AS the first COVID-19 lockdown placed a long, shadowy cloak over the fashion business she has built with her sisters for almost two decades, Rowena Foong confronted long minutes of sheer fear.
The pandemic had already forced Foong and her younger siblings, Juliana and Angela, to shut their retail store High Tea with Mrs Woo in Darby Street, Cooks Hill.
Just as disastrously, it had forced the cancellation of the 15-odd national design markets, which draw crowds of around 30,000, and from where their microbusiness draws about a third of its income.
The panic the eldest Foong sister felt was not, however, one of certain doom.
"One of the worst thoughts I had during lockdown was, 'What kind of second job do I have to do to keep our business going?'", says Rowena, her eyes widening in dismay at the notion, "instead of "That's it, we'll never survive - let's call it quits!"
Experts in finding impossible creative solutions under intense financial pressure like so many small Australian businesses, High Tea with Mrs Woo began to operate its "sustainable, thoughtful and slow fashion" model at break-neck, survival speed.
Foremost in the Foong sisters' minds was how to stay connected to their "loyal community" - customers who love their considered, elegant garments made from natural fibre fabrics, and who share their commitment to reducing waste and the circular economy.
Applying for JobKeeper while co-parenting (collectively they have six young children with their partners), the siblings nutted out an evolving plan to weather the storm.
First, they began filming themselves for 50 successive days for The Quarantine Series.
No-frills but informative and funny, the daily videos grew in popularity as the sisters laid bare their lockdown business lives with their eco-conscious tribe.
"We were working in the workshop or the shop, quarantined in the family bubble, then we had to quarantine separately, so we thought, 'How are we going to film a conversation if we are separate? Ok, Let's each do a video and join them'," Rowena says of the videos, which ranged from showing how a garment was made to topical conversation.
"Our colleagues were saying, 'At least we have got something to look forward to', even though I was editing them at 11pm because I have a two-year-old who's not sleeping."
"We were able to respond to our customers' needs promptly with our ability to learn how to use available technology on the fly and shift the physical retail experience that our customers know us for to a completely virtual space overnight."
Next, they used fabric remnants to make furoshiki wrapping cloths they gave to Newcastle East cafe owner Bec Bowie, who filled them with ingredients for a "DIY immunity breakfast" she sold to customers from Estabar's door.
"We pivoted to produce care packs and manufactured reusable face masks and collaborated with local businesses to respond to immediate needs with a strong focus on community," Rowena says.
"In turn, our customers really showed up for us and kept our business going."
Today they are turning their attention to expediating a long-simmering idea.
In 2017, the siblings and their families pooled their funds to buy a factory in Fern Street, Islington. They then rented out space to Newcastle's creative community for maker projects and exhibitions.
With the pandemic ending that activity, the Foongs have reclaimed The Fernery for its intended use - experimenting.
Gathered around a work bench inside on a recent winter's morning, the siblings continue to assess piece upon piece of fabric remnants and offcuts they have amassed in close to 20 years in the fashion industry.
Fabric swatches hang from neatly stacked white cardboard boxes against a wall. Nearby, black garbage bags stuffed with yet more fabric remnants fill a corner of the room.
From the get-go of their clothing label, the Foongs have recycled fabric.
"When we used to wholesale to 35 stockists, our garments were cut by a fabric cutter in Sydney and there was a service they used which was excellent where they collected offcuts," Rowena explains. "When that stopped, I was driving the [remnants] to another place and it was a 90-minute drive which became unfeasible, and I was dropping it and thinking, 'Are they actually going to recycle it?'
"We looked for solutions but even now a decade later, Australia hasn't got many solutions for textile recycling. We couldn't bear to put ours in landfill."
And so, they hoarded it.
Until last month the vast material stash was stored at High Tea with Mrs Woo's primary manufacturing studio in Chinchen Street, Islington.
They gradually carted it to The Fernery, now temporarily rebranded as Fabrica (a Latin word for workshop).
It is here that the Foong sisters and their small staff are painstakingly sorting through their fabric haul and questioning every step of their design process to move from low waste to zero.
"It's like a wardrobe - you often don't know what you have," says Angela.
"If we can sort, aggregate and segregate and rework all of these scraps, what looks like waste, into resource, then that would be the ultimate. Like, what do we have, what can we make?"
