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Hayley Allen knits for the world
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"I just go with my heart. I never look at what anyone else is doing."
Conversations
1 April 2010

Hayley Allen knits for the world

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Daniel Guerra

Kate Bezar on Hayley Allen

Perhaps it’s Hayley Allen’s hot South American blood, but you get the impression there is not much this girl couldn’t do if she put her mind to it. Actually, can you describe a mother of three as a ‘girl’? Probably not, especially when she’s also an extremely accomplished designer and entrepreneur.

Hayley was the force behind Skipping Girl, a hugely successful brand of bags (primarily, but also including clothing and homewares). These days she’s embarking on a new venture called Tika which consists of Hayley on one side of the world in Sydney and 280 women knitters in Peru on the other. We’ll let her tell you about it.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: You started Skipping Girl pretty young didn’t you?

HEYLEY ALLEN: When I was 28 … I’m 38 now.

And you’ve got three kids?

Yeah, I’ve got two with my ex, we were together for 11 years, and I’ve got one with my [current] partner. He wants another one, but I’m like, “Oh I don’t know …”

I guess the best place to start is the beginning, which must be pre Skipping Girl.

Well, in a nutshell, I was born in Chile, South America.

To South Americans or to Australians?

My dad’s Chilean and my mum’s Argentinean, but of English and Danish and Brazilian … we’re a big mixed bag. We moved to Australia when I was seven and I grew up in Melbourne. They moved because of everything that was going on with the political side of things over there. It was all pretty tumultuous and full-on so they moved to Mexico first to get away. Then Mum’s parents and brothers and sisters moved to Whale Beach [NSW].

Nice place to land.

I know, so lucky. My mum and dad came for a holiday when I was five, fell in love with it, decided it was a better place to bring up children and so they moved. That was that. They still go back to South America all the time and I’ve been back a lot too. I spent from when I was eight to 16 in Melbourne, in the country. I was always interested in fashion growing up, but Mum was like, “No, you need a real career; you’ve got to go to university.”

When you say, ‘interested in fashion’, do you mean that you loved dressing up?

Loved dressing up! We didn’t have a uniform at our school so I always used to put on some wacky outfit. Some days I’d go to school in my pyjamas, just as a statement – a really, really bad statement – but I thought it was cool at the time. Then we moved because Dad was transferred up to Sydney when I was 16 and I took textiles and art at school … At the end of my HSC [Higher School Certificate], Mum and Dad were pushing me to go to university, but I just said, “No, I want to go to fashion school.” In Sydney at that time we had East Sydney Tech and UTS [University of Technology, Sydney]. They were the two schools and Mum basically said to me, “You won’t get in”, but I managed to get into East Sydney Tech. At that time it was quite a thing to get in, so that’s what I ended up doing. I did a diploma there for three years and I loved it, absolutely loved it. So that’s sort of the history of my studies. While I was at East Sydney, in my third year, we had to do work experience with someone. I’d been doing a little bit of modelling for Collette Dinnigan. She was no-one then; I think she was just launching her range of lingerie.

Very early days.

So early, no-one had heard of her, but she took me on to do work experience, so I did that with her for a year, which I loved. It was still very small; she just had one other girl, a lovely girl, working with her.

Why did you particularly want to work with her? Did you sense that she was destined for bigger things?

She was really down to earth, hard-working and she also was one of those designers who knew how to do everything, which I respected. She was a great seamstress and a great pattern-maker. She had a really good work ethic and was really approachable and lovely whereas a lot of the other designers I’d met around that time were all a bit kind of … Well, they all thought they were really fabulous. That’s not really my speed. So I enjoyed that and did that for a year and then I went on to work with a lady called Claire Dixon-Smith.

From [fashion label] Third Millenium?

Yeah. She really became like my mentor. I started with her while I was still at college and I worked in her shops. She had a shop in the Strand Arcade and one in Oxford Street (Sydney). Then, when I left college she gave me a job as her full-time assistant and then I became the production manager. I ended up working with her on and off for six or seven years. It was great because it was a small, growing business and I got to learn every aspect of it. Again, Claire was very approachable. She became a really good friend and didn’t have airs and graces. Eventually I left because I wanted to work for a bigger company to get an idea of how a big company functioned. I got a job as the head visual merchandiser for Surf, Dive ‘n’ Ski. It was great because I did quite a bit of buying as well and had a team of ten people underneath me. It was totally different to what I was used to and I loved it. I had a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t going and buying buttons from Greenfields; I was doing shop fit-outs and openings here, there and everywhere and it was still creative … I loved that, and then I got pregnant.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Did you have any sense at that stage that you wanted to start your own business eventually?

