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Why Emerging Ethical Fashion Designers Should Have a Business Mentor Like Jenny Layton

Written by Jennifer Nini

Last month I travelled to Melbourne for the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and attended the Council of Textile & Fashion’s (CTF) Curated Melbourne’s Pop-Up shop event.

It was there that I was fortunate enough to hear Jenny Layton speak.

Jenny is co-founder and former director of The Ark Clothing Co., an Australian-made women’s wear label that she launched with fashion designer and pattern maker Christine Metcalfe in 1990. She also serves as a board member for the Council of Textile & Fashion.

Why Emerging Ethical Fashion Designers Need a Business Mentor Like Jenny Layton

Jenny Layton, co-founder of Australian-made ethical label, The Ark Clothing Co.

Prior to establishing The Ark, Jenny ran Reflections Gallery for 10 years where she exhibited and promoted the artwork of emerging Australian artists. The gallery was later sold around the time she started a family.

Now according to the CTF Curated website, Jenny and Christine founded the fashion business with a “contribution of $200 of “housekeeping” money and morphed into a company with a large turnover and no debt” eventually selling the business in 2016. 

Absolutely remarkable. I have many designer friends and am also involved in several start-up businesses, so I know what it takes to grow a business and to do so with such a small amount of capital is unheard of!

So I’m glad to have had the foresight to record Jenny’s public talk at the Curated Melbourne event. She has over 26 years industry experience, is dedicated to the Australian fashion industry and has a passion for helping emerging designers – attributes I think all business mentors in the fashion industry should have!

Plus we featured The Ark Clothing Co. in last year’s round-up post of Australian ethical fashion online stores, which was extremely popular with our readers and to this day, continues to be one of the most frequently visited pages on the site.

Curated Melbourne Pop Up Event VAMFF 2017 Council of Textile & Fashion

So here’s the transcript of Jenny Layton talk at the CTF Curated event (edited to keep it as succinct as possible). If you’re an emerging designer, I hope it brings you comfort and inspires you to keep going…

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“When Chris and I started 25 odd years ago, we were on the kitchen table and we were rolling fabric under the beds and popping the kids to sleep. I got into fashion because of Chris’ skill and a bit of a design passion.

At that time it was miserable trying to find out how you got anything made, who you would go to, and where you could buy good fabric. We used to pal up to agency and they’d say This silk’s been really popular and we’d say Oh really but who sews silk? We’d try to find little threads and follow them through. 

The Ark Clothing Co. Spring Summer 16

The Ark Clothing Co. SS16

The Ark Clothing Co. SS16 Collection

The Ark Clothing Co. SS16 Collection

It was quite slow and steady growth – but it was great fun. Because Chris and I always had interns and loved to sponsor and mentor designers – we were so excited when one of our staff would leave and say I’m going to start my own business! and we’d say:

“What can we do? This is going to be fabulous great go for it!”

And I think that’s never left us. We just think this industry needs to keep rolling forward… It was young designers coming to Dave [Dave Giles-Kaye, President of The Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA)] saying We can’t survive on our own; Is there anyone else out there that feels the same way? and of course everybody feels the same way. It is tough.

The Ark Clothing Co. Australian ethical label

The Ark Clothing Co. SS 2016 collection

We’ve got a changing landscape. We’ve got massive labels coming in with umpteen millions of dollars behind them when they want to start something up.

“They just take the best piece of real estate and do it over, and where does the small emerging designer fit in?”

Well you do fit in [speaking directly to the designers in the audience]. And one of the great things is Curated is probably something that Chris and I would have loved in our day because we would have felt like there were other people suffering and torturing themselves with late nights at the machines at 2am in the morning, and our mothers sewing buttons while we took them on holidays to Noosa so we could have all the overalls finished!

That is what is so fantastic about this that in a very short time when we’ve had a few meetings with all the designers together, industry has been fantastic and for those of you here people like Brauz [new shopping app] and others who have been fantastic in coming on board.

Brauz new shopping app to help you connect with indepepdent designers

Brauz shopping app was launched at Curated Melbourne.

It is so lovely to know that people are willing to get behind people who are needing support and it’s just nice to know that financially, there might be a possibility of pooling together your resources… and building a bit of a brand and getting the confidence and maybe having the cash flow to then go and take something to the next level.

“So I just wanted to say to everyone out there – go for it!

I remember the first time we could pay ourselves a salary, that was seriously exciting! I can’t wait to hear how everyone goes and I think with Dave heading up the Council of Textiles and Fashion and the board and just the group of people all coming on board is fantastic.

[Referring to the pop-up shop downstairs] Just go down and have a look because what you’re looking at is blood, sweat and tears, ambition, potential, creativity and passion.

So make sure that if you like something, buy it because that is the best drug for a designer.”

The Ark Clothing Co. SS16

The Ark Clothing Co. SS16 Collection

The Ark Clothing Co. SS 2016

If you’re an emerging ethical fashion designer, we’d love to hear from you: Do you have a business mentor? Has it been a positive or negative experience? Did they help you overcome business challenges? Feel free to share your story in the comment section below.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she began this blog to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

3 Comments

  • Hi! Small brand here 🙂 We’re called Adorned and run a business doing vintage, Fairtrade, reworked and artistan jewellery, as well as our own handmade jewels. Like the lady here we started up with nothing – mum used to buy and sell costume and silver many years ago but when I started doing the clothing a few years ago it was ‘buy a couple shirts off ebay, rework, use that money to buy a couple more’ and it just grew! Now it supports both of us, together working 60-70 hours a week with enough left over for a rainy day! Always looking to connect with more ethical brands and like minded individuals so we can be stronger together!

    • Hi Sarah, thanks for reaching out! That’s fantastic that you’re able to make a comfortable living doing what you enjoy and care about. How long have you had your business? Did you have a mentor or was it mum? Would love to learn more. If it’s easier for you, you can also email hello@ecowarriorprincess.com.au if you feel like going into more detail about the challenges and learnings and tips for emerging ethical brands 🙂

      • Ello! Thank you 🙂 I started reworking garments around 4-5 years ago when I was in university, and making jewellery which I’d learned to do when I was a kid, so I was managing it alongside my degree. By the time I graduated I knew it was what I wanted to do. We both sort of bounce ideas off each other and talk things through, we work as a team. We don’t have a mentor as such but I initially got some help from my uni and ASOS Marketplace assign you a sort of mentor who you can message any time if you have problems or want to let them know about a new stock drop you’re doing.

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