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A Q&A with Kristy Barber from Kuwaii


A Q&A with Kristy Barber, Designer and Director of Kuwaii

Kuwaii Shoot Kylie Iva Photography for Cinema Thom 35
Image: Kristy Barber.
Hi Kristy! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I always lived in Melbourne and surrounds – I grew up rurally near Koo Wee Rup. I studied fashion at Box Hill Tafe and graduated in 2006. I worked as a bookkeeper for small businesses before I studied fashion – which has given me a great business background that has been essential in running a business of my own. Although I lived in Brunswick for many years while establishing Kuwaii, I now live in Coburg with my 6-year-old daughter Sisko, partner Mark, dog Rocko, cats Wilma and Strudel, and many goldfish. 

I interned a lot early on in my career: notably I travelled to NYC to intern with Phillip Lim. However, I have never actually had a job with another fashion brand – so many things I had to learn on the fly while establishing Kuwaii.   

I have always seen myself as a craftsperson. I love patternmaking and actually made most of the Kuwaii patterns for the first ten years. I love to sew too, and construct beautiful and well-made garments. I hope that you can see this through the Kuwaii product.

I have always been incredibly driven person; my work ethic has always been very strong as I really believe in what we are doing at Kuwaii and the product we are offering, as an alternative to mass produced fashion. 

What is the story of how you created your brand, Kuwaii?

I started Kuwaii as soon as I finished my course at TAFE, because I won Student Fashion Designer of the Year award at what was then L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival. The competition of Student Designer of Year was based on a “speed pitching” concept. All the finalists had a few minutes to pitch their brand concepts to a panel of industry experts. I remember how well my idea of Kuwaii was already formed, even at that moment. I spoke about Kuwaii so passionately, and I went on to win. And that became the impetus to start my brand at that moment.  

The driving forces of Kuwaii were to be locally made, timeless styles to last season in and season out. They were to be pieces with a special detail, yet were still simple and uncomplicated enough for everyday wear. They were to fit immaculately, and make the wearer feel amazing. I know there’s many brands offering this concept now, but in 2006 it was really quite a radical approach, as at this time fast fashion was really starting to develop a stranglehold.  

I moved into the current Kuwaii space on Glenlyon Road in Brunswick in 2008 and I did an internship with Phillip Lim in NYC in 2010. This was well after I started Kuwaii, as I wanted to see what working for another brand would be like. I have to say the fashion industry in NYC at the time was really toxic and I decided it was not for me. I then went on to open the Kuwaii store on Glenlyon Road Brunswick in October of 2011 which kicked off our retail era. 

What does a typical work day involve for you?

I think people would be surprised at how little designing I do! So much of my time is spent with running the business, financials, reporting, making sure all our obligations are up to date. So, I spend a lot of time at my computer. I have weekly design and production meetings, fortnightly marketing meetings, and monthly sales meetings. Our team is 14 people, so I try to catch up with my team, making sure everyone is happy and content. I love to visit our onsite production space which is downstairs from our design and marketing office. It’s inspiring! 

I work in the office Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Monday is a work from home day, and I finish at 3pm to pick up my daughter from school. While Friday I generally have off for lifestyle and stress management reasons. 

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Image: The Kuwaii store in Brunswick with an Ethical Clothing Australia logo decal.
Why is it important for your business to manufacture ethically in Australia? What are the benefits and challenges of manufacturing in Australia?

Manufacturing in Australia was a key part of Kuwaii’s commitment when we started. And something I am very personally committed to. It honestly just makes sense to me. To produce locally is simple for us, and it works. A key part of our strategy is producing small runs, and then recutting successful styles. This wouldn’t work for us if we were manufacturing offshore.  

The key challenges I see are the skill shortage that is coming or may already be here. So many of our skilled workers are nearing retirement age. I worry that there is not a new generation of skilled craftspeople here to fill their gaps.  

Kuwaii has just recently become accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia. Why did you decide to get accredited with Ethical Clothing Australia?

We have wanted to become accredited for many years, in fact I first enquired about becoming accredited in 2016! By taking our knitwear and footwear manufacture offshore in early 2023, we were then able to accredit the bulk of Kuwaii pieces and take the leap into becoming an ethically accredited business.

What can you tell us about your customer base? What makes them passionate about ethically made clothing?

We have amazing and loyal customers! They have given us so much support over the years and our customers are our greatest asset! I feel so much gratitude to them all.