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Carving a Niche in the Global Fashion Industry

Mathew Knight
Julia Van Der Sommen

Julia Van Der Sommen was always destined for the fashion industry, “I’ve been sewing since I was about 10, sewing own clothes by the time I was 12 and making them for other people by the time I was 14,” she says.

Julia has worked in the industry for 20 years, starting off her career in Adelaide, making anything from wedding dresses, wet suits, swim wear, sportswear, to up-market ladies wear. She moved to Melbourne in 2004, working for big companies such as Anthea Crawford, Slazenger, Casey X, Myer and Target.

Throughout these roles, Julia has been a sample machinist, pattern maker and designer; working with both offshore and onshore production. She realised, as a whole, it was a very disjointed process.

“No one was providing a service where you could have a pattern and sample made in the same place,” Julia says. Thus the idea for The Sample Room was born. “It’s a service you can’t afford to have in your own workplace.”

Julia started the business as a sole trader, doing everything from cutting, sewing, calling clients to the marketing.

Then as the company grew, she employed a junior to cut samples, then a machinist and so on. Now they’ve expanded to a team of seven.

The Sample Room deals with big clients such as Myer, Brown Sugar and Perry Cutton to boutique customers like Harlow and Lily Heart, which are sole traders that sell their labels in a number of stores. “So because they are doing everything themselves, we become a really valuable part of their team,” she says.

They also service start-up brands that have an idea, but often no training or background. “We’ll have people come to us with a sketch drawn on a serviette, basically, and are expecting a range to come out of that. There are a lot of questions to ask. So we really guide them through that process,” she says.

For this very reason The Sample Room started The Startup Mentoring Program, which helps brands through the first six months of their range…

So far they’ve had people from as far as Vietnam and U.S. show interest, as no one else in the world offers such a service. Currently the program is face-to-face, but they’re currently in the process of putting the program online.

“I’d see a lot of these fantastic ideas come through the door, and think ‘You’re really clear on your brand and your customer’, but they would just lose steam because they hit too many brick walls.”

Julia says she is very proud of the program’s success stories, such as ‘776’, “Which has a fantastic brand, and started off with no background at all. We helped educate them and given them great contacts and are doing really well.”

Julia says there are many advantages of keeping it local when it comes to patternmaking…

“If you’re new and don’t know how to communicate how something is made, it’s essential that you are dealing with someone who speaks the same language as you do, and can prompt you on what you need to know.”

Julia has done research on the costs of offshore versus local manufacturing. “People always look at the manufacturing price, but not the freight and shipping, etc. With overseas you also need to go over and visit at some stage.

“So if you look at the overall price and the cost that’s involved, it’s cheaper, quicker, and you can charge more locally than overseas, but people rarely see that.

Julia does not see an issue with some of the recent big international clothing names coming into the industry, as they are servicing the mass market.

“I go to those stores and line-up for the change rooms, and there are endless amounts of people coming out saying ‘No that’s fine, I won’t take anything’. The styling’s fantastic, the fabrics and colours are great, but the fit is just way off,” Julia says.

“So I say to my clients, ‘Make sure your fit is to your market, designer faster, be unique, people will discover you and love you for it. As long as you’re looking for the niche and not trying to compete with the big brands.”

They have also just launched a website called The Pattern Room, an online pattern catalogue enabling designers to create their range for a fraction of the cost of developing it from scratch. It is helping spread the brand globally, as designers can download a pattern anywhere in the world.

“We’re hoping to expand that and have it as an area of our business where you can come in, try on garments, then tweak them to your own requirements,” she says.

Photos by Mathew Knight

The Sample Room