Jordan Morris has been surfing for years, but he hates the wetsuits available on the market.
So he decided to make one himself.
He is one of the young entrepreneurs bucking the declining trend of manufacturing in Australia, tapping into a market in search of ethical, well-made products.
“[I] just had terrible combinations all the time. They tear very quickly. Their materials are quite poor,” Mr Morris said.
“It starts out really hot, then a few months later it feels like putting on a wet blanket every time. They don’t dry out. They’re just made to break.
Now 23, he had tried out college and had a variety of jobs, including air traffic and stay control (FIFO) at mine sites, but so far he had no quite found his calling – even though he knew he wanted to do something creative.
Luckily, his family knew a semi-retired industrial tailor who had been making suits professionally for decades.
“I just asked him once over coffee, ‘Is there any way you can teach me and see where we go from here?’ And Jan said, ‘Yeah, let’s go’.”
Mr Morris has spent most of the last year at TAFE studying product design, as well as tearing up old suits to see how they were made and how they could be improved.
“And it kind of took off from there,” he said.
“Now we have a business. And it’s fun because it’s dad and my brother, and we have Jan, who’s great to work with.”
Mr Morris now has a small factory in the southern suburbs of Perth.
It works two to three days a week, sewing coveralls for customers who visit in person to be measured, placing custom orders for coveralls in the style and color of their choice.
So far sales have been weak and Mr. Morris still does occasional FIFO swings to supplement his income.
But he is able to pay the rent and his staff and is optimistic about the future.
“Orders for this week are up to five, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but I think so,” Mr Morris said.
Not the cheapest, but distinctive
He plans to return to TAFE to learn more about pattern making and design, as he believes that making custom products is how a local maker can really stand out.
Her father, Peter, who helps her set up the business and has had the opportunity to wear bespoke suits during his career in the military, agrees.
“We want to be able to get anyone in – any shape or size – and we can build a combination for them,” he said.
“There’s nowhere else in the world that can do that right now.”
Appeal to ethical consumers
Although he may never sell the cheapest wetsuits on the market, Mr Morris hopes people will be attracted to a more ethical wetsuit.
“It’s a very different experience than what people are used to with wetsuits. It’s much more in-depth, hands-on,” he said.
“[Manufacturing overseas] you can pay people a lot less, something like $1 or $2 a day, to sew a whole bunch of suits, and you can use terrible petroleum-based material,” he said.
“I think people think it’s also kind of profitable because you can increase your margins and not have to pay as much.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the manufacturing sector, protected by high tariff barriers, accounted for almost 30% of Australian GDP.
In the late 1980s, when the Hawke government began removing tariffs, manufacturing was Australia’s largest employer, accounting for 16.5% of the workforce. It is only 6.4% today.
In the decades that followed, the Australian clothing and footwear industry was particularly hard hit.
But more recently, concern over the rise of “fast fashion” – cheap clothes made overseas by very low-wage workers – has fueled interest in more ethical products.
Kristin Goodacre founded her Perth-based fashion label five years ago after a career in the suit design and commercial knitwear industry in New Zealand.
After moving to Perth with her family, she was completely discouraged by the fast fashion industry and eager to do something more creative.
“I felt like there was this big space to just go out and do it yourself with social media and this ability to have a direct connection with your customers,” she said.
Ms Goodacre now designs and oversees the local manufacturing of her own brand of women’s clothing, doing all the design and development work herself, then selling directly to the public from a boutique that doubles as a design studio.
“I love working with clients so much,” she said.
A balancing act
While it will never generate the kind of big chain profit margins, she said doing fashion in Australia was doable and profitable.
“It’s a compromise. I think if you’re really only interested in the bottom line, you’re not going to choose to manufacture in Australia. You can’t,” she said.
“But I have the ability to have more control over the margin than we get from selling directly to the customer. You don’t have that middle market.
Mrs. Goodacre deals directly with the people who cut and sew her clothes.
She said it was very “hands-on and back and forth with the manufacturer.”
“I prefer to work with manufacturers who do the work themselves so I know the person who is actually doing the work is the person who is being paid,” Ms. Goodacre said.
“They’ve made a decision on the cost of things instead of being told by someone else what they’re going to earn [for doing the work].
Ms Goodacre said heightened public awareness of low pay and poor factory conditions overseas has also led people to seek out more ethically produced products.
“People are so interested and aware of this now,” she said.
“And I think that’s a big reason [people buy my clothes]. I hope they also like my creations. I like to think that’s the main reason they buy from me.”
For now, she’s happy to stay small, selling in her little shop and online.
“I don’t want to lose that intimate feeling. I found something really special here,” Ms. Goodacre said.
“But, of course, it’s a business, and financially you want to grow because that’s the next natural step. So every year it’s growing.
“Just doing something you made yourself and starting your own business is a great feeling.”