I always wanted to, the whole way through, but I’d never really known where to start. At the time we were both working, we didn’t have kids, we’d just bought a house, we were thinking more about the finances and being a bit more conservative … But, I always wanted to start my own business and what happened was, when I was pregnant I worked up until the last day and then gave birth. Then I had a year’s maternity leave but I brought Piper home … Piper’s my eldest, so this was 11 years ago, and newborn babies sleep the whole time, that’s all they do. We were in this great little house in Surry Hills and she’d just be sleeping. I was bored; I was so bored. Jonas would get home from work and I was like, “This is driving me crazy.” Jonas, my ex, is Aussie but grew up in India so we’d been traveling there every year for years. Every time we’d go there I’d go, “What can we do, there are so many manufacturers and bits …?” On the trip just before I’d had Piper, I went to the markets and bought all these amazing hand-crocheted, nylon totes and said, “Look I’m going to do something with these,” and that’s how Skipping Girl started.

So those totes had just been sitting in a cupboard until you got really bored?

In a box yeah. So I made contact with a lovely German girl over in India and said, “I’m thinking we could do this style of bag: I think we need to make the handles longer, I think we need to brand it and put new patterns on it,” and that’s how it started. Then I thought, I’d better just see if people are as into the product as I am so I had a little stall at Bondi Markets, just a one-off stall, and the next thing I knew the editor of Marie Claire, or one of those magazines, wanted to do a little story on it. I was friends with the Zimmerman girls and they saw them and said, “Can we have some?” It was quite incredible. It was just me under the staircase at home with the baby next to me!

In the early days it was great because we’d just literally sit there and hammer all the rubber labels that we got made out whoop-whoop here onto the bags. It was like a little workshop. It was good times and our overheads were kept very low, let me tell you.

Was Jonas helping at that point?

Yeah and it was fantastic because he had a lot of contacts over in India. He was working at Mambo as a senior art director with Dare [Jennings, Mambo’s founder] for about ten years, so he did all Skipping Girl’s graphics, which was great. My skills were more design/PR/marketing/selling. He’d work full time and then come home and do Skipping Girl after hours.

How did it grow?

Well, I’m trying to think how long we had it for – it was a long time, at least eight or nine years – but it grew slowly and organically. We never tried to sell the product at the start; it was just people approaching us, ringing because they’d seen it. It got a lot of editorial because no one else had done anything like it – it was quite unique, so it grew like that. We started off under the stairs, then we moved and had a little granny flat out the back of our new house; then I employed one girl and then we got a little office … Then we got an agent in every state and then we started exporting. We exported to the UK, the US, Singapore … We even ended up in Scandinavia; it was quite incredible. Then it started getting a bit too complicated, and this is where I think, in hindsight … We’d just been doing bags up till that point. They were doing really well and selling online and we were changing the range every season and then I said, “We’ve got to do other sorts of bags.” We started manufacturing canvas bas out of China and doing wooden thongs out of China and then we did bean bags. You name it … We started doing swimwear, huge swimwear ranges that we were manufacturing here. We did sarongs manufactured in Bali, jeans out of Japan. It became such a nightmare because we were manufacturing all these different things out of all these different places. Mental. I was trying to coordinate manufacturing this, that and that and then distributing it all over the world and here. It just grew out of control. We had eight staff in the office, 20 with the shop staff, wages … Then I had this great idea that we needed to go into retail.

What was driving you? Did you just sense that it could be so much bigger and wanted to give it the opportunity?

Yeah. I was just driven. I’d like to say that I’ve got a really good business head on my shoulders, but I don’t, at all.

I just go with my heart. I never look at what anyone else is doing.

