Felicity is a designer with an independent spirit. I have a feeling growing up on a farm on the Sunshine Coast, with vivid sunshine and space to explore has nurtured her creativity and need for freedom. In spite of some great industry experiences whilst living in NY, she’s chosen the path that twists and turns, and always brings the greatest learnings – the entrepreneurial path.
As a fellow lover of craftsmanship, I can appreciate her desire to do things well. After honing her craft in fashion design, at the sort-after design schools of Parsons NY & Central St. Martins in London, she is part of a new wave of fashion designers asking questions about how to make design and production better for both people and the planet.
Felicity is in the early stages of her business, but I expect the answers will unfold in her designs and the relationships she continues to nourish as she brings her designs to market. Read on to learn more about Felicity and her journey so far.
LOUISE: So I believe you studied and worked in America. What prompted you to go there in the first place?
FELICITY: Well, I’m a very yin/ yang sort of person. I love design, but I also want this to be a viable business. While reading Vogue at the age of 13, I noticed the designers getting featured were mostly from Central St. Martins in London or Parsons in NY. So I decided, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to learn how to do it the best I can.
At the time as well, in Australia, I was seeing a resistance to having a business – a little of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. Starting a business in America, is much more openly accepted. I feel like that’s now changing in Australia, but at the time 10 years ago, I felt as though fashion wasn’t seen as a reasonable choice of business to be in on the Sunshine Coast.
LOUISE: And so who did you work with in NY?
FELICITY: DKNY & Solid and Striped.
I interned with DKNY for one year in their fabric department, which was a dream job. I was one of the only fashion people in amongst a lot of logistics people, and it taught me so much about colour.
I was taught how to custom dye & colour match fabrics. To look at two swatches that were almost identical & know one of them needs 5% more yellow really honed my eye to understanding colour. I know it sounds so specific, but it’s a skill that you don’t think exists until you really practise it. It’s been very helpful, as it changed the way I approach colour & putting colours together.
LOUISE: And from there you went into business?
FELICITY: I finished my degree and from there I started working as a menswear designer for a brand called Solid & Striped in swimwear in NY.
It was a very interesting way to work as a designer, because they only do solid & striped colours. I designed more stripes than I ever thought was possible while I was there.
It was only a small team, and it was my first experience of working in a start-up, but I still felt I could see how I would do things differently. It really became a burning desire for me to want to do it differently and do my own thing while I was there.
Designing the men’s range was a great lesson in learning to design outside myself too. It’s very easy to get stuck in seeing things from your own body type and having a bias towards that, but you need to see that there’s several women who will wear your brand.
I think having the hindsight also helps you have a stronger brand. I really like that my clothing works for 25 year olds, and 75 year olds. My mum is a big rep for my brand. When I post images of my mum on Instagram, they love her. Fashion doesn’t stop at 35, 45 or 75 and I want to be a part of showing that inclusive perspective.
LOUISE: So, talk me through your design process and manufacturing, because I know it’s done locally in Australia.
FELICITY: With the bags, I make them myself, in the studio on my parents’ property on the Sunshine Coast.
I start off with a design idea, then make a mock-up or two to get the proportions right. From there it’s a very simple making process after that. I have a laser cutter, so I’m able to create the designs on the computer and then place them on the leather with the laser cutter creating the pattern pieces. From there I assemble it myself with a leather sewing machine.
With the clothes, I’m just starting to experiment with this as a category – they’re designed by me and made with a factory in Sydney. I wanted to find a way to scale the business and I’m trying to keep things Made in Australia. It’s funny because I get people asking, why are you doing clothes – you do Bags. And I have to remind them, that actually, I’m a fashion designer first.
LOUISE: So, why did you start with bags?
FELICITY: I think I was really sick of the industry when I first started the business. And I wanted to create something I hadn’t already done.
LOUISE: And you were sick of it because….? You weren’t in it for a long time to come to this realisation.
