Today marks 10 years since the very first Undress show.
And today marks the day we close our doors.
On the 15th of October, 2011, we showcased a handful of local Brisbane designers in the Wilson carpark above Chinatown, Fortitude Valley (Brisbane). We recruited backpackers from Gumtree to be our models, secured a liquor license hours before doors opened and had no idea that 400 people were about to queue up and attend our first show.
I was 21 years old when we started planning the first Undress show. It was meant to be a one-off event. But each year we thought maybe just one more?, and so it snowballed.
Undress Runways grew to be a leading sustainable fashion runway event in Australia, showcasing in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Over the course of 10 years, we went from being a carpark runway event to a professional production showcasing designers from around Australia and the world.
I wanted to put together some of my biggest learnings from my time at Undress - a journey that I shared with so many of you.
1. The work of paddling early
Change happens in waves. Some people are out in front, paddling too early to catch the wave but doing important work; testing the waters, highlighting pathways, and describing what the wave looks like to those who are in a better position to catch it.
Undress kicked off in 2011 - a time when the impact of the fashion industry wasnt understood like it is today. Sustainable fashion was an alternative train of thought and was strongly associated with a particular aesthetic; yogi pants and basics. Back then, sustainability was thought of as a style, not an approach to design, production and consumption. Young people werent flocking to ethical and sustainable brands like they do today and brands werent scrambling to release environmental commitments, let alone acknowledge their impact. It wasnt cool.
Our goal at Undress was to put sustainable fashion in a new light. The only way for clothing to be manufactured ethically and sustainably by default, was to flip the tables. The theory? Make normal fashion uncool and make sustainable fashion mainstream. Market demand would take care of the transition and these fast fashion companies would finally become history.
My co founders and I were marketing grads and we knew the power of a good rebrand. Our approach was to produce an event that was inspiring, accessible and fun. A chance to show people that sustainable fashion wasnt an aesthetic, you can look however you want to look and do it sustainably. We attracted hundreds of people to our events because they were raw, and imaginative - and didnt wreak of exclusivity and fancy champagne.
We appealed to forward thinkers and sustainability folks, but we were too experimental to appeal to mainstream, let alone companies governed by mainstream demand. I would tirelessly pitch for sponsorship and (men) would say to me this sustainable fashion thing is just a trend, its not here to stay and fashion doesnt really have an impact, you should consider tackling something with a bigger impact. Sigh. It was even challenging getting friends and family to rethink their wardrobe choices. I suggested to a friend who was getting married to look into an ethically-made wedding dress and her response was Im not really into that stuff that youre into. It was nonsensical, but it was a good representation of the mainstream market.
We went out early. Before people felt comfortable wearing sustainable fashion. Before companies were willing to back sustainable fashion. And we did some bloody hard yards.
But any kind of change starts with the early paddlers and then people feel the ripple effect. And when enough people have felt the ripples, we start to catch the waves of mainstream support.
Sustainable fashion originated in the 1970s (before the rise of mass production) with hippies focusing on local and handmade garments. Some of the pioneers of this modern wave of sustainable fashion included Livia Firth launching Eco Age in 2009, Orsola launched Fashion Revolution Day in 2014 and Andrew Morgan (and team) released The True Cost documentary in 2015. Im proud to say that Undress was among the early movers in this modern wave.
While it may have been more favourable to be fashionably late to the sustainability movement, Im proud of the thousands of hours the Undress team invested into venturing into unknown waters. We are now passing the baton to those who will continue to do important work in the fashion industry. There is a new challenge on our doorstep - a different one to paddling with no waves. It is navigating an industry of greenwashing and misinformation, holding all-powerful brands accountable to their carbon footprint and finding a way to divert blind consumption into a more ethical behaviour. It takes a different skill set but is equally as challenging.
The next generation of activists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, designers, educators, influencers and workers in the sustainable fashion industry are the ones who will cement real change and truly transform the fashion industry. The wave is here, lets get behind them and give them a boost.
2. Oh money, why were you such a tough nut to crack?
The Undress business model was: plan events, sell tickets, raise (micro) sponsorships, pay for the event. Every dollar that came in, went straight back out to pay for the event. Undress was dreamt up, planned and run by a team of (incredible) volunteers. Wages felt like a pipe dream.
There were many factors that contributed to Undress not becoming a financial success. We started paddling a little early - we were burned out before the wave was truly behind us. We needed a bread and butter product to secure cash flow - and then we could use the events as a PR exercise. And I struggled to partner with companies who had money but violated our values - mainstream fashion brands, oil companies, car companies etc. Oh, and the government was (and still is) more focused on mining subsidies than supporting the arts.