Whatever we wanted to do we just did. My accountant would say to me every year, “We’ve got to do a P&L forecast.” At the start I didn’t even know what that was, but then I’d do my forecast for the year and, me being incredibly optimistic, I’d give him these figures that were out of control. He’d go, “You are never going to do that” and, inevitably, at the end of the financial year, he’d come back to me and go, “I can’t believe it; you’ve done it.” So that sort of drove me. Then we did the retail thing. We had a shop in Bondi, a shop on Oxford St [Paddington, Sydney] and a shop in Melbourne. My sister moved to Melbourne to run that shop and she sort of ran that like her own little business. The retail was good, but it was distracting. Suddenly now, as well as doing all that, I was managing staff who were young and half the time didn’t turn up for work. But anyway, we trundled along with that and everything else was going really well and we got lots of editorial overseas as well which was really exciting – like UK Vogue …

Did you have a PR agent or did it just …

It was just through them seeing the products in good shops. We were in Selfridges [in London] and Barney’s in New York, so it was just through editors seeing it in those shops and approaching either the distributor or us directly. Also there was the whole celebrity thing; celebrities would buy them. It was quite exciting because it was so unplanned. We’d be flicking through Who Weekly and there’d be Gwen Stefani with a Skipping Girl bag at a club. We never paid for advertising or pushed it and I think that’s why it was successful in a way.

Why do you think that?

The decision not to advertise was an organic and financial one. The fact that we were getting loads of editorial was helpful. Also, once the international mags like UK Elle and US Vogue jumped on board I had no problem while in New York getting appointments with magazines to show them the range. Also, I think with a new new label it helps it develop a cult following which leads on to bigger and better things. Anyway, then my husband and I decided to separate. By this stage he’d left Mambo because Dare had sold it and he was working with me full time on the business which was quite stressful. But, it was an amicable thing …

Do you think that working together like that contributed to breaking up?

Absolutely, absolutely. We’d been working together for a couple of years. It was always kind of my baby, but he was also really involved and working together-together was pretty full on. Towards the end, in the last six months, he actually went and got a job working for an advertising agency because we could just see that it was getting a little bit … So anyway, we separated and the question of what we were going to do with the business came up and he wanted to take it on. At that point I just wanted to do what was easiest and said, “Ok, I’ll start another one” [laughs]. After all that! So that’s what happened.

Did he buy you out?

No, no. So that was sort of the agreement that we had. We thought about selling it and it was a bit … It really needed us to run it. I’m sure, like yours, it’s all about you doing it. I mean, it’s still got a great website and whatnot. He’s since moved to India to live and build a house so he’s thinking he might get it up and going again. I was a bit upset about it for about six months and then I had to let it go. So that’s the Skipping Girl story.

How long ago was it that you separated?

I would say three years, but I think it was longer, I think it must have been about four years. Look having said all that, he still contacts me from India wanting to get me involved again, but I don’t know …

Wow, that must have been a massive change for you, particularly during that first six months of weaning yourself off it.

Well, we’d actually already started to wind it down a little bit because we thought it was getting all too out of control.

I remember the Oxford Street shop closing.

We closed the retail, which was a big relief, but it was sad closing Melbourne because my sister had literally moved down there to run it as her own business. If we’d kept it going, or if I’d stayed, I would have gotten Skipping Girl right back down to basics, back to what we did and what we did well. That’s been my biggest lesson, actually, not to try to do everything and be all things to all people because you end up doing a million things and none of them properly instead of a few things really well.

And to keep your overheads low, that’s my other one. Don’t get too carried away with the massive offices and stuff.

When did you come up for air again and go, “I’m ready to do something else”?

Pretty much straight away. I had a few months off through the separating blah blah, because that’s never much fun, and then I approached his old boss, Dare, who started Mambo. Dare’s now got the big motorbike thing called Deus [ex Machina]. Actually I think he’s just opened a massive shop in Auckland. That’s an amazing website, Deus.com.au, have a look, it’s pretty cool. Anyway, I approached Dare and said, “I’m looking for work, I’d love to come on board and help you with something,” and he was very sweet and said, “I’ve always wanted to work with you.” He employed me to do his sales, merchandising and production for the fashion range he’d just started for Deus. I worked above the shop in Camperdown for a year, maybe a bit more, and really enjoyed it. I’d known him for so long and Jonas had worked with him – it was great.

Did you …

[Simultaneously] And then I got pregnant. Sorry, what was that?

I’m speechless. I was going to ask you if you enjoyed being employed by someone else.

