Alexandra Riggs Interview Oobi
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Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Alexandra Riggs, a textiles and graphic designer. I started a business called Oobi over 15 years ago. Oobi is an ethical manufacturer of children’s fashion from newborn to 12 years. We are SEDEX rated and have a 5 star Good On You rating too. We specialise in 100% cotton, hand printed garments created to inspire children with colour, shape, movement and comfort.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I studied art history and graphic design at university. After my PhD I took my screen printing skills to market with hand printed fabrics that we made into children’s clothing. I came up with the idea because of my passion for hand printing. My style for design is very happy, fun and colourful. It made sense to use my skills to make children’s fashion – plus I adore kids and love the freedom of expression that comes with designing for them.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
It starts with sketching or finding a vintage print (or collaborator) and reworking the design. I sketch and draw for weeks and am never anywhere without my sketch book. Once my designs are finalised I turn them into graphic prints and choose the colours from a Pantone book. We then start to develop the prototypes for the prints and that is quite a long process where we redesign and recolour until they’re perfect. During that process we also come up with garments that we feel will be suitable for the fabrics, so that it’s very holistic. We let the fabric print ’speak’ to us in a way, and the collection is created.
From there we start to make samples and do extensive fittings with children of all sizes and ages. Once that’s done, the patterns are finalised. We then source our cottons and print in Jaipur, India. Once our fabrics are printed we start production of our ranges. During this stage there might be other changes that are made, like buttons that we design and create, dying trims like lace or ribbons, and sometimes tweaking designs once the samples are made in the correct fabrics.
Production of our garments is very relaxed and quite slow – we’re the antithesis of “Fast Fashion!” That is totally not our style. We don’t believe in pushing our seamstresses to work too fast. They work under internationally accepted standards which includes 8 hour days with a one hour lunch break and two 15 minutes tea breaks. Happy workers make happy garments. Plus our garments are designed to last and be passed down from child to child, sister to sister, friend to friend. We don’t design for landfill, we design for longevity!
Once production is completed, garments are packed carefully (we use minimal waste so no plastic packaging) and sent by sea to Australia and around the world to our distributors. We have stores in over 30 countries.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
The process takes a really long time because we like to ensure that we put as much information on each product as possible. So you’ll find extensive fit notes, the spec sheets and patterns, all the lengths and sizes in centimetres and inches plus multiple photos from our photo shoots, with garments shot from many angles.
We also make sure to give the right amount of information in written form, with notes about the features and highlights of each product. We integrate our Shopify site with TradeGecko because we have a huge warehouse with a lot of SKUs that need to be managed. That then integrates with our shipping app and means that all garments need to be weighed too.
Sometimes we want to do a giveaway with a garment, for example, we’re giving away Bunny Tail brooches with Bunny Print garments this season, so that needs to be managed between our platforms and also that message needs to be clearly and simply conveyed.
Finally we start to sneak peek photos of the garments on our social platforms and construct a newsletter and press release. During launch week we hire extra staff to manage customer service and pick and pack as those weeks are very hectic.
All garments need to be adequately tagged for SEO, for our search engine on site and also for our size filter. This is quite a long process too and we usually hire college students to come and help us out with that when it’s busy in the office.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Great customer service, high quality product, ethical manufacturing and a great experience online and post-purchase gives us an excellent return rate. It usually sits around 70% which means that basically, if you purchase from us, you’re more likely than not to come back. Our customers love the seamless experience and I believe that they really love our ethics.
In 2012 we also launched a “one-for-one” program whereby we donate a gift or garment to an Australian child in need for EVERY new-season purchase. In that way, our customers know that not only have they made their child happy with our garments, but that they’ve helped to put a smile on the face of a child in need. In Australia, we work with charities who give children an Oobi gift – and this could be their first every birthday or Christmas gift in their life. This knowledge convinces us that, even when it’s difficult to facilitate, we are doing a great thing and something important for our community.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are achieving our goals of being a sustainable, ethical and charitable company. Our profit margin is not as big as other companies of our size but that is because we donate a lot of our profits in garments and charity. Our growth is incredible and every year we get a new customer base which includes wholesale customers, international, distribution and of course, our oobi.com.au customers. If we weren’t so charitable sure, we’d be more profitable, but that’s not why we do what we do. Our staff are proud and happy to work for a company that gives so much – and job satisfaction and culture is incredibly important.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Keeping interested, on top of technology and trends and ’steering the ship’ when you need to is crucial. If something’s not working, we pivot. It’s important not to get too caught up in how amazing you think something is, if it’s not working for you or for your customers. It’s ok to say “that didn’t work” and move on. What’s not ok is to be so one-minded that you push a platform, design or idea that isn’t right for your customers or your brand.
The other thing we’ve learned is to be as honest and transparent as we can. If something is going wrong, we face it. Usually that’s being supplied late. So we might say “launching March” but something takes longer than expected so we just say “we tried to launch March, it’s launching April”. Customers are disappointed but they will forgive you if you let them know. The other thing with transparency is that we invited SEDEX into our factory and allowed them to do a full audit of our staff, facilities, wages, environment. That was scary because we knew we’re doing great things, but maybe in an audit they uncover something that’s not going right. Well, we did get a 5 star rating, but of course there were areas where we needed to improve, so we did that too.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are on Shopify and we have some great apps there. Our favourite is judge.me where our customers can write reviews. It’s not expensive and it allows our customers to share photos of their kids, verify that they are 100% genuine reviews and customers (it’s linked to the email address that is given when a customer places an order), and it integrates really well with Shopify. We also like Bold for their currency converter as we have a lot of international customers. It’s free too!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
It’s really important that you have enough capital to enable you to quit your job and even potentially work on your business without a salary for a while or, capital to expand if you grow quickly. Lots of great businesses go under because they don’t have a safety net. There are lots of ways to get crowd sourced funding for great ideas, or new ethical small building societies or banks who will give low-interest loans to entrepreneurs.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We always keep our eye out for great staff but we also have longevity with our employees. I’m working with an incredible team of people who have been with me for many years – so they’re more like family! There are often new people who come on board, especially in social media or casual or part-time roles. We also love to work with interesting young designers, collaborate on fabric designs, work with photographers, bloggers, stylists – so they’re not staff, per se, but they do work with us on projects.