Tani Klein founder and designer doodlebug

Doodlebug is a gorgeous children's clothing brand that makes luxuriously soft bamboo clothing right here in Australia. We spoke with Tani Klein, Doodlebug's creator, about how the brand almost accidentally came about, what it means to be certified Fair Trade, and why bamboo is one of the best fabrics your little ones can wear.  

Tell us a little bit about you and your family
One Kiwi, one Canadian, and two identity confused children living in sunny Qld Australia! We have one cat, five chickens and I am pushing for a puppy ;) We are lucky enough to be living in an old farm house on an acreage on the Sunshine Coast. Which means a lot of work and maintenance, but I think secretly we like that.

Talk to us about Doodlebug – how did the brand come about?
I have a background in film and television, arts and costume design. When I was pregnant with my second child I had trouble finding work as we had just moved to the coast. I turned to drawing, as I often do in times of stress and ended up producing a series of line drawings for my three-year old. I thought one might look cute on one of her tops, so I figured out how to make a transfer and I made her one.

She loved it, and so did her friends so I made some more. And somehow - and this I will never understand how I got so brave - but somehow I made a whole bunch, and booked a stall at our local market. I had barely shown anyone my art before, let alone tried to sell it. Must have been baby brain. Best bold move I ever made, because I sold out that day. And the next, and before I knew it I had a couple of local shops stocking my tops and onesies.

black and white striped bamboo girls top cactus print
The next big bold scary leap was then getting a tonne of fabric manufactured. Literally, a tonne. I had never manufactured or imported anything in my life, but here I was Googling what things like GSM and FOB meant! And so began my rapid fire education. Far more valuable than any of my university degrees (another story another day).

Once I had the fabric underway, I designed a line of clothing that would fit better than anything I had currently for my kids. I'm talking longer lengths, cuffs for growth, no elastic for baby tummies and room for cloth nappies. I didn't think to follow it up with another collection, I had no idea the first one would do so well! And so it began, a series of being astounded every season when it sold, and sold again and again!

The growth happened very quickly in retrospect, and I was learning as I went. Plus coping with a pre-schooler and a newborn. It was crazy 50 hour weeks and hustling every weekend doing photoshoots and markets. Doodlebug was stocked in over 60 shops over seven countries. Sounds great? It wasn't sustainable. It was a mental breakdown waiting to happen!
tani klein doodlebug designer artist sketches

I had two options, take on staff, expand, go bigger (and not see a wage for several years), or downsize, go local and turn a small sustainable profit. I took the second option. It was right for me and my family at the time. Now Doodlebug is made 100% in Australia, available online and stocked with a handful of trusted retailers.

I regularly visit our certified Fair Trade factory (which we started that first range with almost 10 years ago!) and we are still using only 100% bamboo fabric. Our range is small, and only released twice a year. But this allows me to stay true to the brands ethos, and more than that, my personal belief that there is beauty in the small well done details.
What is your design process?
I work with trusted local patternmakers, of whom have been with me from the start. I will spend a few weeks in design mode, illustrating and coming up with new style ideas. I will take my sketches to my pattern maker, who will work her magic to turn my ideas into a reality.

We usually go few a few rounds of sampling, trying on all the local children we can get our hands on until we get a style to fit just right. The patterns then go to our local Fair Trade factory who cut and sew the pieces for me. I then work with a couple of local screen printers to print the garments, and I distribute everything myself. Its a small team, but one I value, with relationships fixed from years of working together.

Where did the brand name come from?
The name Doodlebug came from the original way the business started... with my doodles! I almost followed the trend of naming my business after my children, thank god I didn't do that! Its funny, as now my 'doodles' are such a core part of what I do, and my line of work has followed this path, as I take on custom design work for other companies and individuals.

Its been quite the journey; there have been some great highs and some very low lows, but I cannot begin to tell you how much I have learnt from it all. All of that time, experience and learnt skill I am now utilising in the next step of my business. I haven't officially launched yet, but I can confirm the domain 'doodlebugcreativestudio' has been purchased ;) ... watch this space...
Why did you decide to use bamboo over another sustainable fabric, such as organic cotton? And has this limited or enhanced your designs in any way?
When I was starting the line I wanted to find THE fabric that was the best possible thing to put against baby's skin. It was obvious that bamboo with its anti-bacterial, anti fungal, thermal regulating properties (just to name a few) was a winner. And above all it is deliciously buttery soft and non irritating.

It is grown sustainably without the need for pesticides. Honestly bamboo grows like wildfire and is incredibly sustainable. It was the logical choice. I opted to put a 5% lycra blend in with the fabric, for ease of movement for active children, stretch over wee bellies and chunky thighs and it gives a beautiful drape.