That’s a really, really good question actually. I think if it had been anyone else but Dare I probably would have felt really resentful and not enjoyed it, but he’s an incredible boss, very fair and very giving. He tells it like it is, but he was also more like a friend. You know, what I did find hard though was not having the flexibility, having to be present from 8:30 or whenever till 5:30, having to be accountable. Whereas now and with Skipping Girl I can work at 4 am or all weekend and then take a week off, you know what I mean. That’s the thing I didn’t really like, having to be present. I felt a bit trapped. If I’m working for someone else I always feel guilty even making a personal phone call because I used to be really strict with the girls who worked for me! So, I got pregnant but I kept working with him right up until about a couple of weeks before I had the baby – this is the third one – and then, then I went back a week and a half later [peals of laughter]! You’re running on these hormones … The baby was under the desk, Dare had no problems with it because he’s got two kids. I was full steam ahead and then, by about three months, I hit the wall. I was like, “Oh my God I can’t do this anymore,” so I had to leave. I said to Dare, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Not only did you have a newborn, but you also had two others!

I know, I know.

Were they in school at that point?

They were in school and Jonas was still around so we shared them fifty-fifty, but still … I spent a few months at home with the bubba and then a friend of my parents approached me to do some consulting for her, and that’s how Tika started to happen. She’s an Aussie lady, Claire, married to a guy who’s really big in mining. He does mining in South America, Africa, New Guinea …

They’re both in their sixties and every time they make money in one of the areas he’s mining in, they put money back into the community.

So in Peru, an hour out of Lima, they have built a hospital, three or four schools, a centre for sexually-abused children and three knitting workshops. That’s why she approached me. She said, “Hayley, we’ve built these knitting workshops for the ladies to get their skills up and running so that they can get employment, but they’ve got no outlet for their knitting, they’re just doing it for the sake of it.” The first thing I did was get on a plane and went over there to meet them and see what the set-up was. It was pretty confronting. I’ve travelled a lot to South America and to India, but this place they’re in, an hour out of Lima, there’s no running water and it’s a hard core shanty town. These women were incredible and it was so inspiring. I met them all and there were three Aussie nuns working there who were kind of managing it. I got back here and we got started by getting them to make scarves and gloves for schools, which was great. That was a really simple thing for me to test the waters with because a scarf is a pretty simple thing; you can’t go too wrong with a scarf. They just did them so easily. I got a Peruvian guy to start managing the ladies; he is a great production guy, and we did a whole lot of scarves for World Youth Day, 1200 scarves that I designed here and they made. Every time I’d get sent a shipment there was never any … the quality was perfect, so was the fabric; it was incredible. From India you’d always expect some kind of drama and it took us about six years to get the quality up to scratch, so with Peru I was just blown away by how high the quality was and how great the materials were. So that all went really well and then I said to Claire, “I think I should start a label” and I formed the company. I am trying to learn from my mistakes though. I’ve really been keeping the overheads low and being very wary that who I sell wholesale to is going to pay me, because that’s a big thing. I’d say the only drawback to manufacturing in Peru is the cost of the freight and the product costs a lot more than anything I’d get out of India or China, but I think it’s a really good cause and they’re really lovely to work with.

Surely if they’re producing, not just your standard scarf, but something that’s been designed by someone with a design eye, then people will be prepared to pay more for it.

I hope so. I’ve also had really great support from all the magazines again, I’ve been really, really lucky and that helps. I love it. It’s something that I love having around and it’s got a sense of humour which I’ve always said is the most important thing about design.

Yeah? Why is that?

Because I just think that in this day and age people take themselves a little bit too seriously and I really feel it’s important to have things around you that lift your spirits and that aren’t too sombre or too … I don’t know how to put it into words, but I’ve always said that. Colour and a sense of humour are integral to the products I design.

Tika’s aesthetic does feel in many ways similar to Skipping Girl.

Yeah, absolutely, and so it should. People go, “It’s quite …” and I’m like, “Hello! Of course it is. It’s me.”

So you’re happy with how it’s tracking at the moment and you’ve got some great stockists?

I’ve got some lovely stockists in Australia. I’m not really happy with the way my website is looking so I’m working on that at the moment. It’s pretty tricky because with the product I do, because it’s so tactile, when people see it in the flesh they love it and hold it and get a feel for it, but it’s really hard to represent that on a web page. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. I’m designing a new site with a company and it’s going to have a better look and feel; more crafty and more like the product looks. I think the whole online thing is going to be the way forward.

Do you feel a strong sense of responsibility towards those women in Peru now?

