I grew up in Mansfield and then lived in Portland. I didn’t really come to Melbourne very much. I was pretty much a square at school, I always wanted to do well at everything. I wanted to be an architect or a graphic designer – I was always creative. I could draw, but in more of a technical sense than an intuitive sense like my partner Simon, he’s an amazing drawer. I think I’m too inhibited to just go for it. I was good at maths as well and I loved writing, and because of those things I was encouraged to do architecture. I was accepted to two Universities but for some reason I changed my mind and decided to do graphic design at RMIT. Simon studied there as well – we did our Honours degree together.
I started doing my Masters and then I started teaching as well. That was the year I started Obüs, and teaching helped me to fund the launch of my first collection – nearly twenty years ago. It has been such a rocky road, and I am just starting to get my head around what an achievement it is to still be going after all these years. There were many times when I probably should have given up because things were so hard for so long, but the business has turned a corner now and everything is as it should be.
It all started when Simon and I went to India, which was my first trip overseas – and it was such a ground breaking time for me. The first day felt like I was in a dream. We were there for three months staying with a friend’s family, so we experienced a real contrast between staying with quite a wealthy family to back-packing around on our own. It was quite crazy to see both worlds. After doing my degree and suffering from RSI in my shoulder, I realised I didn’t want to work on graphics in front of a computer all day. India made me realise that I wanted to be hands-on. I had always loved textiles. And that’s how Obüs came into being. Obüs is a German word (my last name is German) and while there isn’t a close connection to my German heritage I loved the name – Obüs is a trolley car in Europe which looks like a bus but it’s wired at the top like a tram. There’s not many around anymore. The idea for Obüs was that each collection would go to a different destination, and all sorts of people could get on board. The idea was very inclusive, the range was meant to be for all types of women – not too fashion-oriented and not just for skinny girls. That was the origin of Obüs and it’s still the driving force today – every woman can get on board and each season they’ll be taken to a different destination.
For the first few years of Obüs we were based in the Nicholas Building in Flinders Lane in the city, in a shared creative studio with heaps of other mates. At that time Simon and I were living in a warehouse in Smith Street and we started despatching from there and then all of a sudden I just got over being in the city and walking through crowds of people every day. So we moved the business to a studio in Smith Street, and then to a space in Abbotsford and Obüs now has a home in Northcote with a studio above our shop, which is amazing.
Obüs grew really organically. We started off as a wholesaler, and we did quite a bit of Fashion Week work mainly in Melbourne. We had Agents later on, but at the start I really did it all on my own. The collection had a bit of everything in it, but it was very much unplanned. I didn’t study fashion and I didn’t study business, which is why Obüs has been a long and winding road with me learning along the way. The collections were driven by design, and I learnt by trial and error and by what felt right along the way. It was all creative and awesome, but crazy as well. The wholesale business was really quite big for us with lots of stockists around Australia and overseas. We went to the States and had a show there and we had stockists in Japan. Our first shop opened in Gertrude Street, and the business slowly shifted so that we became half retailer, half wholesaler. Everything then became really tricky, and financially really hard. I got a business mentor in and we gradually made the shift to becoming a retailer. Being a wholesaler was so difficult – at times we lost so much money to stockists who couldn’t pay us, and then the whole profit just disappeared. So we are a true retailer now – with our retail stores and our online store. We have four Obüs shops – Gertrude Street which is little and old school has been open for around 10 years, we have a really big, lovely shop in Northcote, a new little shop in Lygon Street in Brunswick East which is perfect for our customers – and now we are coming full circle with a brand new shop in the Nicholas Building where it all started, and now we are on the ground floor in Cathedral Arcade which is very exciting – opening in mid May!
Becoming a retailer is a big investment, but we have always done it the Obüs way, which is being very resourceful. We’ve never used architects or shop fitters. We’ve designed them and renovated them all ourselves just like we designed and renovated our own home. It has been because of necessity but also because we can – Simon’s dad is really handy and Simon is extremely handy and practical. I’ve designed all the furniture for the stores and Simon’s dad made it all, I designed all the racks and had them fabricated – so my design background has really helped me through the whole process. And now my focus is on designing the prints for the Obüs collections, which is really one of our signatures. We have an awesome team, and we work collaboratively on the collection.
As a retailer we can now have four collections a year rather than two, with new drops coming in each week giving our customers a new destination. We work so differently to any other label we know – we work really closely to the market. We can be creating a design in the studio today, put it into local production in three days time and then have it in store within a week to two weeks. We don’t manufacture everything locally – but everything we can, we do. It does make it more difficult to get PR and to get clothes into magazines to drive sales, but the benefits are that we can feel really close to our customers and respond to our design inspirations as they evolve. Social media is our main form of advertising and EDM’s have become really important to our sales – communicating directly with our customers and growing that list is a real priority.
When Orlo came along three years ago, everything became about him. He is amazing. I was really lucky to be running my own business because I could be so flexible with my time, but sometimes I do feel like I missed out on that focused time that other mums get. I couldn’t sleep in with him and spend all day with him. I was frantic to get him to bed because I knew it would give me one and a half hours to work on the computer. It was really hard, but I got so much freedom being able to work from home. Simon is the best dad in the world, he is so good with Orlo. Our parenting is totally 50/50. Luckily Simon’s family has supported us a lot, and supported the business a lot too. Things have settled down now and Orlo is in childcare three days a week, so I can go to the studio on those days.
Obüs has grown into a stage where Simon, Orlo and I can travel and I just have to touch base with the team. The system is set up so they can manage it all and I can truly switch off. I never really had a business plan that saw us with four retail stores and an online business and such a big team. At different stages of the business I’ve been excited about our achievements – opening stores, our collections being sold overseas – but at the end of the day it all just evolved. Things are good at the moment, I want to keep the balance like it is. Being able to take time off to travel is so important to us, so we can enjoy being with Orlo before he goes to school.
For other mums wanting to start their own business, I would say go for it. Sometimes I feel really brave – but at times that courage has led me to make the wrong decisions. The thing is you won’t know what you can achieve unless you try. I’ve failed a number of times in a number of ways, but I have also had many wins – and I feel like we’re winning now.
Obüs creates beautiful and practical wearables for the modern woman, and now in its 17th year, is a mainstay of the Melbourne fashion landscape. Designer Kylie Zerbst and her team have produced many coveted collections – each one thoughtfully designed and curated to form a wardrobe of must have styles. The concept of travel is used to tell a story each season; each collection an exciting new journey inspired by designer Zerbst’s personal wanderings.
Fitzroy: 226 Gertrude Street
Brunswick East: 135 Lygon Street
Northcote: 285 High Street
Melbourne CBD: Shop 5 Cathedral Arcade, 37 Swanston Street (cnr Flinders Lane)
Starting a business by instinct can get you to where you want to go, but you can get there a lot faster with the right knowledge behind you. Business Mamas can set you on the right path to making your business dream come true.
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
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