I have absolutely been limited by sticking with this fabric, printing for one is still something we are tweaking as it doesn't react like other fabrics. Choosing to manufacture in Australia also limits my design options greatly as I am unable to do things like an all over print for example as it is not a service available here. It forces me to be creative, and work with what I have got.
forest green bamboo baby onesie and striped girls bamboo twirly dress
Image credit: Southern Sands Photography 

How important was it for you to ensure that Doodlebug is not only made in Australia, but is also certified Fair Trade?

I'm going to be controversial here. While I absolutely love that we are supporting Australian industry and it is imperative to be working with ethical factories, I have learnt sometimes certifications just mean a bunch of money spent. We manufactured in India for several years, and I really felt like we were doing a great thing, supporting the workers there that really relied upon our dollar a lot more than here. The factory was ethical, but not certified fair trade, but I spent a lot of time there, inspecting it myself, and visiting every step in the design process.

Just with the certified organic thing, while it is wonderful, it is not always necessary. Our fabric for example is not certified organic, but it is grown organically. My intention was never about creating an 'eco brand'. I didn't want to cash in on some 'green' cash cow. It was about creating something of style and substance, and doing so in a way that was a natural extension of the way I lived my life. Authentically, and carefully.

This in turn had me use an eco fabric, and work with ethical companies. As a producer of consumables, I am very conscious about what I am putting out into the world. I want to make sure the products I make (and there are many more than just the clothing) are not going to go direct to landfill.

Since launching Doodlebug, have you learnt anything about the fashion industry that’s surprised you?
Holy Moly so much! Probably the first thing that comes to mind is that the fashion industry is in the top three for environmental waste (along with the automotive and coffee industries interestingly enough). In the past ten years I have seen an enormous shift in the industry as brands and designers are starting to take personal responsibility.

Ten years ago eco/sustainable clothing was in the realms of the brown or tie died market clothes. Now it is becoming the norm, with large companies such as Nike coming under fire for not having a transparent ethical supply chain. But I digress.

Do you think consumers are fully aware about the negative impacts of the fashion industry? And if not, what do we need to do to correct it?
There is such an awareness now it is amazing. It might be the bubble I live in, or my generation, but I very much think that environmental and sustainability concerns are now on the consumers radar, not just style and price.  There is however still very much a culture of buy cheap, and buy lots. Cheap fast fashion.
You can buy a Kmart onesie for $5!! I can't make my onesies for even half that! You've got to ask how can they afford to do that. In my mind, its better to buy one treasured piece that will last several seasons and over several children, than five cheap ones that end up in the bin. I think more people need to learn how to sew. Fix things, not throw things away.
Are there any other measures Doodlebug takes to be sustainable in the day to day running of the business?
Items are not individually packaged in plastic as many clothing brands are. We may not look as fancy, but we wrap as many garments as we can in our compostable tissue paper and stay plastic free. We do not print out individual sales receipts with our online orders, opting for electronic everything where we can. I try to use up every last metre of fabric so that there is no wastage. This means being creative, making little nappy pants out of remnants etc, but its very important to me we are not throwing anything away.

black and white striped unisex bamboo baby pants
Image credit: Southern Sands Photography 

A lot of your styles are unisex – was it important for you to create pieces that could be worn by both boys and girls?

I love to make unisex things! I have one boy and one girl, so I know what is going to appeal to both, but I personally loved dressing my babes in neutrals! The onesies in particular I always try to make sure there are some neutrals in there, as often people are shopping before they know what they are having. Good style and fun clothing doesn't have to be pink or blue! Kids are kids no matter what.

What’s the most important life lesson you would like to impart on your children?

OMG I could write a book. Literally. My kids are 8 and 12 this year, and I am forever giving them life lessons/ lectures when they are trapped in the car with me between the soccer/ballet/swimming/school runs! Haha. I think one thing I am big on right now is collaboration not competition. This goes for everything in life, but is particularly pertinent for girls. My daughter is going to high school next year, and it seems like the time to be instilling this one. 

One of my favourite quotes is 'a flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms'. In terms of business, it is a dangerous black (Instagram) hole to get sucked down into playing the comparison game. You will ALWAYS lose. Even if you think you win, you lose because you are putting others against you instead of with you. When you can look at someone doing something amazing, and feel stoked for them not jealous, the world opens up. I am not perfect, I am still reminding myself of this, but if you can get in the mindset of being your best self, and allowing for others to be their best selves, wouldn't we all just rise higher?
tani klein founder and designer, doodlbug and family