the next step.

We’re also a very social media-led company. It gives us immense exposure; Facebook and Instagram have helped create big awareness for the brand and that has been key internationally.

We’re now also working with a PR agency so we have added that arm. We want to work with magazines and more traditional forms of media, as well as continue to find innovative ways of getting exposure.

The active wear category is absolutely becoming more competitive. It is one of the few growing areas in retail fashion and everyone wants a piece of that pie. Even those that have not historically been in that pie want a piece.

The market is seeing lots of people move into it but it is also continuing to grow. We’re now seeing the emergence of casual, active wear being worn during the day.

Australia is leading many of the trends in active wear. The Australian market and the players in it are strong in terms of trends, applications and designs.

We try to set ourselves apart by focusing on making our prints as unique as possible. We update our prints frequently. Online sales especially depend on newness. We have to have new designs every few weeks to keep customers coming back.

We also make all of our products on-shore and we are very hands on with the production process. I have personally sat down with the makers as the clothes are sewn and tried on to make sure the fit is right. It’s really important.

We have an edge because we are so close to the production process.

The world is ever-changing. It’s important to have really good foundations. If the direction is clear, how you get there can change.

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