Oobi is an ethical, Australian fashion label for girls designed with fun, colour and movement in mind. Alexandra Riggs is the talented designer behind the brand, and we caught up with her to find out more about Oobi. From its humble beginnings at a market stall in Glebe to becoming an international label, Alex talks to us about Oobi's fascinating journey, her design process and why ethical fashion is so important.
Tell us a little bit about you and your family
I’m first generation Aussie with a Russian family heritage. My mum was a fashion designer in Sydney in the '80s and I used to hang out in her factory in Surry Hills after school, watching her work and create (rather large, colourful - well, it was the ‘80s) garments.
Talk to us about Oobi – how did the brand come about?
Actually I started uni and did an art history degree, because my passion in life is art. In my degree, I studied screen printing and art history and became really interested in printing textiles. I thought that I would go on to be a university lecturer so started a PhD and got a scholarship. But it wasn’t much money and I loved (and still love) shoes, so I took some ideas for kids clothes to the markets using my screen printed fabrics to make a shoe fund, a bit of pocket money, I thought.
"I was 6 months off finishing my PhD and I quit to start my business because I just KNEW on that that day....that I had found my calling."
Oobi has just celebrated its 15-year anniversary – which is pretty incredible! What do you think has been the secret to Oobi’s success?
Well I was lucky enough to have my mum around to help me create my first garments and to show me the ropes where it comes to fit and construction. Having great foundations is really important. I think that I’m also a very passionate and dedicated person. I have a profound love for designing, for being present and active in my business, and for talking to my customers and really valuing them and engaging with them. That has never dissipated in all these years. From day one to day 5,475, I’ve loved every second.
"I was in my early 20s! I got on a plane, all by myself, to meet a stranger who would help me find what I needed. I was SO scared!"
Your clothing is ethically made in India – how important was it for you to make sure Oobi clothing was ethically produced?
When I first decided to take myself overseas to look into manufacturing, there was no ‘internet’ really. So I sent a fax to a translator that I found through the consulate. She sent me a fax back and asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to find a small factory, run by women, who made kids clothing. I was in my early 20s! I got on a plane, all by myself, to meet a stranger who would help me find what I needed. I was SO scared!
What I think is extremely important, no matter what stage you are at, is to visit your factory, to meet the people who work for you, and to understand their needs, wishes, wants and skills. I did days and weeks of travel, in really difficult circumstances sometimes, until I found people that I wanted to work with, and who wanted to work with me. I up-skilled them in certain areas, teaching them what I knew, and, what’s crucial, is that I spent time also learning from them. I like to foster mutually respectful relationships where conversations are had that are open and honest. I engage and ask questions and really value the input of everyone, from the “masters” to the seamstresses.
Then I found out about an organisation called SEDEX who visit factories all over the world and rate those factories on a whole lot of factors. Human rights, workers rights, the environment and animal rights. I knew that I could never work with a factory that wasn’t SEDEX rated and we opened ourselves up to a full audit of every facet of our work and environment. We got a 4/5 star rating and they gave us amazing advice and assistance on areas we could improve. Everyone said I was wasting my time, that 5 star was impossible to get, especially for a small business, and that we should be thrilled with a 4/5!
I mentioned that I’m passionate right? We spent 6 months putting a whole lot of systems in place and fixing every last issue, and when they returned for their second audit we got 5/5.
We do regular and random audits so that nobody knows we’re coming. And we have retained our 5 star rating for years. Why is it important? Because many women in this world are treated as lower class citizens, and have their human rights abused. And if that were my daughter, my mother, my sister or my grandmother, I’d do anything and everything I could to make sure that she had a good and purposeful life where she was valued and paid well and treated humanely. It’s a non-negotiable.
I’ve seen a lot of bad things on my travel, and I will not be part of a system that says that’s OK. When you purchase from other countries, if you don’t know where those things are made, then you are turning a blind eye to things you’d never accept in your own backyard.
Do you think consumers are fully aware about the negative impacts of fast fashion? And if not, what do we need to do to correct it?
I don’t think that consumers are fully aware of the negative impacts of fast fashion. We laughingly call Oobi ‘slow fashion’ and I’m proud of that. It takes me about a year to create a collection so I’m always working about 2 years in advance. We take our time, we don’t airfreight, we sea freight (better for the environment) and we craft our garments. Fast fashion puts pressure on the environment and, crucially, on the people that make those garments. They are forced to work nights, weekends, to cut corners and then to air freight collections. I don’t want to be part of that. I LOVE fashion, but I love people and the planet more. Loving fashion and the planet are not mutually exclusive.
"I want our fashion to be part of a good memory that a woman has one day. When she thinks back to her childhood and remembers the favourite dress with the apples or the pocket or the special piece of lace, or the way it made her feel."
Image credit: @ggs_great_adventures
You’ve had some organic cotton ranges in the past – is this something you’ll look to do more of in the future?
Yes, we dipped our toe in the water of organic garments and I would love to keep pursuing it. We used a GOTS certified supplier and he was hilarious guy that I enjoyed meeting (one of life’s true passionate ‘characters’) so it’s happening.
How important is sustainability in the day to day running of your business? Are there any proactive measures you’re taking to reduce the company’s footprint?
This has really been a huge sticking point for us and for me personally. We do not do the whole ‘unboxing’ thing, no glitter in our bags, no tissue paper or paper flyers, cards etc. But we do bag our garments because they need to be protected from dirt. 2018 and 2019 are our years to really reduce the quantity of our plastic packaging and I am looking into biodegradable bags and also we have decided that in future collections we won’t be individually bagging our garments. However, like most things that are worthy, it will take a while to roll this out completely.
Oobi is exclusively a girlswear range – why did you decide to only design girls’ clothing?
We have to be true to ourselves and understand our strengths. If I focus on girl’s fashion, I give it 100%. When I was designing for boys, my time and my focus was always split, and, to be honest, because I found boys wear more challenging, it took up a lot more of my time. I ended up making the decision that with focus and dedication, I could create more ranges for girls and expand my sizes from 6 years to 9 years, which is what I did a few years ago when I ceased making boy’s fashion. I do miss it though. I loved to design those sweet little outfits and use my passion for fabric, prints and mix-and-match into boys wear and I genuinely miss it.
I just love designing for girls and I love knowing that when a little girl wears one of my dresses they feel special and amazing. I construct our garments to make sure that they are easy to wear and fit a variety of bodies too. I see it in photo shoots, when the little ones put on our clothes, they feel so empowered. They really do, it’s like a little light that switches on - and that is the best feeling in the world!
I want our fashion to be part of a good memory that a woman has one day. When she thinks back to her childhood and remembers the favourite dress with the apples or the pocket or the special piece of lace, or the way it made her feel. Dismissing kids fashion and saying that it’s “just clothing” is to ignore a critical part of a child’s development. The texture, fascination, construction, it’s so important. A great piece of clothing can empower a child and is really valuable.
Image credit: @mikyla.charlotte