It might be easy to say Australian made is best, but it’s not always that easy to achieve, especially in the competitive children’s clothing market. However, as Alex Riggs discovered, manufacturing overseas can offer something back to the communities you work with.
Alex Riggs is inspired by her memory. When she was little, she had a dress that was reversible. “I remember taking it off in the supermarket and turning it over and mum crying out in embarrassment. But you love it when you’re a kid. You think, wow, my dress does two things!”
It’s memories like these that Riggs attempts to create with each new item in her children’s clothing range, Oobi Baby. Each piece is carefully designed to try and trigger these memories among parents but also to plant fond recollections among the children. Riggs wants all of her customers to love the clothes just like she loved her reversible dress.
This attitude is a far cry from the mass produced lines that can be bought in most chain stores; clothes that are practically advertised as being easy to discard as children grow and play and muck them up. And while Riggs doesn’t discourage children playing in her designs, it’s clear that they’re meant to be cherished. “That feeling of loving that you’re wearing something special, like your favourite orange pinny. I think you get very nostalgic about it. I know I do. I think that’s why Oobi touches people a lot.”
When Riggs first decided to sell clothes at a market stall, it was simply a small side venture started with a friend while she was at university.
“It was one of those amazing business stories where we just took some products to the markets, and the first day we were there I was approached by a buyer who happened to be up on holiday from Melbourne. He said, wow I love your product, come and see us. So we immediately had this business and it took off from there and proved pretty popular. But I was in my early twenties and a bit green so I made every mistake in the book in terms of pricing. In the end, even though the business was really popular, I had to shut it down.”
Though her first business had to close, Riggs had already established a network of friends and retailers who were very interested in her clothing range.
“A friend of mine who I’d been selling product to was opening up a store and she said ‘look you’re really good at what you do, why don’t you start up again but focus on what you’re really good at, which is children’s product,’” Riggs explains. “I’d been making bespoke product for Myer and David Jones and had been doing a lot of kids stuff. I’d done screen printing at uni so I got a friend of mine who had a screen printing business and he did a short run of some fabrics. We made a few garments and started selling them to a few people. Oobi started and took off from there.”
With the popularity of her products growing, Riggs was determined not to make the same mistakes she’d made in her first business. Despite having no formal training in business, she made every effort to learn as she went along.
“A few learning opportunities presented themselves and I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to join in some women’s business tutorials and various training here and there over the last 16 years. I think that’s really important.”
Riggs also credits this extra training with some of Oobi’s success. “I think you can be working in the business, doing everything you have to do, but if you don’t have the time and the luxury to think about the other elements of running the business, it’s harder to succeed.”
Finding the perfect fit
As the business has grown, so has the staff. Though Riggs had assistance from one or two people working for her at the beginning, her staff has grown to 11 over the last six years. During this time, Riggs has determined what it is she wants from her staff and what she wants them to get from working for Oobi. “It’s not always easy, we’ve made a few mistakes along the way and people have joined and discovered that it’s not quite the right fit,” Riggs says.
“The thing with Oobi is that we have a really strong culture. We even call ourselves big Oobis, and when we do trade events we wear one of the signature pieces (a rosette or bunny ears). It’s that kind of a culture. It’s really fun and quite dynamic. It’s not for everyone, but I think if you want to work for Oobi then you pretty much have to be aware of the culture.”
Fostering a strong work culture is incredibly important to Riggs, whose focus is on creating a fun and socially conscious brand.
“It’s very important that the people who work for us also subscribe to the things that we believe in. We’re a very charitable company; we give away five percent of our turnover to charity, for example, and if you’re not on that wavelength than it’s probably not going to be a good fit for you. But also we train up our staff. So when you’re doing that you don’t want to be spending lots of money training people, sending them to courses and things and then finding out that they don’t want to work for you any more. We invest in our staff.”
Sewing the seeds of international relations
Riggs’ passion for giving back came from her first visit to China, where she outsources some of her manufacturing.
“There was no way we could continue to manufacture in Australia completely, so we had to look offshore, and I just felt that making children’s wear you couldn’t do something that wasn’t ethical. We found a great team of women in China who were investing back in the community and into education and things like that. They only wanted to work with small companies because they weren’t huge and I knew that the money was going back to the women who were manufacturing, I knew it was going to a good cause.”
While Riggs’ first trip to China opened her eyes, now she goes back to the country about five times a year and has found that it’s almost a home away from home.
“I go there so often I’m really comfortable there and I’ve got a great collaborative relationship with the people I work with. If they find a really cool button or piece of ribbon or lace or something they collect it for me and show it to me when I visit.”
Though others might worry that she isn’t flying the flag of Australian manufacturing, Riggs acknowledges that sometimes it’s just impossible to get everything she needs here.
“We try and do as much as we can here but some of the things that we’re able to do offshore just wouldn’t be possible here. For example, we dye and make all of our own buttons and we’d never be able to do that here. Or we might create a unique zipper or use certain trims. There are things that just wouldn’t be available to us in Australia.”
The approximately $3 million turnover that Oobi creates is coming back into Australia however, despite the slowdown in export as a result of the GFC.
“We had just started to get a loyal following in the US,” Riggs says. “We were on Entertainment Tonight and we had some packs in the Oscars and then it fizzled out which was a shame. With the strength of the Aussie dollar it has been really hard to export.”
Riggs doesn’t have children herself but is supported by a lot of mums, whose feedback she relies on.
“When I need to get feedback I usually use my Facebook Page. There I can talk to mums of all walks of life and people who’ve bought or who love Oobi. At the moment we want to do bed sheets and doona covers and so I put a question on the Facebook wall saying ‘king single or single: what do people buy for children’s bedrooms?’ I got hundreds of replies and that’s really helpful for us.”
Her social media community is so active in fact that they took it upon themselves to coordinate their own Oobi picnic. “It started off with some Melbourne mums that were on our Faceboook Page,” Riggs explains. “People on there who grew very friendly and chatty who decided they should meet up. Seeing as though the thing that brought everyone together was Oobi, they said let’s have an Oobi tea party and put faces to names. I think 20 mums and 30 kids came so it was a huge turnout. And those Melbourne mums have stayed really good friends.”
Other tea parties have sprung up in other states also, acting as a completely organically created community of brand fans.
“It’s just such a nice way to celebrate childhood. We don’t really organise it but every couple of months someone is throwing one,” Riggs says.
After winning the 2011 City of Sydney Business of the Year Award, not to mention winning Kid’s Fashion Review (KFR) Style Award in 2012 and the KFR Australasian Childrenswear Label/Brand of the Year for the last three years running, Riggs has come to realise the importance of awards in getting the brand out there.
“Because we’re wholesalers, we don’t really get customer feedback all that often. But when you win an award, you think wow people really like the product. You’re selling it and you know you’re selling, but the fact that people actually take the time and make the effort to vote says quite a lot about our customer base. It also gives your staff a big boost and gives you an excuse to go out and open some champagne.”
The adorable vintage-inspired designs that grace Oobi’s store are proving ever more popular with Australia mums and, if the export market allows, will surely prove as successful overseas. So what’s next for Oobi?
“The next thing is to build up our web store,” Riggs says, adding “And looking at the Japanese market, as well as looking at popular items we can revive from the archives, and then we want to do some video projects as well and an app. So there’s a lot going on. But if we say we’re going to do something, we generally do. And there are a billion new ideas we’re having every day.”