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Artists in Profile | Sister Act, Koolaman Designs

Sisters, Lisa O’Keefe and Stacey Clayton, live in the border country between NSW and Victoria. They have been running their jewellery brand, koolaman designs for six years from their remote homes, despite living 450 kilometres apart from one another. Their signature silver pieces are stamped with names to signify and stylishly celebrate milestones in the wearer’s lives. They are an inspiration to Australian working mothers and their pieces have been embraced by celebrity mums like Cathy Freeman and Danii Minogue. The sisters will be speaking on Friday 18th October 2013, as part of Murray Arts’  “Bright Sparks” creative industry conference. Estelle Pigot catches up with these busy entrepreneurs.

 

When did you start creating these pieces?

In 2007, when we both had young children and were on maternity leave, we saw these gorgeous pieces on a friend who had travelled home from overseas for Christmas. We loved the idea of having our children’s names on the pendants. We went to find something similar in Australia and there wasn’t anything like it. Initially we thought we’d like to be able to create pieces for ourselves and then came the idea of making them for other people.

How did you discover your flair for jewellery?

We’ve always been into craft even when it wasn’t all that cool.  We have our maternal grandmother to thank for that. She was always sewing, baking, creating something out of nothing and we’d often spend the holidays with her while Mum was working. Jewellery was never something that Stacey or Lisa ever thought we’d end up creating. Stacey has a background in accounting/finance and Lisa studied agricultural science.  We both love working with jewellery and the rest of our team think the same way. It wouldn’t be the same if we were selling ‘nuts and bolts’.

Between the two of you, is one more creative and one more business savvy, or do you share the responsibilities of running the business?

The business is divided into a couple of areas and yes, it’s because of our strengths but also because of our geographic locations.Stacey is involved in the customer service and marketing at the fetes and boutique markets. Lisa is involved in the marketing and the social media side of the business. Finance runs from Lisa’s studio with outside help sourced to fill in the gaps that we don’t’ have time for.

Both of us are involved in the creative side of the business coming up with new collections and using different artisans like our leather artisan to create new pieces.

What sort of limitations have you faced with the business as a result of living regionally?

One of the biggest is the time required to travel to city hubs, and the lack of opportunities to work with other like-minded business people.  The cost of internet, fortunately we’re able to access Wi-Fi with a large antenna on the top of our house. But it all comes at a cost; we also pay the maximum rate for what our city counterparts would think is a minimum amount of download.

Koolaman Station is situated 70kms from Balranald and 50kms from Euston/Robinvale. The mailman only comes twice a week and this was a limitation in the early days. However we did enlist the help of a neighbour who worked in town each day and travelled past our front gate. We’d hang a bag of parcels to be delivered on the fence post at the end of the driveway and she’d pick them up on her way past.

Have you discovered any advantages to working outside a city hub?

Yes, plenty! We don’t have to worry about peak hour traffic. I can park outside my studio, no parking meters. Although sometimes it’s harder to source some things it can often be easier, when people can make things on the spot or we can go and pick it up and be back in the studio in no time at all. I think definitely fresh air and the lack of commute is a plus.

Is the product produced locally or offshore? How did you build your supplier network?

It’s a bit of both. Our 9ct yellow, rose and white gold range and the entire leather range is created entirely in Australia. The silver range is made offshore.  Although all of our pieces are finished in Australia by our koolaman team. Finding the supplier network was trial and error. We tried a number of different suppliers before finding the ones that could create the quality pieces in the precious metals.  Our business started in 2007 and the internet was still a relatively new way to do business. We found our product manager who could source any different pieces for us.

How important are the local markets for your business?

Very important, it’s the place where we get to meet our customers and they get to meet us. Here we have wonderful feedback about our products, what our clients wish to see. It’s often a great source of our inspiration.

We also find that it’s a wonderful opportunity for our clients to meet us to learn more about the koolaman story and where their jewellery comes from. It’s not often you get to purchase your product directly from the designers.

Where does the business name – koolaman designs – come from?

Koolaman Station is a sheep and wheat station with an area of 73,000 acres, it’s situated in the south west corner of New South Wales and is the home to Lisa and Christian and their three children.  It is an Aboriginal word which is normally written with a C but like many Anglicised words the translation wasn’t quite right and Koolaman Station was named. Coolamons were traditionally used by Aboriginal women to carry water, fruits, nuts, as well as to cradle babies.  The Gorman family have owned Koolaman Station since 1932, with Christian and Lisa’s children the fourth generation to live at Koolaman.

How did you develop your celebrity following and what has that done for your brand?

In some cases it just happened, Johanna Griggs saw our jewellery loved it and bought it! Having a down-to-earth celebrity, who also happens to be on television in one way or another at least once a week wearing koolaman, has been amazing for the growth of our business. Joh has been photographed in Woolworths advertising, in women’s magazines and in the Channel 7 coverage of the spring racing carnivals over the years.

There have been other celebrities who have purchased or have had friends or family gift them koolaman to celebrate moments in their lives. Koolaman is all about celebrating the special moments in our lives and we’ve used this opportunity to share. We sent koolaman to Dannii Minogue and Kris Smith to celebrate the arrival of their son Ethan.  We sent to Cathy Freeman on the arrival of her daughter Ruby, and she still wears her AUDREY pendant with pride. Julie Goodwin has received koolaman to celebrate her win as Australia’s first Masterchef, wearing it in advertising for GLAD (the photo is featured on every GLAD roll of baking paper, alfoil and gladwrap over the past few years).  More recently Lisa’s girls gave Shane Crawford his koolaman piece when he was travelling through our local town on his bike raising money for Breast Cancer Network Australia.

What tips would you share with other regional creatives for their creative businesses?

The main thing is that anyone can do it. Start with an idea, unique or different to what’s currently in the market, surround yourself with a supportive network, and shake off any of the doubters. Think positive take small steps use your surrounding network; contra deals are great in the early days. We paid for all of our initial photography with silver jewellery. The online world is a vast source of information.

A great product needs a great marketing story to compliment it. Have your story; it could be where you live (in a regional area) or how you came up with the idea, your background or why you’re doing what you’re doing. Everyone has a story, so use it to your advantage.