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Pandemic reshapes fashion line

The name Nya means purpose in Swahili and bright in Welsh – and having bright purpose has never been more appropriate than when this Melbourne made fashion house pivoted to making cloth masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surf Coast friends Tania Egan and Fleur Grundy founded their business, Nya-ethical Clothing, in 2018 with a mid-century styled shift dress that found favour with buyers looking for vintage prints and retro styling made in an environmentally friendly way.

Their prints are created with non-toxic water-based inks, using GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) certified organic cotton and hemp sourced from sustainable crops.

What happened when COVID-19 hit?

In March, with global coronavirus cases forcing countries into lockdown and health authorities mandating the wearing of masks in public, the duo chose to defer their made to order dresses and use their fabric offcuts to meet the growing demand for reusable face coverings.

“Just as the pandemic began, we were ready to launch our next collections of dresses – which is six prints on one dress shape. We were ready to make the sample, but both the photographer and the model were unsure about whether they could travel,” says Tania.

Given the uncertainty around the changing work environment, Nya began making cloth face masks as a way to stay productive and help people protect themselves from the virus.

“The mask-making actually put us in an amazing position because we were able to use excess stock. It’s just the two of us so we were able to move quickly. We could make 16 masks from every dress so we doubled our money on every dress,” says Fleur.

They based their pattern on the Olson mask which was designed by health professionals for use in the absence of an N95 mask which blocks 95% of particles.

The prototype was posted on Instagram and the rush for orders began – not just from consumers, but wholesale businesses looking to issue employees the new ‘uniform’ for 2020 – a face covering.

One of their clients was a hairdressing chain who was disappointed with the quality of imported masks.

“The fit wasn’t good, they didn’t like the quality or the smell, and employees didn’t really want to wear them. They liked the fact that our masks are made in Australia and that we were using organic fabrics,” said Tania.

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They used up all their leftover fabric and samples, began printing new fabrics and outsourced some of the cutting to manufacturers in Melbourne. “We got to the stage where we had to pass on the bulk of the cutting to our ECA (Ethical Clothing Australia) makers in Melbourne. I literally had RSI after sewing 14 hours a day to keep up with the orders,” says Tania.

The company’s manufacturer in Melbourne was trying to balance the mask orders for several brands, with demand to produce more than 25,000 masks a week.

“It is awesome to think that with so many people losing their jobs that our tiny little business was able to keep some people in work that little bit longer.”

The impact of restrictions 

Stage 4 restrictions that reduce staffing levels across metro Melbourne have pushed supply times out by two to three weeks. “Our printers have had to run at half capacity,” says Fleur.   

Nya-clothing believes the ability to source stock has shifted focus to local manufacturing, even if consumers have to pay more. “Our customers are saying they love that our masks are Melbourne made and they feel good to support local, just like many of us are being urged to support our local cafe,” says Tania.

“People may not be spending as they did before but when they do spend, they want it to be quality that lasts beyond one wear.”

They’re fielding orders from all over Australia including Sydney and Western Australia, producing close to 4,000 masks in the last four months – a huge increase on the 300 orders of their previous collection.

“This pandemic has taught us to go with the flow and be more reactive to change based on circumstances. Being flexible is a key skill to learn, in business and in life. Even just to be able to keep our business going and have money in the bank is a silver lining,” says Tania.

Fleur says the profits from their masks have paved the way for future growth. “We’ve got funds to launch a new range when the time comes,” says Fleur. Matching mask and dress may surely the next strategic direction.    

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