Four decades ago, a girl from a country town in WA burst into the Australian fashion scene with passion and determination. Liz Davenport has since blazed her unique trail from Perth to the giddy heights of fashion - Bond Street, conquering Singapore and New Zealand along the way. Liz, who shares her colourful journey as a designer, wife, mother, mentor, and activist in her autobiography- LIZ - A Life of Colour - talks with Nicole Watson about sustainability, going global and being a corporate citizen.
What was it like going global back in 1979?
The tyranny of distance. It has been amazing to watch the world shrink over the past two decades. It feels like only yesterday that travelling interstate felt like travelling to the moon. Thanks to globalisation and the emergence of technology particularly the internet, I don’t even feel that going to the moon would be a problem.
It was certainly a challenge going global back then. As with all challenges, it always feels a lot harder before you start and all challenges are only as difficult as you make them in your own head.
How has the fashion landscape changed here and abroad since?
The fashion industry is the most dynamic of all in my opinion. It is constantly evolving, highly competitive and rewards the hardest worker. The only significant change that has taken place has been in manufacturing. It wasn’t long ago that our entire product was manufactured in Western Australia. Sadly, due to many factors outside of my control, manufacturing is largely done overseas. The other change has been in online retail but I don’t think this shift has had as big an impact in fashion. People like to touch and feel and appreciate customer service. Fit is a critical factor. Research on the internet influences people to come into the store.
What has your experience been in expanding internationally?
I have discovered that women all over the world have the same fashion needs. The northern hemisphere is where the market serves hundreds of millions compared to Australia’s small population of 23 million. I plan to continue to expand into this much bigger market. If I was going to be completely honest it would be harder to open up at the Westfield around the corner than it is to establish a new store in a market like Hong Kong or London.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned going global?
To respect and understand the culture. And in doing so embrace and enjoy it. Just because something is different does not mean that you can’t adjust to another way of thinking. In recent times, I’ve had meetings with Chinese delegates, Middle Eastern sheiks and American divas.
You’ve dressed A-list celebrities, royalty, musicians and politicians alike. What has been your most memorable request so far?
I’d love to say that it was dressing Rod Stewart in a wild leopard print shirt but as always my most memorable moments and requests come from my everyday customers. The best request is, “Liz, help me take the war out of my wardrobe and make me look and feel the best that I can.” The most popular request is; "make me look slimmer". Women the world over have the same image pressures! - “does my bum look big in this?”
You’re constantly travelling in your line of work. What’s your number one travel tip?
“Pack everything you need and nothing you don’t” A recent study in the UK revealed that on average, women pack 44 garments when they go on a holiday and only wear half of them. I have learnt and perfected the art of packing only what I need in a cabin-sized bag. Apart from that, request a window seat!
Your company is very much a family business. How did this come about and how does it all work?
It feels very natural for our family. My husband has always been both my support and inspiration. He fears no challenge and encourages people to pursue their dreams. My children literally grew up in the business, coming to the office after school to play amongst the fabrics with their extended family in my amazing staff. Both of my daughters share my creative passion whereas Peter has taken after his father and remains more analytical.
Jane and Katie have moved on but are still a part of the team. Katie is concentrating on her beautiful twins James and Ruby but still finds the time to work on her own label, Showpony by Katie Davenport. Jane is the most talented artist on the planet – visit her website to discover your inner artist – she teaches online.
Peter is my youngest of three children and now works with me in the business. He majored in electronic commerce after graduating with a law degree. He manages the company and I answer to him. It’s an interesting relationship for Mother and Son and I enjoy working with him.
I work directly with Terry, my husband, and Peter, my son, on a daily basis.
Your designs are really quite timeless. How does this lend their greater sustainability?
I listen to my clients and design clothes that they want to buy. The basic requirements of a wardrobe really don’t change so you can’t forget these items as a designer. The real fun is had designing on-trend highlights which is where I get to use my flair for colour and prints. There is nothing wrong with being timeless which is why my Timeless Shirt has been my best seller for 20 years. Clothes that last as classics for years do save the unnecessary landfill created by a throwaway society.
You have been described as a, “staunch environmentalist.” Where do you think this passion came from? And what causes are you most passionate about?
My passion for the environment stems from my upbringing and childhood. I grew up on the South West tip of Western Australia on a farm surrounded by nature. I knew no fences. I learnt to respect my surroundings at a very young age and observe without disturbing. As a result the cause that I am most passionate about is protecting the old growth forests that were all around me as a little girl.
