As a Chinese born “illegal” 2nd child during the 1-child policy era, Jac is a self-described rebel and rule-breaker. I’ve no doubt her origin story and heritage have significantly shaped her steely, yet optimistic and gracious determination to venture into the unfamiliar playground of the fashion industry with such gusto.
When I first met Jac earlier this year at a trade event, her enthusiasm was infectious. It may have been the clothing that initially drew me to her stand, natural fabrics in edgey black and white silhouettes – but it was hearing more of her story and beliefs that had me feeling curious.
Jac is as honest as she is passionate, and she openly shares both encouraging and testing realities of starting a fashion label. There is no golden ticket or quick fix. It’s the daily effort, and yes, even the daily grind, that brings a fashion product to life, and Jac’s story demonstrates all the highs and lows.
LOUISE: Tell me about your fashion business in terms of product choice. What drew you to start a clothing label?
JAC: I wanted to create a business with meaning. I wanted to create something tangible, something I could touch. I wanted to combine what I love with my beliefs in environmental issues and social impact, and contribute to the welfare of girls through the social enterprise One Girl. For every item sold, The Rushing Hour sponsors a girl’s education for a month.
There is a powerful connection in clothing because it’s so close to us. It’s interesting how women in the work place feel they can use clothing to express themselves, to feel elevated & empowered. And I like that as a creative outlet, it’s the most versatile outlet.
Starting this brand was an impulsive decision actually. I’m such a big picture person, which means I’ve normally neglected the small steps, but I like to think all things are possible, being overly optimistic.
You know, I thought ‘build it & people will come’. I believed there was a gap. I thought it was ticking all the boxes, and I thought it was going to work. I saved up and put my life savings into this brand. It’s satisfying to see my creations coming to life and people are noticing this concept slowly.
But this fashion business is doing my head in – massively. It’s definitely challenging to stay strong as a solopreneur.
It’s the daily grind all the way from communicating with the factory, fabric development, product sampling and development, to building the website, writing product descriptions, organising photo shoots, to arranging the shipping.
And then, only as you go along with each phase, you discover how expensive everything is. Like models and photographers!! And shipping – oh my goodness – shipping is another whole level of expenses.
LOUISE: So you could say it’s been a very steep learning curve then. What was your career before starting your fashion label?
JAC: In the early days of my career I was a textile designer. Since then, I moved onto graphics and I’ve been working for creative agencies for the past 15 years in branding and campaigns through to social media art direction. From there I moved into the digital world in the user experience as well as app design, which I still do now and I really enjoy it.
LOUISE: As a beginner in the fashion industry without prior experience what have been your biggest learnings so far?
JAC: In the beginning, the sampling process took a long time. I didn’t want to make anything in production unless it was right. And of course, when you’re relaying information overseas it is really challenging. I learnt a very expensive lesson. Budget planning is also extremely important but I was investing as I went, without much planning. And that’s been hard.
LOUISE: Expensive in what way? Meaning you made samples you didn’t use in production?
JAC: No, because with every sample it’s back & forth with courier costs at my expense. And then when I received the sample, the changes I’d requested hadn’t been applied, or the factory made changes that were wrong. And then they’d have to make another. So, some designs needed 8 samples and the sampling process took months, which it shouldn’t have.
Every time I’ve learnt a lesson I’ve applied it to the next step – but in the meantime, time passes and a whole season goes by. I’ve learnt that to work with offshore factories, you have to be very exact in what you ask of them & how you instruct them to make something.
Another big expensive mistake I’ve made is that I’ve spent so much on production and by the time my product arrives in the country, I come to the realisation I don’t have money for PR. Not only that, the timing is wrong to do PR, because my product has arrived out of the traditional selling season.
LOUISE: As someone who is finding their way as a designer, how do you convey your ideas to the factory?
JAC: I can explain what I need with photo references or sketches that are flat drawings. Sometimes I’d have CAD illustrations showing the entire garment in the right fabric.
What I’ve learned, is there’s a lot of technical requirements to create fashion that I’m not familiar with. I feel as though getting exactly what I want from my designs is coming at a cost of time & money on samples, because I don’t have the technical knowledge.
I recognise I need to do things differently next time. I need to get someone else to put together a tech pack based on my brief. Then I’ll be able to control the look & feel more closely – and save so much time and expenses.
LOUISE: Are there particular techniques and materials that are unique to your product?
JAC: Yes, and it’s a really big part of why I do my business with my aim to be more sustainable. I use a mix of organically grown fibres, repurposed, dead-stock or end of line fabrics for my garments. This whole collection is basically based on 2 fabrics.
LOUISE: Does that ever limit you in what you can make?
JAC: It does, but that’s the main objective. I actually went and visited the fabric storage rooms when I was visiting my Chinese factory & they have such beautiful fabrics. I’ve collected plenty of fabric samples to keep on hand for when I put the collections together.
My choice of fabrics need to have a story to them. Even though they may come from remnants, there needs to have a connection that brings them together. I find it easier to think about the story behind the collection first before deciding on what fabrics to use.
What I do find limiting though, is the quantities of each fabric that are left-over are inconsistent. If there’s only 300mtr left over, & I use that in full, then that’s it, it’s been used & can’t be repeated.
Using the cast-off fabric is really good for both me & the factory because I don’t have to have a significant quantity in production. And the factory want me to use the fabric, as it helps them to clear the excess supply. Plus, I usually get 5% off the original price of the fabric too, which is cost advantage.
