How to start an ethical fashion label in Australia

Julia Van Der Sommen is a woman of ethics. She’s the brains behind Australia’s leading complete pattern making, sampling and product development service for the fashion industry, and she’s an advocate for independent design. With decades of industry experience, she is now championing the next generation of designers through her business, Sample Room, preparing emerging labels with the skills and knowledge they need to survive in the Australian fashion industry. 

I recently caught up with Julia at Sample Room in Brunswick for a quick IGTV interview, but as always, I stayed for an hour and we shared a few laughs, some great cutting room conversation and a few ideas for the future of our industry...

Sample Room seems like a fantastic resource for start-ups and designers trying to make their own way in the fashion industry. What happens behind the scenes here?
Sample Room is a full development house. We concentrate on design, sample making, pattern making, grading, specifications, and small run manufacturing. We can literally help with every aspect of launching a fashion label, and we have a mentoring program too. We’ve been running it for seven years and at any one time, we can have 30 or 40 labels working with us. It’s great!

How has Sample Room developed over time?
We used to be just a development house, and we introduced manufacturing about three years ago. So many people that we were working with were struggling with the next stage of business – manufacturing – because it’s very confusing to those who haven’t done it before. We wanted to help them through what can be a very daunting and costly process when you don’t know what you’re doing, so now we help labels with ethical manufacturing too.

For fashion students who have graduated or designers who are just starting out, where’s the best place to start to get a label off the ground?
Sample Room is a great place to start. We work with students, emerging designers and established labels too, and there really is no ‘checklist’ of skills that you need to start with us because we help you through the whole process. We find that a lot of people who have been to university have been taught to work in the industry rather than on their own business. They’re taught how to develop products and create specification sheets, but they don’t actually know anything about local production. A lot of the universities direct their students to offshore manufacturing, which I think is unsustainable for start-ups, and it’s a headache when you’re an emerging label. Local development is quite different, and it’s a great place to start.

Sample Room is Ethical Clothing Australia accredited. What boxes do you have to tick for that?
It’s stringent, but worth it, because we love being able to tell people about our ethical values and back it up with Ethical Clothing Australia accreditation. We pay our staff above the award wage, and we’re proud of the standard of our manufacturing workplace. It’s safe, ethical and a great place to be. We do our own manufacturing in-house, and it’s a small team of incredibly skilled makers, so we want to look after them and make it a great place to work; it’s what all workplaces should be like. Our chief machinist is a full garment machinist, which is a very rare thing, as opposed to a product machinist, so we really value our team and the work they do.

Alongside manufacturing, Sample Room also offers a mentoring program. How did the program start and what aspects of design and production does it cover?
About seven or eight years ago we were working with multiple start-ups, and after they left us, they kept hitting road-blocks after they’d finished production. They would always come back and ask what to do next, or who they needed to speak to for other areas of the business, and they needed the support to get through a full design cycle. So, we set up the mentoring program to help them and teach them, and to equip them with the skills they needed to run their businesses from all angles. It used to be an in-house program; once a month a group of people would come in, and we would go through the program step by step, but we had so much demand from interstate and overseas that we put it online. Now, it’s an online six-month program, and it takes you through every step from design to briefing a pattern maker, what machines are needed for different stitches, how to source fabric, what grading ratios are, working with manufacturers and how to quality-control garments. It’s very much about local production, which is essential to learn first before you go overseas. It’s the same cycle, but you just need to know how to prepare yourself so that everyone that you’re working with is happy to work with you and on the same page. I see too many designers start their brands overseas and face communication barriers and experience barriers, and it ends up being a costly exercise that can send a label broke or really damage their brand.

How much should a brand invest in their first collection?
It’s easy to lose thousands of dollars when you're starting out because you don’t know how to quality-control a sample, you don’t know about shrinkage, or you don’t know how to measure fabric accurately. It sounds simple, but there are so many steps involved, and if you get one wrong, it’s a domino effect, and it throws the whole production process out. There are a whole lot of little bits and pieces along the way that you don’t plan for, but if you’re trained, and you’ve done our program, you can avoid the mistakes. When you know what you're doing, you know how to prepare for and handle challenges, and it saves thousands. Starting a label isn’t just about having a great design; what we teach, is the skills to work through every step, so you know how to communicate each aspect of your design and brand to every person you work with – so you can avoid the costly mistakes. We’re not designers, and we don’t push our design direction on you; we’re about putting everything together to give you back your vision. That’s the most important thing to remember. When you’re starting out, you want to invest in your skills and knowledge first, rather than just throwing thousands of dollars at a manufacturer, then start with the smallest range you can.

To learn more about Sample Room and what it takes to start an ethical fashion label the right way, head to and as always, support your local labels who are doing it right too.

The Fashion Advocate x



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