Material girls

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It’s Saturday morning, just a week before Australia’s fashion week and Penny McIntyre and her daughter Emilie Cacace are sipping on cappuccinos close to their showroom in fashionable William Street in Paddington, Sydney, engaged in good-natured debate. They’ve just been asked whether there’s a succession plan in place in their family-run business. 

“Well, we don’t talk about it,” says Cacace. McIntyre smiles: “Yes, we do.” 

“No,” corrects Cacace. “You just tell everyone that I’m going to take over the business and that you’re just going to go to Blackheath [in Sydney’s Blue Mountains where McIntyre has a design studio] and that soon I’ll be running the show. And I’m left thinking, hang on a minute Mum!”

This magnanimous banter is a typical exchange for the duo. They clearly share a close bond and a burning passion for the business they work in – along with the habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a striking similarity in their wide smiles. 

They’ve just admitted there’s 50 meters of fabric to be washed and steamed for someone who needs it on the catwalk by Tuesday before they call it ‘the weekend’. 

Their company, Think Positive, designs and digitally prints fabrics for leading designers, including Josh Goot and Collette Dinnigan, and their work is showcased on a world stage through the likes of Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia or on our athletes at the Olympics. They’ve created Think Vintage, a print library archive of more than 3000 print designs for the fashion industry, and also founded Russh magazine, arguably Australia’s most popular title for the fashion-forward.

A cut above the rest

While the majority of the business occupies an industrial-looking building in Sydney’s Alexandria, the company has its sights firmly set on offices in New York and central Europe in the near future. Their global approach is evident in the way they champion Australian fashion at every opportunity, praising our design talents, collaborations and pushing the importance of the local industry working together. 

“We’re world standard when it comes to what we deliver,” says McIntyre. “I truly believe we’re the best at what we do and love the fact I can say that and really believe in it,” agrees Emilie. “We set an insanely high standard in our own work, to the point where it has to be perfect to be good enough.”

McIntyre, who began her career as a textile designer, started Think Positive in 1986 after returning to Sydney from Melbourne after a stint with silk-screen printers. 

“I was freelancing in Melbourne, but in 1986 after Emilie was born I made the decision to start my own business,” she says. “I got a helper, then another helper and by 1991 there were 15 of us.” 

That’s solid growth and according to McIntyre it can be attributed to a timely investment in technology, something she still lives by to this day. 

“In 1993 when the first film printing machines came into existence (where you didn’t have to actually physically paint by them by hand) I went to Chicago and got involved in that whole project,” she says. “That cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but I just learnt how to lease it and pay it off and it was absolutely worth it.”

Trend setters

Challenges were presented in the mid-1990s at a time when many Australian designers decided to take things offshore to China, which saw the whole of the textile and fashion industry basically crumble in six months. 

“Some of these companies owed us [up to] $80,000 just for one month,” says McIntyre. “That’s when I learnt that cash flow is everything. I had to refinance.” 

Undeterred, McIntyre worked on her own for about five years until polyester printing emerged followed by the 2000 Olympics. 

“I bought a little fabric fitting machine and learned a lot about colour management and the new technology,” she says. “And then it slowly built up again to where we are now.”

Cacace’s break into the business came through drawing on the walls of the artroom as a toddler, until she was promoted to what she calls “girl Friday” during school and university holidays. She joined full-time after graduating from Sydney’s College of Fine Arts (COFA). 

“I was literally the driver, delivering things to clients, which was great because I had a lot of customer contact from the beginning but there was never a moment that I decided to join the business,” she says definitively.

McIntyre insists she never intended for her daughter to join the company and says it happened by osmosis. 

“I’d ask Emilie to help me with, she’d ask me how, I’d show her and then from then on she’d just end up doing it,” she shrugs. “The truly great thing about having my daughter work for me is that you don’t minding sharing all your secrets of how to make something work from a design point of view.” 

While McIntyre’s partner, Ian Davies, business-manages the group of companies, when it comes to their six staff, there’s no strictly family policy. 

“Non-family members become a part of the family,” says McIntyre. “We work together for a common cause, and when the whole financial crisis hit the news we found explaining the intention to make sure we all get through together brought us even closer together as a group.

“We have systems that keeps things formal but all of us understand each other for their own intricacies.”

Rewarding their staff is crucial: whenever possible they invite them to share in the success and the accolades. 

“I give many of my passes to fashion shows to the staff so they can go and actually see their work on the catwalks. There’s a big difference for us to see the design on the computers and the fabric and then to see what the amazing designers make it into and how they use all the different silks and wools,” says McIntyre. “It’s really important for them,” agrees Cacace, “because they get that ownership over the design and they feel really proud.”

World vision

Recently, in what is a big step forward for the company, they have approached textile designers from Italy with experience in Europe. It’s all part of their plan to build the business to an international level from the point of view of design and experience. 

“We are expecting to find someone to bring a fresh young contemporary hand to complement Emilie, and for them both to develop print ranges, so we can sell fabrics and print designs for fashion and furnishings all around the world,” says McIntyre. 

Meanwhile Cacace, who is fluent in French, has embarked on three months in Europe to gain experience and to visit fashion houses, textile studios and digital printing facilities, all in aide of expanding their business dealings. 

“It is great I have the freedom to go overseas and have an experience that is going to be beneficial for the business in the long run,” says Cacace. “And I can’t wait to return, inspired with invigorated energy.”

It’s hard to imagine this formidable mother-daughter team displaying anything but enthusiasm, which begs the question of how they keep up their glabrous front? 

“People always say to me, my god, how do you work with your Mum?” concedes Cacace. “Sure, it can be hard but we mother each other. There’s an even playing field now, we share the responsibility and it’s really about who is available to look after a particular project or customer at that particular time.”

McIntyre reassures: “Our relationship gives us strength and we really push each other. Em’s always bossing me to make sure I’m in by 7am.”

They both laugh while Cacace defends herself. “She’s the boss of the company and she’ll go to work on Monday morning and tell everyone she doesn’t want to be there. I say ‘Mum, stop it with the negativity, have a bit of energy’.”

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