• Helen O'Connor, as captured by Eddie Jim.
    Helen O'Connor, as captured by Eddie Jim.

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Thurley founder Helen O'Connor talks business with Assia Benmedjdoub.

What were the early foundations of the Thurley brand?

I was inspired to start Thurley whilst studying in NYC.

The positivity and encouragement of the lecturers at FIT and guest speakers like Dianne Von Furstenberg empowered me with the confidence to give my dream a chance.

Studying so close to one of the biggest fashion hubs in the world on 7th Avenue, made a career as a designer seem just within my reach. I returned home and started Thurley from the living room in my parents' house.

I started sketching in the sun one day and created the samples on an old Janome sewing machine and the one or two pieces quickly grew into an entire collection. I shot the range with one of my school friends and took the lookbook around Melbourne to all of my favorite boutiques.

Bless some of the buyers that took a chance on me and put in orders, as it changed my life and all started from that point. When I look back now I am amazed I ever had the confidence to pull it off!

What were some of the early challenges in growing the business?

There were many challenges, the biggest one was convincing a factory to take on such small units.

I eventually found a very kind-hearted man who was willing to take on my orders and handle them as sample runs, some of the units were so small I made them myself at home.

I wanted to ensure I didn’t let anyone down and delivered every single order!

Also, one of the biggest challenges to overcome as a designer is getting your name out there. It’s a very long road to becoming a household name.

Establishing a signature style that stands apart from all of the competitors in a flooded market takes years to develop, I have been working on it for a decade now and I am still have a long way to go!

I think Thurley being under the radar for many years gave me the opportunity to do hone my signature and understand what it was about my work that offers the customer a unique perspective.

I have also weathered a few storms like the global financial crisis, the impact of international fashion brands entering the local market and being more readily available online, GST free.

But I am grateful to have learnt how to adapt and survive in a challenging environment it has made me a better designer and Thurley a stronger brand.

What about some of the breakthroughs?

Wholesaling internationally has been a huge breakthrough for Thurley. I was really taken aback by how positively it was received internationally.

It really encouraged me that Thurley provides something unique and different in the global marketplace.

Some of the Northern Hemisphere stores Thurley was picked up by include Saks, Shop Bop, Intermix, Moda Operandi and Harvey Nichols.

One of the best days of my career was hearing the news Saks picked up our brand and then seeing it hanging in their NYC store, with the Thurley brand painted on the wall!

What was the initial expansion strategy?

In the past few years, we have transformed from retail and concession to a wholesale model, which has given us the opportunity to reach a far broader customer both nationally and internationally whilst avoiding the challenging overheads associated with staffing and rent.

As a small niche label our strategy is to keep our product exclusive and not oversaturate the market, hence we are focusing on international territories to provide sustainable growth.

What has been the steepest learning curve?

The steepest learning curve was finding a model that suits the niche brand and learning the lessons along the way!

We were overwhelmed with the orders from national and international wholesale customers and had to very quickly adapt and grow our team to be capable of handling the volume and complexity of work we now have to produce.

The standard of the quality expected and delivery deadlines are crucially important to our boutiques and their customers so we had to find highly skilled team members to perfect our team.

How many stores and concessions do you operate now?

In Australia, we have one retail store on High street Armadale and an online store and then approximately 100 independent boutiques including David Jones.

What is the key to growing an export business?

We have very close relationships with our international distributors in the UK, USA, China and Italy.

Our international sales manager works with them on a daily basis to ensure our product is adapted and suited to their customer needs.

I think it’s really important to have people on the ground in each market that can form close bonds with the stockists and cater to their needs and payment terms rather than trying to do it all from Australia.

What is the biggest challenge in managing this?

There are so many challenges in exporting; one of the biggest is the conflicting seasons. We have to adapt our collections accordingly to suit their climates, which is no easy task.

Some local designers actually create their collections based on the Northern Hemisphere seasons, however as the Australian market is our main focus we design for the Southern Hemisphere. There are so many complex details with an international network, shipping and distribution is a job within itself!

How do you tackle foreign taxes and payment terms?

We are working with international distributors and they handle distribution and liaising with customers.

What are the best performing product categories?

Dresses are Thurley’s best performing category. We are a dress destination and our signature hand appliqued evening dresses are what we have become known for.

I create each and every design by hand on the stand and very few brands at our price point are doing such complex work locally, so it has provided us with a really unique selling point.

How do you approach manufacturing?

Over the past year, we have put a lot of time, travel and effort and into our suppliers and nurture our relationships with them to ensure a higher standard of quality.

We produce primarily locally; do some specialty hand worked pieces with artisans in India and a small proportion of silk prints in China.

I prefer to keep as much production as I can locally to support the industry that has really suffered to the past decade.

Who are the key people in your business?

My patternmaker/soul mate; we read each others’ minds and she turns my sketches into reality. My angel machinists who are the most talented, hard working and passionate people I know.

I have a sample and development manager, who is so patient and will do anything in the pursuit of turning my crazy dreams into reality.

There is my local and offshore production manager, a local and international sales manager, an online manager and an account manager.

They are all the most patient and hard working people and are committed to make my ridiculously complicated vision come to life.

Is eCommerce a priority in the mix?

eCommerce is really important to the growth of our business.

Every year, we have seen significant growth in sales and interest in our site. We are working on improving it all the time as we realise it is such an important platform for our brand for marketing as well as sales.

We have an online manager that serves our customers; it’s a full-time job in itself just answering enquiries!

Are there any other areas you are looking to grow or expand into?

I would love to expand into accessories to compliment the dresses I design.

Sunglasses handbags and shoes are all important ingredients to create the perfect outfit and such fantastic ways to bring your brand to the customer at more attainable price points.

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