Zoe Lea has a passion for high quality, stunning design that goes well beyond those small tube shaped things you put on your feet – this lady has big plans and a great creative ethos! Unempire has a stand out online presence, and Small Talk & Co was super keen to meet Zoe in person to find out what drives this creative mind – community, fast fashion, and RiRi. N: slight language warning
Owner: Zoë Lea
Location: Melbourne, Victoria shipping to the world!
What you do?
I make socks through a teeny little business called Unempire. I’m hoping to branch out into other things in the near future, but baby steps right now. Before I did Unempire, I studied fashion design at TAFE and I worked for a bunch of other companies for nearly a decade, doing accessories design, accessories buying, and a bit of clothing and graphic design.
TAFE was great for technical skills in the fashion industry. In my first job, I was immediately useful; it was the same skills, the same programs. I learnt so much working for other people, because essentially you come out of study and you know so much, but you’ve got no idea what to do with it. My experience in accessories meant I knew my own business could be a success, so when I eventually became disillusioned with the bigger companies profit, profit, profit objective, I was confident in creating my own space to balance that out with a focus on design, quality and style.
Unempire merges all that experience with my total love/hate relationship with ‘fashion’, I hate trends and cookie cutter imitations, and I feel there’s just toooo much STUFF in the world. Unempire is about merging good design with quality apparel that lasts – I don’t think that you have to sacrifice one for the other.
Apparel can be reasonably priced, functional and unique. Essentially that’s the ethos behind the Unempire brand. It’s about bridging a gap in the current marketplace, which is dominated by three equally weak types; functional, but really boring, cheap and mediocre, or really cool looking but ultimately disposable.
Tell us more about your choice of manufacturer – a factory audited by SEDEX?
SEDEX factories are audited every year, they’re fair. The factory is in good condition, they pay their workers, they look after their workers, and it’s like any company here in Australia. I’ve worked with my manufacturer, a hosiery factory in Taiwan for around 8 years now.
Because of that longstanding relationship, they have been really great with Unempire, always really helpful, with negotiating order quantities and all that technical stuff. They gave me a really good deal, not in terms of cutting costs, but in terms of quantities and support.
In terms of socks, they’re the best, in my experience, and I felt like I knew them, so there was minimal risk. The other option was to outsource manufacturing to an unknown entity, but with my experience working in buying, I know that factories can open up and close down like nothing. They might take your money, and then be gone a week later. And as a small business, you have no way of knowing if you’ll ever to hear from them again. The other risk is that they’ll send a sample, you’ll approve it for bulk production, but the end product arrives on your doorstep looking nothing like the sample.
I put all the ethical information up on the website because so many people now are focused on that aspect of what they’re consuming.
I think that’s a really positive thing, to know that the socks you’re buying aren’t contributing to the masses of other crap socks out there. I’m proud to not be contributing to that.
I went to China regularly in my buying role and was just blown away by the scale of stuff that is manufactured. For every single item you see in a $2 shop, there are huge warehouses dedicated to that item, there are entire cities manufacturing just accessories! That really started putting things into perspective for me, actually seeing where this shit comes from! And it ultimately comes down to the consumer – as long as we keep buying it, they’re going to keep manufacturing it. It’s just useless horrible stuff. That was the beginning of the end for me.
How long was Unempire in development?
I had been made redundant, but I was determined to keep designing. “Unempire” was a word I made up by smushing Unemployed and Empire together- to keep me motivated. I knew I wanted to start my own thing, and knew I was good at doing socks, so it was a nice small, safe way to start with very little capital. And quick! From concept to opening my online store was about 3 months.
During that development period you wrote a business plan – what lead you to that?
I wrote the business plan for myself. I can be a haphazard person, so to make that step I knew I had to define it for myself. And then there was always the possibility I would need to write one in case I wanted to get loans. I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I’m on track, so I’m comfortable in that forward progression. Baby steps.
What are you most looking forward to?
