Kuwaii Designer Kristy Barber On Fighting Mass Production In Fashion

by: Rosie Dalton | 1 year ago | Features

Image: Kuwaii founder and designer Kristy Barber.

Kuwaii is one of our favourite local brands, because of its focus on form-flattering construction, high-quality fabrication and the injection of a fun-spirited print, or a splash of colour here and there. Founded in 2009 by designer Kristy Barber, this transparent label consistently produces pieces that form the backbone of any good, responsible wardrobe. Reflecting on the streamlined elegance of each collection, though, it is somewhat surprising to hear Barber describe the label’s beginnings as akin to a punk rock band.

Opening up about the difficulties and merits of starting your own fashion business, this Melbourne-based designer gives us a little insight into what it takes to build and maintain a successful (and ethical) brand in this fast-paced modern market. It hasn’t always been easy, but Kuwaii’s journey over the years proves that there has always been a sound vision behind the brand and that’s a vision still palpable in the clothing to this day.

Rosie Dalton: Can you tell us a bit about how Kuwaii first came to be?
Kristy Barber
: I started Kuwaii straight after I finished fashion school. Kuwaii started extremely small and every little bit of money I made from each season, I invested back into the business, so slowly and organically it grew. I now look back and think I started Kuwaii like a punk rock band. I had no idea what I was doing, had never worked in the industry. I just decided to give it a crack and I learnt as I went. I always had the concept for the label: it was very clear to me then, as it is now. And that was to provide an alternative to trend driven, mass produced fashion. Back then, no one talked about the ethical side of fashion – well, there was a lot less interest in it and, to be honest, no one really cared to know about what we stood for. It’s been interesting to see how the attitudes have changed over the 8 or so years that I’ve been in business.

Rosie: Would you say that your approach has changed at all since the brand’s launch in 2008?
: In a way yes, as our customers began to care more about what we stand for, it enabled our point of view to become much stronger. This led to things like developing our “Behind the Brand” manifesto, our classics collection, even down to what inspires our collections and the way I design – it’s all a bit more strongly pointed towards our philosophy now. I would say that my philosophy or point of view has been strengthened over the years and this, in turn, has helped shape my approach.

Rosie: Why do you believe that it’s so important to push back against the high-turnover trend culture of today?
: My main drive with Kuwaii is to offer an alternative to mass produced fashion. The reasons why are many! Environmental, ethical and social factors encompass all the many underlying reasons. I strongly believe fashion should be a good thing, not the horrible machine that it has become. I think clothing should be empowering, fun, expressive and enjoyable. I don’t think it should be an evil empire that thrives on exploitation. Not to mention the fact that fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. There can’t be any better reason to push back than this and it’s an area where everyone can make a difference through the choices they make.

Rosie: How would you personally define the principle of ‘slow fashion’?
: For me it’s about being conscious of your choices, being educated and thoughtful about how you spend your dollars, the decisions you make and what you stand for.  This is both for customers and, of course, us on a business level. For Kuwaii it means that money does not drive every decision we make. We consider all “costs”: human, environmental AND financial. Which means that every thing we do becomes slower, more deliberate, and more considered.

Rosie: In your opinion, what are some of the main benefits of producing clothes locally?
: There are so many. We know and love our makers, we are able to visit with them weekly and inspect our goods as they are being made. We know how proud they are of the work they do with us – and we love working with them, because they are so skilled; they are one of the lynchpins of our business. Then there’s short lead times and being able to be really responsive. One of our principles of slow fashion is ordering a very small amount of each style. So if something is selling really well, we can make up another small order of it. We prefer to do it this way, rather than making a huge order and having to discount or sale half of it. The other thing is the shipping and transporting of pieces back and forth across the world. We prefer to stay local and just pop out the 10km or so to our makers, to pick up our deliveries.

Rosie: Can you tell us a bit about the local fashion industry in Melbourne? Would you say that this is quite a tight knit community?
It’s a really amazing, creative hub here in Melbourne. There are so many great brands doing wonderful things here and it’s inspiring to see these smaller brands bubbling up and doing things differently too. Like making their pieces to order or not doing regular seasons, for example. It’s just inspiring to see the fashion model actually changing – slowly, but surely. That said, we have always felt slightly separate to the fashion industry, because my interest is more in clothing than fashion.

Rosie: Fostering an open dialogue with your customers and fellow retailers is key to transparency. In what ways do you try to nurture these sorts of conversations at Kuwaii?
: The line of communication is well and truly open with our customer and the feedback we hear from customers is that they feel understood by our designs and pieces. This harks back to when I used to work in the shop and actually talk to each customer. I was able to really listen and hear their needs. We have kept this principle up (even though I don’t work in the shop anymore) and customer feedback is really valuable to us. In all our conversations we try to be fair, honest and kind. We do really try to do the right thing by our customers and fellow retailers, as well as our suppliers, makers and everyone we do business with. Hopefully this intention resounds throughout the business and everything we do.  


You can shop our brand-new Kuwaii pieces over here.

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