“An entrepreneur is often blinded by ambition, bloody minded, focused, self motivated and aggressively determined,” Alexandra Smart, now 37, told a graduation audience at the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales just three years after starting her business.
“These are not necessarily endearing qualities, but I now recognise they were necessary for the start-up of my business.”
This candid approach is typical of the eldest half of the dynamic sister-act behind Australian fashion and lifestyle label Ginger & Smart. Speak to her and she’ll tell you they named their label in celebration of the combination of “opposing but complementary forces of hard and soft, empowerment and vulnerability, sexy and smart". 'Ginger’ referenced her and her equally cardinally haired sister, Genevieve.
And one wonders if there could be something in the old adage that red moves faster. Only three years after launching in 2002, their company catapulted to Business Review Weekly’s list of the country’s top 40 fastest-growing businesses. Just six years later they sell in more than 30 stores across Australia including David Jones, their Paddington flagship store, plus stores at Westfield Sydney and Avalon.
The assault on the overseas market packed a similar punch, with their wares stretching to more than 10 stores internationally from Browns in London and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong to Cara & Co in Russia. It is as indicative of the global appeal of their aesthetic as much as their drive.
“Before starting out we spent a lot of time thinking about the brand and product mix; what we wanted it to stand for and where we wanted it to be in five and 10 years,” says Alexandra.
The goal was to create a prestige Australian fashion and lifestyle brand. “And we knew no-one was doing it,” she says.
The duo started with a small range of candles that were sold to fashion and lifestyle stores that they wanted to grow into. “Having established that relationship we were able to go back a couple of years later with our accessories collection, which they bought into and then another year later we went back to show them our ready-to-wear collection. That’s really how we managed to establish long-term relationships.”
Regardless of the strategy, according to Alexandra the siblings were a typical “get started on the dining room table story”.
“It really was a case of having the house so filled with boxes that we were forced out to find premises.”
It would, however, be a mistake to assume the Smart girls were haphazard entrepreneurs. Genevieve had vast experience as a fashion designer and for six years was the head designer for enduring Australian label Lisa Ho. Alexandra’s decade-long media and publishing career provided a sound springboard for things to come.
Starting her career as a journalist and working across a broad genre of magazines such as Black & White Magazine, Studio Bride and Bambini, Alexandra’s break came when she was approached by 3D World Publishing to be the launch editor of Oyster magazine. At 24 the editorship was an amazing opportunity.
“When I was at Oyster magazine, I was also the editor of Catalog magazine, which was a street mag and it had quite a bit of credibility back then,” she says. “They were exciting times but after a while I made the leap to Australian Consolidated Press – a huge corporate conglomerate at the time – and I moved into the advertising publishing side of magazines.”
She says it was an interesting move out of editorial. “But it was really good because it gave me quite a bit of exposure to the more focused side of operations, budgeting and advertising.”
By 27 she found herself as publisher in the book division, where she published books that were spin-offs from magazines and TV programs and it was all about it was looking for commercial opportunities for their big brands. Her manager at the time was a great mentor who actually encouraged her to enrol in her MBA and she later went to work for him as general manager of Become Media, a start-up right in the middle of the internet boom.
“We were syndicating content and we had a platform that we licensed out of New York to deliver content to websites. We were about trying to get the large corporates to make their website more interesting and viable with great content.” She says it was ahead of its time. “A lot of the things we were doing back then, like creating content in anticipation of a massive content dry spell are now being realised.
“It was a worthwhile experience because it allowed me to see how start-ups can happen, the things that need to be in place and how that kind of unfolds and what not to do.”
Two of a kind
Despite a clear distinction in their skills, the siblings are collaborators in every sense of the word and make their big decisions together. “Gen’s area is obviously design, while I tend to look after sales and marketing, staff and retail issues,” says Alexandra. “We do sign off on all the designs and marketing together and our strength is that we share the same vision for our company and where we want to go and what we want our lives to be like.”
Lifestyle, after all, was the main motivator behind the conception of their partnership. “We started talking about our business when Gen wasn’t very well and we were trying to find ways to build a lifestyle that would allow us to have children and grow something together. It came out of an understanding that, certainly in media, it’s very difficult to go off and have a family and keep your status.”
She says it’s equally a struggle in fashion because of the stress levels and the time commitment. “It was a way of us trying to find a financial footing for the rest of our lives and take back a bit of control over our destiny,” she says.
And years on, Alexandra concedes it’s still tough. “We’re both mothers. It’s just a matter of getting that work-life balance happening.”
Retail is a big step for fashion labels and stories are rife of the brands that have learnt the hard way through expanding too quickly. Alexandra says that while there are all sorts of risks you take on board when you open a retail store, there are a number of strategies behind growing the company.
“Owning your own brand and your brand environment and being able to talk directly to your customers is the key reason for opening your own store,” she says. “It’s positive in terms of cash flow too; you’ve got a daily situation as opposed to waiting around all the time.”
Looking into the future, Alexandra understands the importance of having the right team in place to take the company forward and says they’re lucky to be able to work with so many talented women. “Finding the right people and developing their skills is crucial so we really spend such a lot of time on team building,” she says.
“It’s a great moment when you realise your company is no longer just about yourself and for me this is when you walk into the office and realise that not only have things been done without you instigating it, but they’ve been done really well. It is so fulfilling to watch other people grow and take on their company goals.”
While she may not sound ‘bloody minded’ or ‘self motivated’, there’s no question as to whether Alexandra is still an ambitious and determined entrepreneur.