Getting like gangsta rich and buying all my friends Jet-packs….nahhhh.Money is not important at all- as long as I have enough to pay rent and eat and buy beer, I’m happy.
But I still want to expand Unempire. My heart lies with street wear, and I’d love to my baby Unempire to be a street wear brand when it grows up.
One thing I’m looking forward to, is (hopefully) being involved in another pop up shop (Unempire was part of the Nowhere & Co. pop up last December). I miss it so much! It was good fun and a great business experience. Setting up your own shop, without the stress of it having to be permanent was really eye opening. It was filled with furniture from our homes and staffed by ourselves. Luckily for us, the shop was in a great area (High St, Northcote) with a lot of freedom in opening hours and no centre manager looming over you. It was just great to talk to customers and do your thing, whilst also forming a great little community amongst fellow entreprenuers.
I love the sense of community between small businesses.
There is a totally informal bartering system between young designers which I love. I hadn’t really thought about it until it happened, as a business and personally, you know want ‘things’, and when you don’t have a lot of money, but you do have a lot of socks, the system evolves to suit that. It just makes sense to do it that way instead of you-give-me-money; I-give-you-money and we hand over some products. At the end of the day, everyone gets great stuff, and the process of doing so allows me to connect with other small businesses in a meaningful way.
Cutting out money is a good thing. I wish I could buy groceries with socks! I really like that whole philosophy of the ‘olden days’, where in a perfect world everyone would just have their little business, which showcases their skill and expertise, and everyone just gets buy, swapping what they need. Its power hungry money angry people that have ruined that system but monopolising things and not really caring about the end user. That’s my dream.
I think society is slowly but surely heading back towards that, things have kind of reached saturation point and everyone seems to be at least a little aware of and cares about the environment. It’s really important now, it’s not just fad like ‘yeah, lets save the whales!’. People are actually aware that if we don’t change the way we consume things, basically the world is fucked. At the moment I think that goes through every industry, people are slowly peeling away, getting sick of the monopolising. And ultimately it starts with the consumer, who wants to buy things, and secondly with those individual businesses that try to break the mould.
People are shifting.
Your online store has been live for about a year now – how do you keep up interest?
I have been in business for a year this month actually. (Unempire turns 1 on June 24th! Personally I’m ready to start branching out into other items, but there’s still so much ground to reach with socks. More people to reach, both in Australia and worldwide.
I’m pretty active on the social medias- I’m addicted to Instagram, so I try to post something new every day. Stupid stuff mostly. Photos and stupid graphics I’ve made. It keeps me entertained, and no-one seems to unfollow me much, so that’s a good sign.
How do you go about retaining identity on social media?
It’s confusing sometimes, and I shuffled around quite a bit initially, but after a year, I think I’ve found my voice.
I think I’m my truest on Instagram; it’s that open minded gen y audience. I’ve settled into my brand and who I am as part of that. I know what not to put out there, which is actually very little! I think I’ve found my Unempire voice.
On Facebook I won’t post certain things in certain voices, or use colloquial language, because everyone’s mum is now on Facebook, and they won’t understand or appreciate that tone. But on Instagram you can be whatever.
I’m lucky in a way, because the Unempire brand is such an extension of my personality that I don’t have to filter much.
I only got a smart phone when I started my business, and was anti smart phone for a long time, because I was connected to my computer all day, I didn’t need to be connected when I was out. But then I realised, because I’d never been on Instagram before, what a helpful tool it is. The most powerful! The more Facebook changes with restrictions and regulations on pages, the more I turn to Instagram and it’s a great way to connect with people that think like you.
It’s the little things like this, talking to you, and other little social connections that pop up that keep things interesting and ultimately keep people interested. It’s really quite scary to start your own thing, so it feels better to find other people that are doing the same things as you, often in totally different ways. A lot of small business media is so corporate; you have to have a small business loan or a landline with them for them to profile you to a wider audience. And that’s ultimately not very interesting.
Can you elaborate more your plans to expand Unempire?