What was it like to work alongside respected Canadian scientist David Suzuki and British botanist, David Bellamy in 1999 to stop logging in old growth forests in south-west Western Australia?
This was one of the greatest honours that I have experienced in my life. These two gentlemen were so humble, warm, and awe inspiring. What they have done for the environment and our planet will never truly be understood. Their selfless actions and love of the environment is something that will benefit many generations to come.
What’s one other thing our Community would be surprised to learn about you?
I still have complete control over almost every facet of my company and brand. From managing all of my retail outlets & travelling boutiques, designing & reviewing and approving all print marketing to sourcing fabrics and managing staff. If you want something done, you have to do it yourself or work very, very closely with your team. Patience and multi-tasking are my saving graces.
You describe yourself as a corporate citizen. What does this mean to you?
Service to the community is a very serious issue. My commitment as a corporate citizen to help our community has largely been in support of the volunteers who dedicate so much of their time to charity work. If I were Prime Minister, I would acknowledge the role of the volunteer at every opportunity. If the foot soldiers were not there at the school mothers’ club, the Red Cross, the Pink Ribbon Day, the Asthma Foundations and the hundreds of fund raising groups, our country would not be able to develop research, pay for services or assist the less fortunate. No amount of funds could cover their contribution. My company helps with fund-raising every single day.
In your research, you’ve found the average woman is size 14-16. Do you find this is similar internationally? How has this impacted your direction as a brand?
Yes. Women’s sizing is similar internationally. There are differences in average height but I believe that research would show that the average woman on most continents is size 14. Even Asian women are getting bigger. It is my focus on fit that has underpinned the success of the brand in Australia and internationally.
Where is your favourite place to source fabrics internationally?
In the past it was France and Italy but today I enjoy nothing more than spending weeks exploring the textile centres in Asia.
Can you share with us your passion and dedicated support for our wool industry?
Wool is the most amazing fibre and it saddens me to have seen this industry experience such decline. There is so much that could have been done differently.
I enjoy working with wool more than any other fabric or fibre. It is so important for us to do everything that we can to re-establish Australia at the top of the wool market. After all, we live in a country that was grown on the sheep’s back. It is truly amazing to see how technology and innovation has improved the quality of superfine merino wool products. I cannot wait to see them available around the world and look forward to working with our resilient growers to that end. Sadly at this time, wool fabric is very expensive and with the consumer watching her budget so closely wool has moved out of her reach.
As an active voice within the community, what do you envision for the future of wool’s end-to-end production?
I am currently working with key industry stakeholders to improve the downstream processing of wool with the goal of making it more achievable for consumers. My goal is to offer a product that is softer than cashmere at half the price. The industry is segmented, the pipeline is convoluted and it takes too long to get product to market.
Wool growers are developing costly, innovative, new genetic and diet which give continuity of supply to specification. But they are not receiving the dividend they deserve. My observation is that the industry is divided and disgruntled and lacks cohesive leadership which means it cannot progress to the level that is necessary for it to be competitive.
What are your top tips for other designers looking to go global with their business?
The greatest tip for successful business is “Find the unmet want and supply the demand”. If people do not relate to the product you create then they will not buy it and you therefore do not have a business. Do not accept the words "I can't" replace them with "How can I?" WORK HARD. There are seven days in the week not four and a half and 24 hours in a day, not eight.
What do you envision for the future of Liz Davenport, both yourself and your iconic brand?
The future is very exciting. In fact, I have so much more to achieve from a global perspective. Australia, with Perth being the most remote city in the world, is far removed from the heavily populated markets of the northern hemisphere. I have always regarded my brand as having an international appeal and technology is now making it easier to conduct business worldwide.
I also want to publish a magazine to recognize extraordinary people and places and offer an alternative to celebrity diets and unwearable clothes. Our travelling boutique concept will reach from Hong Kong to Hobart, Adelaide to Auckland and Canberra to Cairns. I love this new way of enjoying shopping. We’re also embarking on exciting collaborations with amazing partners like Willie Creek Pearls and reputable travel agents to conduct - hosted tours for my wonderful clients. On a personal level, I love spending time with my husband, horses, children and grandchildren.
“Stop thinking about everyone else and understand yourself - when you do that, you position yourself to achieve. That’s what led to my greatest personal achievement – happiness.”They call her ‘Cyclone Sonja’ and her seemingly boundless energy is whipping up an international storm of excitement and inspiration...
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