I love discovering emerging fashion labels who focus on quality. This doesn’t happen by chance. To achieve detailed finishes in a product, it takes time to build the two-way respect with suppliers. This month I’m interviewing Sassind, a small Melbourne based online label who make beautiful basics, in natural fibres including cashmere, silk, merino and cotton. I was very keen to hear about the Sassind journey given Tamara, one of the founders behind the label, had no prior fashion experience before starting her label.
From the beginning, she and her husband remained open to learning from those around them, particularly from their suppliers and customers. They’ve kept a healthy distance from the trends and focused on pieces that deliver quality and comfort in versatile and wearable shapes. I regularly keep a watchful eye on Australian labels, and for me, they’re satisfying a gap in the marketplace for beautiful basics in quality materials, without the usual price tag that sometimes accompanies these finer noble fibres.
I’m very excited to share my conversation with Tamara Ryan on her process behind her label Sassind.
LOUISE: So what drew you to start a clothing label without having a fashion background or industry experience?
TAMARA: My husband & I have been wanting to work on our own terms forever & we were in the fortunate position when we came back from Thailand, to explore new possibilities. We’ve been expats for years, and also worked in big business for a long time & knew now was the time to make a change. When we returned to Australia, we commenced discussions on what both of our professional strengths were, and how to combine these strengths to run a successful business. We both have a strong marketing background, and Craig has an excellent understanding of customer service and brand management. We also both share a love for fashion, in particular fine quality classic pieces. The online idea came from an acquaintance who was running her own online label, and highlighted the many benefits of running an online exclusive business.
LOUISE: Did you have anything in place before you started or was it more organic?
TAMARA: Yes, more organic. It evolved over a long period of time. With travel being such a huge part of our lives, my Mum casually mentioned one day that it was really hard to get beautiful and wearable, versatile travel pieces. After that, the seed was planted & we set about creating the product & label from scratch.
LOUISE: How did you go about starting? Did you test drive your product in the early stages before committing to full production?
TAMARA: Our knitwear factory was the first one to come on board, with their factory location in China, and head office in Hong Kong. They’re such a lovely family, with a father & daughter team making everything happen. They knew we were coming from nothing & gave us a shot. I have no experience in the fashion industry at all. My background is in sales & marketing. Their trading terms were generous because we’d done a lot of work on a business plan & we were doing our research. We had a strong vision for the brand given our marketing background and they took the risk & gave us a go.
I don’t see us as a fashion label, I see us as a lifestyle brand. We’re not trying to compete with fashion brands as our focus is on comfort and quality – that’s No. 1. So all of the product has been road tested again & again by myself, friends and family to make sure it meets our standards of comfort & quality.
LOUISE: How wonderful to establish such a great relationship early on. That was one of the greatest joys for me too during my time in industry. The relationships you establish with suppliers build up over time, and they become friends. So how long did you spend on developing the product before launching? Did you get samples?
TAMARA: It took at least 18 months developing the product & coming up with the launch range. We did go through a few sampling stages with all 3 suppliers, both suppliers in India & one in China. They were all very generous with sampling, and depending on the supplier, there were some sampling costs involved. It was quite expensive to sample the shoes & silk in India, but worth it in the end. We couldn’t get the quality of shoes & silk we wanted in China, which is why we pursued Indian manufacturing instead. Having now done a full season with these suppliers, we’ve built up the trust in the relationship, so sampling expenses are now built into the cost price.
LOUISE: Are there key things that have influenced your decisions around where and why you’ve chosen these suppliers?
TAMARA: It comes from trusting a gut feeling that the people we’re dealing with are understanding where we’re coming from. We needed to know that they understood our core focus of quality & comfort. Price was not our driving force.
It is still an ongoing challenge to produce in India with our silk & cotton suppliers. They try to sneak in a little bit of viscose or other blends to get the price down & I have to consistently say no.
Ultimately though, we wanted to work with people we liked. My husband & I have worked in big businesses for many years & one of the reasons you start a small business is to work with people you like. This also goes for the people you employ too.
LOUISE: So that brings me to the topic of quality. How are you guiding yourself on knowing what is good quality or not, without having the background knowledge of these materials?
TAMARA: That’s something we also rely on from our suppliers. Our knitwear supplier in China has been particularly patient & generous in guiding us on yarn & price information. We’re also taking the time to be in the factories and learn as we go too. The shoe suppliers in India are guiding us in the same way. They educate us on the different leathers, and take us to the tanneries to see first-hand how it’s made.