FELICITY: I’d been working in NY for a brand that didn’t align with my values. I feel like you really need to know the people you work with and build relationships. Yet, I was seeing the business I worked for go about it differently, which I didn’t agree with.
My experience of working with factories offshore was a nightmare, because the business was jumping to new factories and countries all the time. We’d already visited Morocco on production trips and had seen the factory was good. But then the next season, we’d be moving to another country to a new factory. It was so frustrating. Every time there was a move, I wasn’t sure about the conditions people were working in and it wasn’t how I wanted to be in the industry.
With this going on during the day, I was making shoes in my apartment in Brooklyn at night and on weekends, as a release of the stress I was feeling.
So, when it got to the tipping point of knowing I needed to make a change, it felt like a natural progression to move towards leather products, as I’d spent my spare time doing that, and I enjoyed it.
LOUISE: Are there other labels you look to for inspiration, or other businesses in other industries you admire?
FELICITY: There are lots of brands I admire, but I always try & look outside womenswear, because it can be too competitive. One of the brands I like is Patrick Johnson Tailors. They have showrooms in Sydney & Melbourne. They fit my idea of what I’d like my future store/ showroom to be, in that it’s a lovely space to spend time in, and have a great experience. They’re a big inspiration to me on how they run their business.
LOUISE: If you’re making the leather products yourself, how long is that sustainable for, from a scale-ability point of view?
FELICITY: I make the bags myself, and the uppers of the shoes – not the clothes. The soles are made by two girls in Melbourne called Post Sole. They last the shoes up for me. (FYI – the ‘last’ is the mould or form used to create the shoe shape imitating a foot as if it was inside a shoe) I’m not at the stage where I’m strained by producing things. I have marketing & PR help, so that’s something else I don’t need to think about.
I’m very interested in Made in Australia at the moment because it’s important for me to see how people are treated while doing the work of making my clothes.
I think once I have more leverage, then I’m happy to look more closely at a project offshore that helps empower women and be a safe & great factory. I don’t think producing overseas is a bad thing, I just think it needs to be at a stage where you’re in a position to have some influence on expectations you have as a business & how that plays out in the manufacturing.
I think there’s the potential to find yourself making compromises that don’t necessarily align with your values if you jump into offshore manufacturing too early and don’t set your business up for the best outcome.
LOUISE: I was curious to hear more about the technique you learnt at uni about waste-free designing/ pattern making/ cutting. Talk to me about that. Has it naturally sparked the steps in how you want to bring your ideas to market? Yes.
FELICITY: It’s a very simple idea. It puts the emphasis on designing at the beginning of the process rather than throughout the process. As designers, you can do 10 muslins (toiles), and figure out how to cut something in the most efficient way possible, which then translates into production once you make 1000 garments and minimise the waste across a larger scale.
And so, I think industry rushes the first part of the design process, by going with what’s easiest, then wastes a lot of excess fabric in the 2nd part of the process.
But for me with my range of bags, it’s just small things such as using the offcuts to make the zipper puller. It fits into my concept of using the materials to the best of their ability. So that’s how it translates into my business at this stage.
LOUISE: So with the making of your clothes, where do you source your fabrics from?
FELICITY: They’re made from linen sourced from Japan, supplied by the factory I use in Sydney. But the clothes are in very early days at the moment with just a sampling range to showcase at the trade fair.
Initially I made clothing to style with the shoes and bags in the look books and then people were asking where they were from and how they could buy them.
That prompted me to try clothing & trust myself that ‘I can do this’. And that’s the joy of small business as well. Why not try it out!
I need to figure out what’s the tipping point for me to go forward and produce them in more quantities. And it’s a weird place to be in, because there’s risk involved. But I’m trying to be comfortable with it, as opposed to freaking out about it because I think it’s important to still take risks.
LOUISE: What are you hoping to get from attending this trade fair – Big Design Market in Melbourne? Is it about awareness of your brand?