I want to branch out more into accessories – I’m waiting for the idea to feel right. I don’t want to just do socks forever, but socks are doing well. I’m mindful of not rushing ahead; because there are so many more people to reach (everyone has feet after all). Ultimately I want to be a fully-fledged street wear label, but that’s a long way to go. So whatever I do I’m looking for the next step.
With the boom in digital printing in the last year the easy option is to do that, with say t-shirts or something, but everyone is doing that, and it’s too easy. So I’m still thinking it over, to find that idea that is unique.
I’m certain on socks, super utilitarian, functional objects, and they’re amazing quality, cool designs, intricate. I’m not interested in competing in an already over saturated market.
In terms of fashion, I hate trends, just because it really limits how long you can wear something for, and when it’s relevant. That’s the drive behind this whole cycle of buy, buy, buy, more, more, more, all the time. Because of that snowball effect of disposable fashion. And I don’t like looking like everybody else, and there is such a ridiculous market out there for copycat fashion that trickles down from the runways
I don’t want to put something out there just because it’s fashionable and the same. Like ‘pick me, pick me’.
In terms of taking a sketch to the finished product what is your process?
Actually designing something, can take a couple of hours or an idea will stretch out over time, sometime in the middle of the night I wake up with some random idea.
So far all the sock designs are in food, that wasn’t necessarily the plan, but people like food! And one food idea flows to the next. I’m stuck in a food rut at the moment!
Every time I have an idea for socks I’ll do my research and make sure no one else has done that idea before, which is hard, because everyone has done everything and nothing is new anymore! But that’s my first priority. For example the nacho socks, if the world already has nacho socks, why make more?
In terms of technology, I use Photoshop and Illustrator. Sometimes drawn by hand, then scanned and manipulated in Illustrator. Good old Illustrator, my best friend. Then I spec it up with colours etc., send it to my manufacturer, and then they do the rest really. We have a really good rapport, they are very helpful if I send a design that’s too complicated or has too many colours or something, they come back to me with suggestions, and it’s a nice back and forth. Then it’s usually about 2 weeks until the sample arrives, then I approve it, which is instantly, because there’s just me! Major perk of working for yourself! (laughs) and about 6 weeks later, a box of socks arrives.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration for the socks seems to be a lot about food. It’s not intentional, I just draw a lot, but I’m not good at drawing many things except food. The next few socks I do are not going to be food. I’ve made a pact with myself. I also just love colour a lot, and hang out with my pantone colour book quite a bit. In terms of personal inspiration ummmmm…Men’s street wear. I’m a tomboy….but I also love non-trend underground fashion like Di$count universe & W.I.A collections. BIG LOVE for them…and there are a few artists I follow – I like weird stuff. American dude Cahill Wessell for example…then just a lotttt of hip hop, and a lotttt of googling Rihanna photos. Those last 2 things have nothing to do with socks, but I need them to live.
Tea or coffee: BLACK COFFEE
Savvy, Sass or Study? Savvy is most important. Study is all good in theory, but until you have practice DOING, knowledge is just knowledge. And Sass is all well and good, but kind of empty without savvy/ study…Like, you can have 100 thousand followers on Instagram, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to sales….or real friends.
Want – learning or opportunity? Opportunity definitely. I love meeting new like-minded people, brings opportunity for collaborations & new projects…and making friends is nice.
Need – apprentice or expert? Expert. I’m fine running the business on my own. I’m a control freak & a recluse….but it is tax time soon. I’m going to outsource that shit.
Superpower: ummmmmm flying! Nothing to do with the business…I could hand deliver orders though. I’d be like Santa Clause.
Friends of Unempire
Oohhh OK! Melbourne street artist, MIO
Writer and powerhouse Tammy Croucher
Nail do-ers The Super Rad Nail Sisters,
Babe & friend Katie’s Blog
Also ALL the ladeez from Nowhere & Co, the Pop Up shop I did last year with a bunch of local Melbourne labels…
Also gotta mention my housemate, Kent…he knows why.
How can I contact you? (How can readers contact you?)