The cotton & silk education is trickier and it’s been more self-driven. We really didn’t want to go to India, as we were keen to keep our production in one area, being China. But in not getting the product we wanted from China with the silk & the shoes, we had to think of alternatives. It’s been a blessing in disguise, because now we love it.
Overall though, we’re enjoying the process. One of the things we love the most about the business is that we’re just learning so much. Our understanding is getting better & better, and we’re hungry for the knowledge. Travel is also a huge part of what we love when we visit the suppliers.
LOUISE: In terms of having a natural focus to your product, are you specifically working with businesses that have an environmental approach?
TAMARA: No. We’re the driving force behind using natural fibres. We’re about to switch our t-shirt range to organic cotton as it’s becoming more readily available in India, but it was still a challenge to develop. We needed the proof it was genuinely organic with the registered quality assurance. Sometimes the term ‘organic’ is misleading. Organic doesn’t necessarily suggest it’s good quality or that it’s got a better hand-feel. We had so many swatches submitted to us that were so scratchy & unwearable. And then they wanted to add other contents into the yarn blend to make it less scratchy, but we specifically wanted pure cotton. Fortunately, it’s not going to be significantly more expensive, which is great, as I’m not convinced people will pay a lot more for organic cotton.
LOUISE: Do you sell your product through wholesale channels?
TAMARA: No. We’re only online direct to the customer. I don’t think we’re going to go down that path. We’ve had dozens of enquiries & at times it’s been really tempting. With an online exclusive business, there’s just so few overheads, and we’re trying to keep things that way. That’s what sets us apart.
Our most significant costs are of course the product, and second to that is travel to make sure that the product we develop is what we pay for. The money you save on that alone is significant. I do wonder how some businesses go with quality control if they’re not regularly visiting the factories. The risk of getting dodgy product is real. It’s not just the cost of the product, it’s the cost of getting it here too that’s expensive.
Just coming back to the topic of wholesaling. In June we ran a campaign on why we price as we do. During the peak Winter sale period we didn’t make budget, which was a little surprising. We thought we would because it was peak knitwear buying season, but when labels like Country Road have 30% off, it slows things down.
We discussed how we want our customers to understand that our prices are not overly inflated. We promoted the fact that we don’t want customers to wait until we go on sale, because we won’t. We highlighted that traditional retail pricing can mark-up product by up to 8x the cost price & within that is a huge margin for discounting.
As a result of explaining our pricing structure, we had a great response from our customers and they were really grateful for our transparency.
LOUISE: So who is your ideal customer?
TAMARA: We’ve been lucky. I did a survey recently to try & give certainty around the customer. I thought I knew who the customer was but I wanted to make sure. We ran a competition to win a $500 voucher if you filled in a survey. It was great as we had 600 responses. Fortunately, we were spot on with who we thought our customer was. They’re 40-55 year old women who love travel, and are generally a professional of some sort & a really diverse range of body shapes. I wasn’t trying to market in that direction, it was really about making sure as an online business, that we have silhouettes that people felt confident buying online. A lot of the product is free fitting in shape with nothing too fitted.
LOUISE: So where to next for Sassind?
TAMARA: My husband wants to do a menswear range but I know men won’t pay what women will for a cashmere jumper. The name of the brand comes from my 2 girl’s names, and they like to suggest we do a kidswear range. When you have the likes of Cotton On around though, I don’t want to compete in that space.
This journey has given me a whole new appreciation for slower fashion now, and knowing where your product comes from. I’m much more conscious about where I buy things. I’m a lot more aware than I used to be. We’re still discussing where we go to next. I’d love to do homewares product because I think it fits well with the brand, but I’m still exploring that as it’s such a saturated market. We have a very loyal customer so I think there’s potential for doing 100% natural product. We’re in a good place, we celebrated our 1st Birthday in July, and we’re still growing.
Enjoy the latest Spring’17 collection at www.sassind.com. Later this month you’ll also find new delights in linen and lightweight denim, with new shoes and the organic cotton jersey range also becoming available by December.
3 Things with Tamara Ryan
1. What was the first piece of significant clothing you bought with your own money?
A Burberry Trench coat when I was on my Honeymoon 12 years ago.
2. When you shop for yourself, who do you shop with when not buying your own product?
My favourite 2 labels are both Australian. Trelise Cooper’s label ‘Cooper’ which always has beautiful bright coloured prints in their collections. These always work well with our more classic pieces. Lee Matthews is also another favourite, and I love their commitment to using mainly natural fibres also.
3. What’s one thing people might not know about you?
I take a nanna nap pretty much every-day without fail after lunch.