Sonya Michele’s export journey started after a throwaway comment from a friend.
A self-confessed scarf fanatic, Sonya was complaining she couldn’t find anything to satisfy her obsession for this often neglected fashion accessory.
“Design your own,” her friend responded.
And in 2015 Sonya’s dog&boy brand was born.
“It was a moment of serendipity,” she recalls. A light bulb moment.
For more than 20 years Sonya had been absorbed in high-powered positions in the cut-throat world of banking and finance. That was all about to change.
With no formal tech skills, she set out to develop a range of scarf designs that would be unique to the global marketplace.
Engaging the services of a graphic designer was one of the first steps in her new career path.
But Sonya’s journey almost ended before it began when her world was rocked by the shocking news that her mother – her guiding light – had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer.
Just one month after the diagnosis her mother died. Sonya was devastated.
‘It’s about celebrating special moments’
A short time later, she discovered her mother was actually a frustrated sketch artist – and a pretty good one.
She found numerous sketchbooks of botanical drawings and muses, reflecting her mother’s love of the simple beauty in the things around her.
“It was that simplicity that spoke to me,” says Sonya.
It was the inspiration she needed to drive her new project to new heights.
A percentage of every dog&boy sale is now donated to Cure Brain Cancer Foundation for much needed research so that others can continue their life journey.
“It’s about celebrating special moments and simple moments,” Sonya says. “It is this everyday beauty on which I base the designs for dog&boy.
“I have always loved telling stories and that’s what we do through our designs.”
Those “stories” can now be found in boutique stores and institutions across the globe, including 65 stockists in Australia.
“It was rewarding to see our stories resonate on the other side of the world.”
‘We had to extend beyond the borders’
Exporting dog&boy scarves was on the cards from day one.
“Australia is a small market – especially for niche products like ours,” Sonya says. “For us to be sustainable over the longer term we had to extend beyond the borders.”
The US, Europe and UK were obvious targets for dog&boy, while Asia – including China and Indonesia – are now firmly on the company’s radar.
Launching into the US took about 18 months of research and planning, but it’s certainly starting to pay dividends for the small Melbourne-based fashion house.
Earlier this year, the dog&boy range was on display at NY NOW in New York – the country’s largest gift and lifestyle trade show.
Strong interest from buyers
Since then, the company has seen unprecedented growth.
As a first time exhibitor, dog&boy attracted strong interest across the US.
Independent boutique and lifestyle stores from Michigan to New Orleans and Florida, have been quick to place orders.
Sonya’s scarves can also be found in major US art galleries including The Art Institute of Chicago, The Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth (TX) and several private galleries.
Overall, dog&boy has gained 30 new stockists from exhibiting at NY NOW with additional stockists anticipated in the second half of the year. The accessories brand is also now represented by three independent showrooms in LA, Dallas and North Carolina.
Export revenues are soaring
Before NY NOW, exports made up about 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue. That figure is expected to reach nearly 30 percent by the end of this calendar year.
Needless to say, dog&boy’s latest range will be on display at NY NOW again in August, with more than 3000 exhibitors expected.
All dog&boy designs are developed in-house and manufactured by a boutique family business based in Hangzhou, China. This is where the most premium-grade silk, wool, cotton, and cashmere are milled and manufactured globally, including nearly 100% of all Australian wool and cotton.
Sonya visits the supplier every year to assess working conditions, oversee the printing process and to source new fabrics.
“Our factory is certified for its ethical and fair-trade practices,” she says proudly.
‘Healthy dose of fear’
Every new collection is months in the making.
New designs are launched each year for spring/summer and autumn/winter using different fabrics for each season.
“Thinking about which designs will become best-sellers and which stories will resonate most with dog&boy fans fills me with excitement – and a healthy dose of fear,” Sonya admits.
And exporting comes with plenty of challenges.
“You have to build brand awareness and support it,” Sonya says.
“But perhaps the biggest challenge for most SMEs is having the resources and cashflow to support the business when you’re often waiting weeks or months to be paid.”
Pricing was also a major challenge. Her online (e-commerce) pricing had to be competitive with landed costs offshore so retailers were not being undercut.
‘There’s no manual for exporting’
Would she encourage more women to take the export plunge?
Definitely – despite all the challenges, she says.
“I thought I’d done enough due diligence to export with confidence, but so many small issues keep popping up that you’re unaware of.
“There’s no manual for exporting – it doesn’t exist. You have to ask plenty of questions – and meet with the right people.”
Patience is the main quality needed to achieve export success, she says.
“You need perseverance and an understanding of the market.
“You also need to build trust with buyers. They want to know you’re going to be there for the long haul.
“We like to think we’re taking over the world one scarf at a time.”