Just a couple of suburbs away from me, in an unassuming office above a bathroom showroom on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, sits Debbie Lawson.
Debbie is the co-founder of the independent activewear brand Dharma Bums. She had a glittering career in fashion buying and merchandising for major domestic and international brands before deciding to trade that all in and fulfil her desire to produce yoga wear that was made within the tenets of what the practice teaches.
Dharma Bums was launched a couple of years ago and has gained a cult following from yogis all over the world. Dharma Bums is super famous for its leggings – unique colourful prints and comfy fits to suit different shapes and sizes. But what really sets Dharma Bums apart from the plethora of activewear brands around, both big and small, is their ethical conscience.
Dharma Bums produce all their product on-shore here in Australia in accordance with all the regulations set by Ethical Clothing Australia. This means everyone along the supply chain is treated and paid fairly. That no animal testing or products are used. That eco-friendly dyes colour the garments. That only recycled paper and packaging is utilised.
On the verge of a product expansion, I grabbed some time with Debbie to talk shop.
You took a year’s sabbatical from your career in fashion buying to learn how to teach yoga. What did you learn during that time that is most useful in running a business?
Never assume people are going know the next part of a sequence or the next strategy for the company. People absorb and learn information in different ways. The key to good leadership is understanding how the person you are communicating to absorbs information and deliver it a way that has maximum impact for them.
If you could summarise Dharma Bums in one sentence, what would it be?
An ethical, vibrant activewear brand that embraces life and movement.
Was there an ‘aha moment’ that sparked the idea of Dharma Bums or was it a gradual snowballing over time?
It was something I considered for at least 18 months after the first spark of the idea formed. I then spent 18 months researching the market and sourcing ethical suppliers here in Australia.
What was the most exciting part about starting up Dharma Bums? And the scariest?
The most exciting part was being able to be fully creative without the hindrance of anyone questioning or interrupting the process.
The scariest, the initial lack of income! I has a few sleepless nights over this. I actually continued to teach yoga for the first 12 months of the business to ensure I had some income flowing through. This meant often working 16 hour days but I could then plough every penny of profit back into the business to expand the range.
What were your biggest challenges? And how have they shifted over time?
Initially, finding an ethical supplier base was tremendously difficult. Many manufacturers in Australia do not comply with an ethical code of conduct. This was, and remains one of the key values of our company.
Now, it is making sure we hire the right people to help build our business. Every hire is critical. We have been very lucky and have a great budding team supporting us. However, it took time and countless interviews to find them.
Dharma Bums is retailed in 60 countries worldwide. What do you think have been the key drivers of its success?
There have been a few drivers that worked together to get the brand recognized at home and internationally. Our unique print handwriting and quality of product has been instrumental. This has meant we get an exceptionally high level of return customers.
We place a great importance on customer service and ensure we have a manned team that is accessible for queries and questions. We back this up with a full money back guarantee if anyone is unhappy.
And lastly, social media has been fantastic for us. It has meant we were able to achieve an international reach very quickly. Young startups are exceptionally lucky to have this resource at their fingertips!
Why do you think the Aussie Activewear brands are doing so well globally?
Our outdoor lifestyles let us lead more active lives than many places. This has resulted in us merging our Activewear wardrobe with our daywear. This is a trend that is now present on many fashion catwalks. Australians have been doing this for a good few years. Australian designers have run with this trend and perfected the designs, fabrics and details to compliment the trend.
In my mind, and I travel the globe a lot, I have no doubt we lead the way in Activewear. There is little room for complacency though. Everyone wants a piece of the Activewear pie and to stay on top you need to be constantly evolving and developing.
There seems to be a new Activewear brand on the market (or a product line extension of an existing brand or high street retailer) every week. Do you think the industry is at saturation point or is there room for everyone?
The Activewear retail clothing market is still one of the few that is seeing expansion so we probably have a little way to go before we are at saturation.
I believe we will also see market share being lost a little with the big global market leaders, and being gained on by independents. People are tiring of all looking the same and wearing the same Activewear. We want to express ourselves with our Activewear wardrobe. So much diversity and choice is a great thing for customers and it is a fantastic time to be an independent Activewear brand.
Your passion to find a way to deliver quality garments ethically provides a massive point of difference in your market. It must be hard for you to maintain healthy profits at the same time?
Yes. Our make price is often some companies selling price. However, we have built our business on exceptionally streamlined and efficient model. My partner is an IT genius and is able to build bespoke models that cater for our business to run efficiently on a very lean headcount. This means we can maintain great price point and keep our sourcing onshore.
Just how bad is the child labour situation in the developing world?
My personal experience leads me to believe it is still an issue. I have travelled the world in my capacity as buying executive and seen firsthand the oppression of the workers in these countries. The workers are not paid enough to feed and house their families. Therefore every person has to contribute to the income, no matter how young. Many of these countries have no education system so the children are not at school in the day. I guess it is one solution to help alleviate the poverty trap the family may find themselves in.
It is important we understand that change comes with the big corporate companies. They can create change in these countries much faster than local governments. And the change in the big companies comes when we stop supporting them with our $$$. If we want to eradicate child labour we have to stop buying from companies that pay poverty inducing salaries.
Is it possible to continue to manufacture in Australia?
There are fewer and fewer manufacturers in Australia. And when you exclude the ones not adhering to ethical practices, it reduces the number even further. However we are hopeful that as we grow and continue to support our supply chain, they will grow with us. It is in our interests to make this happen. By making onshore we can have absolute transparency on the ethical standards and the product of the garment.
No-one wants to think that their latest fitness tights have caused anyone any harm in being made. How can consumers find out more about where and how their Activewear is produced?
We work closely with Ethical Australia. They have vetted all our supply chain.
If we bring anyone new to the chain they will go through the same vetting process.
What advice would you give to someone else trying to break the mould and find a more ethical way to do something?
Make sure you research in depth. There is a lot of ‘Greenwashing” that goes on. Products appear to be ethical but once you explore the complete chain you get to see that it is not so. Work with an organization like Ethical Australia. They are a great resource.
What’s your favourite Dharma Bums print?
It would have to be Mermaid. It was our very first print and is still selling strong today!
Where is the most interesting place you’ve seen a pair of Dharma Bums worn?
We have seen these everywhere from Ski slopes, to the ocean!
I think the most unusual place we saw it was on Ellie Goulding Band members. Ellie had some of the Dharma Bums product with her on tour. The guys had found it and decided it was too good not to experience for themselves.
What motivates you to keep fit and healthy?
Simply, I need to keep my energy levels and my health at their maximum each day to keep up with my 14 year old son, and to run my business.
If I do not exercise, practice yoga and eat well, this is impossible! I have the added motivation of being in contact with some of the fittest yogis out there who achieve great things with dedication and hard work. If I am feeling lazy I have a flick through our instagram page!
Do you still have the time to teach yoga?
I have only just stopped teaching. I held on as long as possible but found I was teaching when what I needed to be doing was practicing. I am looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my mat!
Proudest Dharma Bums moment to date?
For the business to be able to financially stand on its own without the need for outside investment and being able to realise this whilst being ethical in our practices. That feels kinda good!
What’s the next big thing for Dharma Bums?
Our range is expanding in the coming weeks to incorporate a full active wardrobe. I am pretty excited to see this come to life. And then international expansion. We are working hard towards this goal and are looking to realize it very soon!