At the end of the day, I was too stubborn in the way I saw Undress and I wasnt willing to compromise. I wasnt excited by a bread and butter product. I wasnt interested in partnering with companies that were destroying the planet. And I ran out of steam. Ironically, Undress wasnt sustainable.
While money was a constant frustration, its absence made space for some of my most treasured learnings. When you dont have a paycheck to offer, you learn why people contribute their energy, their ideas, and their time to a company. In volunteer teams, people can leave whenever they want. Do work& or not do work. Attend meetings& or not. Running a business with volunteers is like being naked on a tightrope; nothing is secure and things could go horribly wrong in an instant. However, it allowed me time and space to deeply understand the question of; What motivates people to do good work?
A team of volunteers makes you acutely accountable for your company culture. If it doesnt serve the people, theyll leave. When you compare traditional workplaces to volunteer teams, its clear that working is a simple transaction. You bring hours and energy to the table, and you get compensated with cash. Sadly, this often comes at a sacrifice to your happiness, your wellbeing, your purpose, and your agency. The numbers speak for themselves, 80% of people are not engaged in their job today (State of the Global Workforce Report 2021, Gallup). That doesnt leave many who are thriving at work. Weve become comfortable with the idea that we go to work, we get paid and sacrifice a few things along the way. But work shouldnt strip us of our happiness in exchange for rent, food and bills.
Undress showed me that when you invite people into your vision, create space for their ideas and serve them to do their best work, work takes on a whole new meaning.
Add in a paycheck and boom, welcome to the future.
3. How to build the team (of your dreams)
When you work with volunteers, you have the privilege of seeing humanity at its best.
Working alongside people who have purpose and agency gave me a deep sense of respect for people from all walks of life. When people show up for you and your company, without payment, you quickly learn to show up for them and listen to whats important to them. People joined the Undress team for a range of different reasons; work experience, a creative outlet, to build their CV, to work in sustainable fashion, learn about sustainability, to have fun, and a range of other reasons.
But people stay with a team when they experience a sense of belonging.
Lets explore belonging. Belonging is defined as the feeling of being comfortable and happy in a particular situation or with a particular group of people (Oxford). It sounds simple. Comfortable and happy seem like pretty achievable feelings? But creating an atmosphere of belonging is earned when you create psychological safety at work: A safe space for people to share their ideas, voice their values and raise their concerns. When people feel safe to express themselves, they feel comfortable. What about happiness? You can bring happiness to people in many forms; through challenges, learnings, promotions, pay rises, free drinks, bean bags, good coffee, high fives... The list goes on. Its the stuff that sparks joy at work. At Undress, I delivered happiness in the form of novel experiences and responsibilities that were well beyond what people could access at their level of experience. Undress wasnt a fancy fashion house, it was getting your hands dirty, sending a million emails from your bedroom and a tonne of Bunnings trips. It was an unconventional setup and you often found yourself in unconventional places, doing unconventional work. Being resourceful can be a hilarious experience. And people who enjoyed the unexpectedness of the work, stayed on. We also provided young people with the opportunity to manage a team, produce magazines, liaise with designers, make creative decisions and many other things that they wouldnt ordinarily have access to in an entry-level job. People were equal parts excited and nervous - but they knew there was a whole team to catch them if they had a stumble.
I didnt always get it right. We had over 100 (incredible) people working with Undress over the last decade and I definitely dropped the ball from time to time. I wasnt always able to secure a safe space for people to express their ideas and feelings, but I tried damn hard.
Leadership is complex because people are complex. Theres no magic recipe. Servant leadership often feels like sitting in this uncomfortable unknown, powerful and powerless, listening to your team and then listening some more. Showing up for each other, holding space for each other, sharing responsibility and above all trusting people to do their best. These are things that build a team. It becomes more of friendship and less of colleagues. Actually, it becomes all about friendship.
4. Oh the patriarchy
While swimming upstream with no cash, the curve ball came in the form of hours of wasted time drinking coffee with the patriarchy.
A sat through meeting after meeting with men telling me that they were absolutely going to secure sponsorship for me. Not once or twice but many times a year. My mum used to say stop having coffee with these guys who make all these promises and then only disappoint you & but what option did I have? I needed sponsors and I thought this was how people did it. The conversations I endured ranged from dont talk about gender equality, it distracts from your pitch - white man advising me on a pitch for a business that existed due to gender inequality in our society. I take you less seriously because you have blonde hair, if you had brown hair, people would take you more seriously. - super helpful. You should leverage the fact that youre tall and blonde with investors, lean into it. - random advice from a man that made me feel gross.