LOUISE: Are you allowed to use only what you need, or do you have to commit to the full roll of excess fabric?
JAC: Yes, I’m allowed to just use what I need. But I do have to pay for it up front, in order to secure that fabric for my production.
There were so many amazing fabrics, and I could see so many possibilities. But I have to restrain myself, because I’ve already got production about to be finished that still needs to be paid for. I can’t go looking at new fabrics right now.
LOUISE: Yes, you’re not alone in feeling this way. Do you think design informs your production techniques, or do you think it’s the other way around where the technique is informing your design. What’s the relationship between design & production for you?
JAC: I definitely think there’s limitations in what can be achieved in production. But if I focus on a shape that plays to the strengths of a fabric, then the ideas can be translated more easily. So, I always start with fabrics, and then decide on shapes.
What I did find with my process is that my sketches are not detailed enough. The factory need measurements for everything. And I didn’t know that until I was a few samples down the track. It was an expensive mistake.
LOUISE: How do you flow with the juggle of the creative and the practical side of business?
JAC: To be honest, it’s been very mixed. I see myself as more of a creative, and feel less confident about sales.
**(To which I completely disagreed with Jac at this point in the conversation).
My summer stock was due to arrive in November last year and it was 4 months late. Which means it’s considered to be out of season. I’ve got a few new retailers on board from a recent trade fair, and I had great sales from that one month, with re-orders.
But after I returned from a month in China for Fashion Revolution Week in April, the weather turned cold & the sales have really slowed down. Before going, I was in such a happy place & I thought ‘Yay…..light at the end of the tunnel’!
I tried my best to get my delivery on time, but sometimes it’s just out of your control. Once the timeline in fashion is missed – it means cash-flow stalls.
LOUISE: Have you considered selling the product through an agent?
JAC: Yes, I have. I’ve been speaking to someone in Sydney and the feedback is that my timing doesn’t match the season. The agents have already finished selling Summer product. So, my next strategy is to take the brand overseas and explore other markets.
Last month I visited a couple of major cities in China, as well as my factories, to research & understand the consumer market in China. It’s showing that women my age in Australia, 35 yrs, earning an average wage of $80K normally spend about 4% of their income on clothing. That’s about $300/ month (including underwear, gymwear etc). It’s not much.
But for the same type of female audience in China, it’s a very interesting time. They are the first generation of women who are post revolution, and they’re usually an only child. So that means because the parents have been through such a hard time when they were young & they could only have one child, the parents have saved up so much money to support that one child. They’ve invested well in housing, so it means this generation has a lot more freedom in terms of discretionary spending. The social views on clothing in China is very different to Australia. That generation in China spends 40% of their income on clothing.
I do think that Australia is going to be really challenging. I mean just looking at my own spending habits, I don’t buy anything anymore. It’s expensive to live in Australia. If people have money, it goes to lifestyle investments such as holidays, or paying their mortgages. What they have left for discretionary spending is minimal.
I think culturally it makes sense for the brand to enter the Chinese market.
LOUISE: Are the Chinese woman on board with your sustainable concepts?
JAC: China’s sustainable practises are slow at the consumer end. However, I’ve spoken to a showroom agent in Guangzhou last month & they’re very interested to take my product on board. They’re currently representing 10 overseas brands, & they don’t have anything telling a story like mine. She emphasised “It’s very important your brand has a story to be able to sell it – otherwise it’ll just be pretty things”.
And for me this feels like a lower risk, even though there is more competition. An Australian brand in China has an advantage compared to a Chinese brand. We have a western social media presence which they look up to. I would aim to get micro-influencers wearing my product for social proof.
And joining a trade show in Guangzhou or Shanghai is going to cost the same price as some trade fairs in Australia. I do feel it’s an advantage if I go under their wing. They’ve already got a list of buyers. And when I visited their showroom, they have product from brands that is a similar buyer/ age group, but still different enough from my product. I think it’s a great alignment, but best of all, I don’t have to do it alone.
LOUISE: The Shanghai plan sounds positive. Are there any other ideas on the horizon?
JAC: My ultimate goal is to have an impact, but it also needs to allow me to earn a living. And at the moment, there’s so much investment & not much return. I’m almost questioning “Why” I decided to do this. I’ve been at it for 2 years. This is one of the hardest industries, and it’s risky.
I feel like I’m pushing the boundaries really hard. And I’m concerned that if I keep doing this, I won’t be able to hold the passionate feelings about the label & business because I’m not getting any reward.
LOUISE: I know what you mean. It’s really, really hard to keep going when there isn’t a financial reward. And It’s not from lack of effort, or time, or serious financial investment.
JAC: Yeah, I just can’t help feeling conscious about the fashion timing – it’s limiting my opportunities to have a healthy cashflow and tell stories. I’m a bit under pressure that if I don’t have new designs, the brand would fall behind.
But at a deeper level, there’s something that I’ve had a growing awareness about that I don’t like about fashion. It’s that people are always expecting new things. And if I don’t have new things, I’m not in the game and I don’t have enough to contribute. This new collection has just arrived and I haven’t even started to market it yet & time is ticking to start thinking about the next collection.
My product isn’t a basic t-shirt that is sold all-year round. It is a seasonal product, which puts more pressure on having the right product available during the right season.
But as someone without any pre-conceived ideas on ‘how it’s done’, in my mind the pieces are great, no matter what the season. They’re season-less and that’s the whole vision about slow and sustainable fashion.
To find Jac’s latest collection, head to The Rushing Hour