Unique ... it comes with a price.

Unique ... it comes with a price. Photo: Rob Homer

Unique design, unusual fabrics, excellent craftsmanship and a commitment to sustainability – add them up and it comes to a huge competitive advantage.  But it also comes with a downside.

Ask Kara Smith.  She’ll tell you that many consumers don’t understand the true cost of these attributes. 

“People, the majority, still don't understand pricing for a unique item,” she says. 

So while many women want to sport a handbag that no one else has, not all of them are prepared to pay for the privilege. 

Ms. Smith is one of a growing legion of designers around the world making a living by connecting with the need of many consumers to wean themselves off what Smith herself refers to as the “mass produced rot” sold through mainstream retail channels.

Tucked away in the village of Mt. Victoria in the Blue Mountains, 120 km west of Sydney,  Ms. Smith, a mother of two small children, is a women’s accessories designer with a heck of a difference.

She scrounges fabrics from discarded clothing, living room furniture and other weird and wonderful objects (e.g. vintage club lounges) and gives them a second life by recycling them into one-of-a-kind purses, handbags, scarves and other personal effects, which she then sells on her website.

Lately, her line has expanded to include reversible dresses for babies and little girls, also made from vintage fabrics, an idea that came to her when she discovered while trying to buy clothes for her baby daughters that there was a gaping hole in the market for unique dresses.  Particularly dresses that weren’t pink.

She is one of hundreds of small business people who live in the Blue Mountains and draw energy and inspiration from the creativity and beauty around them.  After a two-year interlude on the South Coast, she is happy to be back. 

“The Blue Mountains is a highly creative environment and I am absolutely surrounded by creative minds. Most friends have their own businesses at home and have moved away from the hustle and bustle of Sydney. At my mothers group, I was amazed to meet incredible women who were editors, journalists, graphic designers, industrial designers... and all over 30.”

The internet and social media make it easier to be geographically isolated from one’s customers and still run an effective business.  Smith sells mostly online, and says she loves Facebook, which she uses as a way of communicating quickly with her customers.  

“If I wake up and feel like a sale, bingo, it's instant. Send out a post to everyone in my Facebook group and offer a quick sale with a deadline attached. It's a great way to share photos of new handbags and dresses and it lets other women 'share' the images with their own friends.”

But it hasn’t been all beer and skittles. Business for Kara Smith was booming the last time I spoke with her about four years ago.  Then came the downturn – the one that refuses to go away.  “Until a couple of years ago women were buying my one-off handbags happily and coming back for more. People just don't seem to have the money they used to.”

What does Kara Smith think of Australian fashion retailers?  Not much, as it turns out.  “Looking at clothing in major Australian retail stores, I think the quality is pitiful. Not designed to last more than a season.

Like my handbags, most of my clothing is second-hand.  I'm also a size 16 and feel that these retailers aren't interested in a 'real' figure so I don't really spend on them.”

Where does she shop herself?  “I love buying off local Facebook garage sale pages, eBay and Gumtree. And there is absolutely nothing better than a good find in a secondhand shop.”

Smith is comfortable with what she sees as major lifestyle advantages in her business model.

“I can sell online from the privacy of my own home. I can be creative and not have to turn something out for the masses that must be fashionable and sell quickly. The fabrics I use are not always fashionable. It takes a woman with an interesting eye to understand and appreciate them.”

Managing two small kids, aged 3 years and 10 months respectively,  and a business at the same time is not easy.  She usually puts in a shift at night while the children are asleep.  “Because I create everything, including my website design and online sales, I find that I don't achieve nearly as much as I would like. I have to plan what I'd like to achieve per week and hope to do at least 70% of it.”

I asked her if she saw fashion becoming increasingly fragmented in the sense of people looking for value in uniqueness, buying from someone they know and trust, and buying locally.

“I see people wanting fashion with uniqueness - at a reduced price.  The market out there is saturated with overseas rip-offs and cheap items. The major shopping centres are constantly having sales. It's extremely hard to compete with.”

But with a lot of people looking to differentiate themselves from the herd and do something for the environment at the same time, this is a business concept with legs for the long haul.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.com and www.mbaker-retail.com