After 10 years running businesses, raising funding, negotiating business contracts, Ive had my fair share of the patriarchy. I have lost a lot of hours drinking latte with the lads #notalllads yeah yeah, obviously.
If you love to drink coffee with young women who are looking for grants, investment or sponsorship, take them seriously. They arent there to brighten your day with their inspiring story.
5. Sustainable fashion (needs a better title)
The current system of fashion is broken, thats a no-brainer.
Sustainable fashion is an umbrella term for a zillion different approaches and techniques to reduce the impact on humans and the environment. Its not black and white. A garment isnt sustainable or unsustainable. A garment is always on the continuum somewhere between absolutely fucked for the planet and could possibly keep making this without causing harm.
Possibly sustainable, maybe.
For example, it's not helpful to label recycled polyester tights as sustainable. Nope, no deal. They are made from fossil fuels (not a renewable resource) and they shed microplastics which end up in our oceans and, ultimately, in our food chain.
The industry is full of these examples, which makes it really challenging to navigate as a consumer. It shouldnt be so difficult to do the right thing. But while brands will slap the sustainable tag on just about anything these days, it is up to the consumer to do their own research and take things into their own hands. I recommend learning from New Standard Institute, Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Do your research is not an exciting call to action. Reeks of effort. But we dont have a lot of options. Boycott fashion? Then youre boycotting garment workers who rely on their jobs to put food on the table. Buy into fashion? Then youre harming the planet and supporting a system that takes advantage of vulnerable women and girls in developing nations. Rent an outfit? The carbon footprint of that system is through the roof.
I can see your eyes glazing over, Cool, thanks Edda, super helpful, I know, and I wish I could hand you a sustainable solution on a silver platter.
I love simple solutions. But sustainable fashion is not simple and theres no one solution.
Im excited to see different thinkers join the table; lawyers, engineers, scientists, members of government and technology folks. We need diversity of thought to look at the fashion industry from new perspectives, and tackle the industry with a variety of solutions.
Heres to fashion being on the agenda in every industry - not just the creative industry. Lets claim fashion sustainability as a global priority, accessible for everyone to take part in its transformation. We need more thinkers, more doers and more action than ever before.
Undress will always symbolise a transformative, euphoric and magical time of my life. The perfect way to spend my 20s. The friends I made, the talented people I met, the beautiful industry where I found belonging, it was everything I could have asked for, and more.
It would not have been possible without each and every single person who joined the Undress team. To every Undress team member; you who showed up, worked late and took on wild challenges, thank you for being absolute legends.
I want to say a special thank you to Juju, Ryan, Sunny and Kirsten. I could not imagine a better group of people to lead Undress with. Words cant describe how much gratitude, happiness and adventure you have brought into my life. You helped me grow, inspired me with your ideas and you taught me how to be a good leader. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Thank you to every designer, sponsor and guest who attended our events. You made it all possible.
Some things come to an end for all the right reasons. Im excited for the next chapter, Im excited to take what Ive learned, everything Undress taught me, into the future.
At the end of the day, Undress wasnt really about fashion. Undress was about the designers paving the way with sustainable production techniques, the garment makers who deserve a living wage and fair working conditions, the models who stood for equal representation and a more equitable industry, business leaders who were paddling hard, out in front, way before the wave was due, and the Undress team who put their time and energy into a movement that stood for change.
Fashion was our vehicle, but we stand for so much more.
Im excited for whats next. Im ready for the next chapter. Undress sparked a fire in me that I wont be putting out any time soon. I care deeply about the workplace being a place of belonging and a vehicle for social and environmental change. I am back at uni studying psychology with a goal to better understand organisational psychology and workplace behaviour. Im starting to explore how I can support the next generation to speak up at work and galvanise change from the inside-out. From climate action to diverse representation and inclusion, to equitable systems and CEO-to-worker wage gaps, to supporting the next generation to start difficult conversations with their bosses, thats where Im heading.
Imagine the Trojan horse of our generation. Where climate protests happen on the floor of workplaces, across the table in board meetings and in one-on-ones with your boss. Where people arent afraid to speak up and voice their values at work and hold their manager accountable to change. Where CEOs cant hide behind the walls of their workplace because their assistant is asking carbon emission questions at the coffee machine.
Employees, staff, team members, interns and volunteers are the next wave of change.
Hopefully, Ive started paddling at the right time.
A few highlights d