FELICITY: I think what I’ve learnt since having an online business is that it’s really important for customers to have touch & feel points of the product. Whenever I do events like this, it changes how many people know about the brand and what people know about it. Getting small stockists I align with around Australia, would be a great thing for me.
I think in the next 6 – 12 months I’d love to have a collaborative space in Melbourne. I know so many other designers in my position who are at that tipping point of wanting to have a space for people to see & feel their product, but aren’t ready to open their own store. So, I’d love to be in a space where 5-6 designers are all in the one space, with aligned values showing their work.
I’m so sick of dog-eat-dog fashion. I want to be part of a community and something more supportive and collaborative. It’s just more how I am in real life. Why would you run a business a different way to how you are as a human being?
LOUISE: So very well said. While you’re in the start-up phase of your business, are you also working part-time in a day job?
FELICITY: No, I’m just working on this. But I’m also starting a 2nd smaller idea, that’s a less expensive price point. I want to ensure I’m economically stable with the unpredictable financial market at the moment & for the coming years. But I have very low overheads, because I make everything myself and I don’t have to carry stock.
And I work out of a studio that’s an old shed on my parent’s farm.
LOUISE: I notice you use kangaroo leather in your bags and shoes. Is there any reason for that?
FELICITY: I’m really passionate about it I guess because of the influences around me growing up. I’ve grown up on a farm, and my Dad’s a boy from the bush, so I’ve been exposed to the realities of needing to control the roo population.
From a sustainability perspective, it’s worthwhile using something that would otherwise go to waste. The government manages the population of kangaroos, so they don’t over-populate and starve to death. No kangaroos are bred in Oz. They’re just wild ones. From the roo management, comes kangaroo meat, and from that comes kangaroo leather.
The tannery I work with is just north of Brisbane, so I know them, I know what their whole chain is like, and how they manage their materials. And even knowing it’s made in Australia & the dyes aren’t flowing out into a river, is really important to me. I’m a big advocate of roo leather, because it’s a better material to work with and better for the environment.
LOUISE: Is sustainability important to you within your business?
FELICITY: At the moment the consumer isn’t asking for more transparency in the industry, but I think a lot of designers are.
The thing that gives me hope is that shows like “War on Waste” are slowly being drilled into people’s awareness that we need to pay more attention to the environment. If I can add to that in a small way, every little bit makes a difference.
LOUISE: How do you flow between the creative & practical parts of a business?
FELICITY: I feel like Parsons really set me up well for that. It was a very intense period with strict time constraints. So, I’m used to setting a deadline where I need to design, photograph and make a collection in 2 weeks.
I’m always thinking 6 – 12 months ahead, so I’ll often be designing while I’m working and then when it comes to those very productive two weeks, all those thoughts that have been bubbling away come to the surface during that time.
I definitely spend more time & effort in the non-creative side of it, the website, marketing & related things. You can’t turn off creativity though. It’s always there running in the background.
LOUISE: What inspires your designs?
FELICITY: Well, I’ve noticed, it seems to be travel at the moment. My clothing capsule is daydreaming about an Italian holiday. Italy in Summer with lots of linen.
I go to Japan quite a bit & it’s always a huge inspiration to me because I like the balance of functional & beautiful design.
I also design very practically for me. I want a travel bag that I can wear cross-body, to carry a passport, ticket & wallet in and have 2 hands free to roll around suitcases. It is that balance of things I want to wear & things that inspire me.
Colour is also very inspiring to me, but it’s more from everyday life.
LOUISE: If you had to name your brand in 3-5 words, how would you describe it?
FELICITY: Modern, Australian and Architectural.
I’ve been finding architectural is the best way to describe what I want to do because it’s that balance of function & design coming to one place. It helps people get what it’s about. I’m not a frilly, frou frou designer. I want things that are easy to work with & easy to wear.
You can find Felicity’s beautifully hand crafted pieces online at felicitycooney.com