In the midst of Melbourne’s months-long lockdown of 2020, entrepreneur Kate Dillon was just one of many small business owners who feared for her livelihood.
But, as she saw the community rallying around local stores, she had the spark of an idea that would ultimately lead to a whole new range of products, in a whole new sector, and with a whole new mission.
Some 12 months later she’s launched a range of sweaters designed, produced and created locally, with 22 small businesses forming an end-to-end, all-Australian supply chain.
Sporting the slogans: ‘Actually, I can’ and ‘Support local’, the sweaters are now for sale at a price point of $179.
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A former lawyer, Dillon is the founder of luxury handbag brand She Lion. But she’s also a passionate advocate for supporting local business.
This project was born out of a sense of desperation, she tells SmartCompany.
“I was concerned that my business was going to die,” she says.
She also knew there were many Melbourne businesses in exactly the same situation, and wanted to do something that would benefit as many of them as possible.
“I thought if I was going to be killed, I might as well go out in flames, and support a whole lot of other people as well.”
It was about supporting local manufacturers, designers, creatives and marketers, she explains. But it was also about sending a message.
The typical consumer doesn’t necessarily know all the stages that go into making a garment, or the technical nature of those stages.
Who’s growing the cotton? Where are the knitting mills? Who dyes the fabric?
Then there’s an industrial washing process, the sourcing of the correct threads, and swatch selection, all before we even get to patterns, let alone sewing the garments or printing the designs.
Dillon points to “all the amazing artisans” we have in Australia, who are immensely skilled and often working in small or family-run businesses.
But they’re not easy to find, and when they are, can be overlooked for overseas providers, which offer cheaper labour.
One of the effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns, however, was more support for local businesses that were visibly struggling. At the same time, disrupted supply chains highlighted the dangers of relying solely on international providers.
All of this serves to raise awareness of the issue. Add that to increasing concern of the environmental impact of fast fashion and human rights abuses in the industry, and the numbers start to speak for themselves.
A Roy Morgan poll in July last year found more than 50% of consumers would prefer to choose Australian-made products, even if they’re a little dearer.
“People shouldn’t be saying: ‘wow, that’s so expensive’, they should be saying: ‘gosh, why is that so cheap?’,” Dillon says.
“Everything is coming back to sustainability; everything is coming back to the environment; everything is coming back to physical working conditions.
“All of those things can be ticked off with much greater control if it’s done here in Australia.”
That said, the process wasn’t an easy one. A project Dillon had anticipated would take three months actually took more like 12.
She admits she jumped headfirst into an industry she wasn’t familiar with and has hacked a steep learning curve.
But, this project was about giving back to the Aussie small business community, opening up lines of communication and making a statement. And she’s achieved that.
“It sounds cliche, but it’s the Australian spirit and how we come together in crisis,” she says.
Sales of the sweaters will benefit Aussie businesses and Aussie businesses alone. And that makes consumers feel good, she says.
“It just leaves you feeling really happy, and I think people need that at the moment.”
Now, Dillon plans to do it all again, making more sweaters with additional designs.
And, while it may seem like a leap from the handbag business she says all the values are aligned.
She Lion’s core values are about empowering women and being fearless. They’re also about things that make you feel great when you wear them.
“It’s about fierce elegance, it’s about bold ambition, it’s about premium practicality,” she says.
All of that means risk-taking, and not going down without a fight.
“If you don’t take a risk you don’t get a win.”