Yes! I was thinking I’d get a whole lot more orders from stockists just before Christmas, but that didn’t happen. All the shops that bought stock for Christmas were quite happy with the amount they were given. So then I had to consider do I get the women to make more samples or do I go back to the schools and ask them if they need more scarves to keep them doing things. Basically, these women are supporting their whole family, which is incredible. From what I could see, the men do a lot of sitting around chatting and the women do pretty much everything else. So I do feel a responsibility, but I also feel like they’ve now been given a chance … I always send them photos of their work in magazines and they’ve seen the website and it’s really boosted their confidence and their skills so they could go out and get another job and employment, which I don’t think they would have been able to do before, and that’s a really good thing.

At the moment are you the only one who’s buying their work?

Yes, there have been a couple of people from the States who are interested in doing stuff and they’ve tried to do a few things, but the mechanics of getting the whole thing happening are not as easy as just, “Make ten dresses, or make 20 scarves” or whatever. I think they might struggle to work for just whoever, you know, but I’m all for them to have as much work as they can.

Do you love that what you’re making now has got that aspect to it, that there’s far more to it?

Absolutely. I love that there’s a story. I love that I’ve been there. I love that I’ve seen how it impacts on people’s lives. Even when I was doing Skipping Girl, it was much the same. Towards the end we had thousands of women and a central unit where they would come to get the materials to make the bags. They’d take them home and make as many from there as they felt like they wanted to because they were all looking after kids as well. In that regard it was a good thing.

And they’re being paid well and working in nice conditions …

Exactly. In India we were paying double what the market rate was and in Peru we’re paying above the award wage.

Knowing you, I’m sure you’ve got big plans for Tika …

That question you asked me about Skipping Girl actually made me think because I do have big plans, but I’m taking it quite slowly. The next thing will be export for sure. New Zealand will come first. Skipping Girl went really well in New Zealand and it’s an easy starting point. Then the UK as well.

So you’ll do that at the same time as expanding in Australia, rather than waiting till you’ve saturated Australia first?

I’ve got a really good girlfriend with a label called Rittenhouse, Sally, and even though it’s a totally different thing to what I’m doing – her product’s quite high end – she’s only got a few stockists in Australia and does really well internationally. She does huge business in Japan and is starting to do quite a bit in Paris. With Skipping Girl, and I always have to refer back to that because that’s my experience, we did saturate the market here a bit, but we didn’t ever do department stores until right near the end when they were begging us. We just sort of bumbled along with overseas, but towards the end, overseas was doubling or tripling our sales in Australia. It was huge. We had a distributor in Korea and he opened a Skipping Girl shop there; it was quite bizarre. I said to Jonas, “We better go over and have a look at this shop.” So we jumped on a plane and went to Seoul. The UK overtook Australia in sales for years actually. Tika gets sold into gift shops, really high end kids’ shops and homewares ships, but it’s not getting sold into fashion shops so the number of accounts I can get in Australia is quite limited. I also like having an excuse to go overseas.

Well, you might be pregnant again soon.

It’s never stopped me before! I remember when my son Cooper was three months old I’d applied for this Fashion Week scholarship and won $5000 to travel and promote Skipping Girl. I was still breast-feeding at the time and couldn’t leave Cooper behind, so the three of us went to LA. Jonas would look after him while I went out and visited all these stockists.

The flexibility that comes with running my own business to me is gold.

At the moment I’m quite happy. I also have a really supportive partner, Levon, who is inspiring and encouraging of all my pursuits and also very helpful with the kids. I wouldn’t put the kids in more care just so I could work, work, work more. I’ve just found I’ve become far more efficient with my work. On my ‘work’ days I don’t answer any personal phone calls, I’ll eat lunch at my desk … When I’m at work I get the most out of it.

Do your kids know what you do? Are they pretty proud of mum?

I guess so. They love it when they see something in a magazine. I get more of a kick, and I don’t get it as often with Tika as I did with Skipping Girl because it’s things you put in your house, out of seeing someone with the product. When the kids see something in a magazine they get pretty excited. My two year-old knows that it’s ‘ours’, as he’d say. They get pretty involved and my daughter the other day was interviewed by one of the little magazines here about fashion. I said, “Do you want to do it?” and she’s like, “Yeah, yeah I want to be interviewed about fashion,” and I said, “Oh, ok.” So she and a friend were asked what their favourite shop was and she said, “Vinnies [Saint Vincent de Paul’s]” I thought, good on you.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Daniel Guerra

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