Fabrica is the latest step in the Foong sisters' reputation for blazing a sustainable fashion trail and embracing the circular economy: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
But like every other step they have taken, it is both measured and out-of-the-box.
"We'd collected fabric for so long in garbage bags and we were like, 'Why are we treating it like that? It's important stuff!' So we began putting it in white boxes, and now it looks valuable," explains Rowena.
"We realised that the language around it is everything and influential," adds Angela.
"If you say 'offcuts' it means less worthy but if we change that to 'cuttings' we are talking about propagation and plant cuttings and regeneration. So we've switched our minds."
"We are regenerating," concludes Juliana.
The sisters and their staff are now effectively creating yardage with their materials.
For now, little can be done with the tiniest fabric cuttings - sending them to Spain or Italy where sustainable yarn recovery and textile waste upcycling companies are established would be costly, so they will hold on to them until a local solution appears.
There are more possibilities and creative challenges for the larger fabric pieces.
"We have been looking at our designs and improving the way our systems work. Because there are still no easy, accessible and circular solutions for textile waste recycling ...we want to try and design so there is zero waste in the cutting process, so when we make a garment there is absolutely no fabric left to waste," Rowena says.
They already have runs on the board.
Last year, High Tea with Mrs Woo teamed up with the School of Creative Industries on a Low Waste Slow Fashion Future project. The team won a $10,000 grant it used to buy an innovative digital ink-jet fabric printer.
Noting that the fashion industry was responsible for 10 per cent of the world's global carbon footprint, their submission combined traditional design methods and CAD software to minimise fabric waste. They suggested that involving customers in making garments exactly as they wanted would "shift the throw-away mentality in to pride of ownership and longevity."
"You can literally feed any fabric into this particular printer, we can design the pattern and print and feed pre-assembled pieces of fabric into it - there is all this potential to experiment," Rowena says.
High Tea with Mrs Woo used the printer in a sustainable design submission to the inaugural We The Makers Festival prize organised by the National Wool Museum.
"We designed a pair of pants with zero waste in cutting, a top which was low waste - there was a tiny bit which we used to pad a collar - and a jacket which we used the printer on," Rowena says.
Fabric waste was reduced by "meticulously planned" zero-waste garment designs that were sustainably printed on natural fabrics. The digital printing of individual garment components removed the fabric offcuts usually generated from pattern-matching or conforming to the fabric 'grain' during cutting. Digital printing required minimal water usage and removed the necessity of repeated dye rinsing.
Any fabric or thread waste from the project, which celebrated the six seasons of the indigenous calendar, was fed back into the garment structures or recycled into paper used for the label "swing tags", themselves embedded with native seeds and designed to be planted to generate new growth.
The jacket fit the body shapes of three models: Juliana, Caelli Brooker (a member of the project team), and Rowena's artist partner Brett McMahon, who designed the fabric print.
High Tea with Mrs Woo was a joint winner of the We The Makers Festival event.
"We are very interested in the un-gendered nature of garments as a way to consider clothing," Rowena says of the experience.
"The point of these exercises too is to see if we can make these system work effectively, and then how do we apply it commercially? "You don't want all the things you do to be one-off, you want a future to it, so how do we apply it?
PERCHED high on a cupboard in Fabrica is a miniature statue of Guan Gong, the guardian deity of loyalty and wealth, positioned purposefully to face the door for luck and protection. The statue has a home in all of the Foong work spaces and, Angela jokes, this one even had his own seat on its way Australia on one of the many plane rides the sisters make to visit their family homeland of Malaysia.
Way before they immigrated with their parents to Newcastle in 1988 when they were respectively aged 10 (Rowena), 8 (Jules) and 6 (Angela), the Foong sisters were already "shop veterans".
"We grew up in a goldsmith's shop - I always have an image of my [paternal] granddad at his making desk hammering and making gold jewellery," says Angela.
Taught to sew at a young age by their mother, the girls attended Newcastle schools before Rowena and Jules studied Graphic Design at the University of Newcastle and Angela completed a double degree in commerce and economics.
They launched their first shop, Spareparts Industries, as part of a collective in 2001.
