Robe opened it's doors in 2006, pioneering the now iconic Chancery Lane Bendigo.
When Robe was dreamt up I didn't know what Nudie Jeans were or where to get so many coat hangers. Social Media didn't exist, I was on a first name basis with everyone at Ikea Richmond and Ebay made a fortune out of me. I had three credit cards and a 30K loan from someone who didn’t believe what I was going to do would work but wanted to support my determination and vision when no-one else would.
My best friend Erin came up with the name Robe. We were brainstorming a word that embraced a place you kept your clothes or something you wore. My train of thought- cupboard, wardrobe, closet, trunk. Erin was on point.
In reality, opening a clothing store, or any store was never in my sights. I still want to be a paramedic when I grow up. And a Marriage Celebrant. And a pilot. And master birthday cake making. But the word itself resonated with me. My mobile number is made up of my name and 'robe' [cringe] and I operated under this entity for earlier projects which included photography work, uniform design and personal shopping. I don't sound much like a medic do I?
Hello 2006 and I wanted to start any business in Chancery Lane. At the time, I was part of the beauty team at Jools for Jim and we enjoyed our lunch breaks in the empty lane way. I thought Chancery Lane was beautiful and its untapped potential as a destination in its own right, made me anxious. I have a science/IT background so hospitality was never a consideration; plus things always seem to fall on me in kitchens. Genetic engineering dictated my passion for shopping and a clothing boutique was an opportunity where life experience could be drawn from, to romance its inception. I thought.
In reality I have little personal interest in the hierarchy of fashion per say. I found it intimidating, shallow and unsustainable. I dreaded meetings where I knew the designers themselves would be attending and I relied heavily on the internet for all things communication. Those that know me well will attest, I'm actually pretty shy! I don't enjoy meeting new people and I don't like making small talk with strangers. But Robe has matured and so have I. Many of the talented designers and their colleagues, behind our brands, are now considered friends and I'm proud to be part of an industry that is working really hard to achieve a standardised environmentally and socially conscious platform.
Robe opened the year before the GFC hit. I believe this was a blessing however. I know no different than the economic climate I've sailed and I've never allowed myself complacency. It's a really tough gig this retail stuff. But it always has been.
I worry that I'm bad at 'business'. Have I invested too much of my heart into the store? I find it conflicting at times to make business based decisions. When visitor’s kids swing off the racks and are rough with the lolly machine, race each other with lidless texta's in hand, climb the counter and play with my product, I feel like they're messing up my room at home! But I suspect Small Business is often like that. It's unequivocally personal, as is the manner in which you deliver your service and product. Perhaps in such a competitive marketplace this is in fact an advantage? Corporate regard customers as statistics, Small Business consider them people. We must.
Robe is very much an extension of myself, as such it defines me. The pattern behind the Robe logo is tattooed on me. Literally. This is symbolic of a personally tough time I endured and the strength my new business gave me during this period.
I think anyone can open a shop and sell stuff. But it's the experience you offer your customer that sets it apart. A point of difference. Jill Cantwell founder and director of Jools For Jim, taught me that. I gave Robe an identity, a personality and from our first day of trade on August 18th 2006, I have prioritised customer service, attention to detail, communication, store presentation, engagement and market presence over making a dollar. Robe turns 12 this year, 2018.
Once I sold a girl her wedding dress...There's still no bigger thrill for me when I'm having a day off, than to see a Robe shopping bag held by someone on the street. Or the validation of a photo on FB and Instagram or in a local publication, of someone having fun at an event wearing something from the store. My first Christmas in trade, and every one since makes my Christmas morning one of a kind, imaging people opening gifts lovingly picked out for them from Robe. I get a buzz out of selling store gift vouchers (in glass bottles with lollies in them). I know they were sought for their recipient because they want to be part of this space that I've created. Recently a tourist from out of state produced a map of Bendigo she'd printed, asking for directions. I was humbled to see Robe penciled in as one of her destinations.
Robe's been privy to some celebrity visitors too. You may recognise Gotye, Abi Tucker, Shane Crawford, Denise Scott, Anh Do, Molly Ringwald, Ally Fowler, Peter Phelps, Jane Seymour, Powder Finger, Tim Rogers, Casey Chambers (does it count if I hid in the store room?), Ricki-Lee Coulter and the boys from Jet (...or down the lane way in another store?) and plenty of professional football players who probably expected that I knew who they were but didn't. Yes, I'm a longtime sufferer of starstruckitis, but I think it's neat they found their way to my little store.
Would I do it again if I knew it was going to be this hard? Probably not. Sometimes it's better not to know exactly what you're getting yourself into. 'Cos then you chicken out. But I don't regret it for a second. The key(s)? Be open to re-learning what you already thought you knew. Don't be too proud. Plus learn new stuff too. Set achievable goals. I've learnt Auslan. I completed a pole-dancing course. I started manufacturing my own belts and I even faced my public speaking fear by facilitating a live talk with Vogue Magazine's longest standing Editor in Chief on stage at the Capital Theatre. Last year I coordinated my fourth Million Paws Walk for Bendigo. And I conquered Tasmania's infamous South Coast Track. This year I drove my son around Spain on the other side of the road in motor home for 3 weeks, ran a half marathon, started my GA RPL flight training and landed myself a seat on the Bendigo Tourism Board.
Do things that have NOTHING to do with your mates, your work and your family. But do keep them close! Family keeps you grounded. There's nothing like an unsuspecting leaky nappy on a long car trip, a 3 year old that won't do as she's told unless you call her princess, a 7 year old that won't eat cheese and eggs from the same plate or a long haired indoor cat with diarrhoea, to put things in perspective.
I've drawn confidence from the love and support of my family and friends, especially when old mate self doubt creeps in, which is often when you're your own boss. I've also learnt that it is okay to stop living in a manner that suits the expectations of others. Change is good. And so is wine. Often.
Many of Robe's customers and business associates are now good friends. I'm still working on balance and resilience but I've been blessed with a renewed sense of community. Bendigo is GREAT, oh how it's evolved over the last decade. I am so thankful to be part of this dynamic landscape that I call my home town. I am neighbours with some incredibly clever locals. I love beautiful things and styling comes naturally. For better or worse my alter ego is determined, stubborn and unwavering optimistic. And ultimately, the creative opportunities and independence that Robe allows me, nurtures my inner goddess!
So what's next for Robe? Another store in Chancery Lane, maybe footwear? A Ward for my Robe? A make-over? Plus, Robe is hitting the road. Yes we're launching our mobile pop-up store in 2019. I have a heavy vehicle license and am the proud owner of a cosmetically challenged 1970 Bedford bus. Am I scared? Terrified! But imagine what you could do if you weren't afraid.... Stay tuned x