They began selling their own hand-made garments made from upcycled fabrics under the brand Spareparts Laboratories and in 2004 High Tea With Mrs Woo was born with an initial investment of $1000 from each sibling. [The brand name refers to the special occasions the children would dress up and accompany their parents and family to a new Western hotel in Malaysia for high tea, a curious mix of dumplings and sandwiches in the British-colonised country].
The sisters collaborate on their fashion range but assume natural roles within the business. Angela, "being the youngest but the bossiest," say her sisters, runs the financial ship. Juliana is drawn to pattern development and production, and Rowena has taken on the communications and marketing of the brand.
"At the start it was a mess, we were all doubling up on each other, only wanting to do the fun stuff," laughs Rowena, adding that the trio have relied on a mediator throughout their business journey to help them clarify their roles to ensure efficiency.
Importing fabrics from their homeland, Japan and Italy because of the lack of textile production in Australia, the brand soon graced the edgiest fashion titles.
In 2004, the sisters were finalists in the Mercedes NSW Start-up Award.
"We were merging east and west, using Chinese brocade," recalls Rowena, adding their designs drew attention but were seen as too theatrical and lacking commerciality.
A year later, as they drove from Newcastle to Sydney, the sisters debated how they would win over the panel of five judges at their Australian Fashion Week debut.
"We decided we'd use our allocated five minutes telling them what we wanted, not allow the judges any need for questions and just breeze through," Rowena say, laughing at the memory of their audacity. "And that was the year we won."
Literally "Woo-ing" customers with their urban and often reversible pieces, they expanded to open a second store in then booming Oxford Street, Paddington.
But they soon found the traditional retail model of Australian fashion to be an ill fit.
"We didn't study fashion, we got into it because we won the award, had mentorship ...Then it was runways, meeting clients, do two or four seasons a year, it was a big learning curve," says Angela. "Buyers were like, 'Oh, [we] only buy 20 per cent of a collection!' and we were like, 'Why make 100 pieces if you are only getting 20 per cent of that?'. It's a waste. We thought it was stupid. Buyers would make orders and you got paid on delivery and we were not normal - we asked for 40 per cent deposit up front."
Eventually the sisters pared operations to their Newcastle store and continued to refine their operations.
"We are still in a capitalist society, we still need to sell, of course we do, but we can slow it all down," Rowena says.
"Big brands, if sustainable, are still producing in excess, and having sales. We'd love them to back up what they are doing and not do that. Reduce the amount they make. You are not sustainable if you are making large quantities with 'good' fabrics."
"There are big businesses doing great things, recycling fishing nets into clothing. Some colleagues say 'We are small, it doesn't matter', but you can be tiny and easily create a better system of producing."
High Tea with Mrs Woo recently vacated their Cooks Hill store in which they have grown their trade and families since 2005. Their lease was ending, the timing suited.
"We've learnt through this COVID-19 period that we are small and nimble, resourceful and resilient, we have an incredible staff who have ridden the corona-wave with us, adjusting to the new normal, with optimism," Angela says.
The pandemic taught the sisters that life is not a dress rehearsal. "There is no second chance, or going back ... We are making the move for changes we've been wanting to happen now," Angela notes.
High Tea with Mrs Woo will soon relocate to Hunter Street mall trader Studio Melt, long a champion of local and national makers, artists and jewellers.
"Retail is changing, the whole David Jones model is a dinosaur, we love bricks and mortar and we don't want to lose it but we question its relevance," says Angela, adding that she and her siblings view Studio Melt owner Angela Hailey as a kindred spirit.
Until then, they will be at Fabrica and creating garments in their studio.
"The fashion world is so much about display [but] we feel more comfortable saying we are clothing designers, not fashion designers," Rowena says. "We want to make elegant, functional clothing and we love thinking around ungendered clothing. If you can make something great, it doesn't matter who you are, you just want to wear it."
That said, they do have a whole range of elastic pants perfect for busy mums because, Angela says with a laugh, "being able to pull your pants off with one hand while holding a child while going to the toilet is important!"
Fabrica may be a pop-up but the Foongs hope their creative deep-dive will help drive long-term trends.
"We'd say to most industries, 'How would you feel to be surrounded by all the things you throw out?" Rowena says. "We want to surround ourselves with stuff that would be thrown. That makes you think, 'Well, how do we design better? How do we change?"
"If you're thriving financially at the cost of the earth and people's welfare then you're not doing good business. We choose to be great instead of big ... small giants."
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