Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From Iraq to the fashion trenches

When the going gets tough… the tough get e-tailing? That seems to be the MO of Canberra-based Sarah Pavillard, who has traded in a fulltime naval career to relaunch herself as an online fashion merchant. Live since August, Pavillard’s Frockaholics website sells 74 labels, with three quarters of the stock Australian. Frockaholics is the only online stockist of the Alex Perry, Trelise Cooper and Cooper by Trelise labels, the only Australian online stockists of Willow and the only southern hemisphere online stockist of Miss Sixty. Other brands include Galliano, Diesel and Nude and Peep Toe shoes.

In the leadup to last year’s RAFW I chatted with the ‘queen of clicks’, Nêt-à’s Natalie Massenet, who sent a buyer down for the event.

As we head into the home straight of RAFW SS0910 I thought I’d pick the brains of a local fashion e-tailer. And what an interesting brain to pick. Still working as a Reservist, Pavillard has the Australian Navy to thank not only for her systems management and problem-solving skills - skills which have come in handy, she reports, for her fashion business.

But Pavillard also has the Navy to thank for meeting her husband, aviator Marc Pavillard, the recipient of a bravery medal for hoisting to safety six stricken sailors during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart.

The duo first bumped into each other in 2002 on an Australian rifle range doing pre-deployment weapons training, with romance subsequently blossoming aboard the HMAS DARWIN during the deployment. That's the Pavillards pictured above (^), aboard the HMAS DARWIN.

The name of the operation? Hilariously perhaps, given Pavillard's new fashion role: Operation Slipper.

How long were you in the navy and what did you do exactly?

Sarah Pavillard: I was in the Navy for just shy of 12 years and am still serving as a Reservist. I commenced my career as a Midshipman at the Australian Defence Force Academy here in Canberra, where I studied Electrical Engineering, with a view to becoming a Weapons Electrical Engineering Officer in the Navy. It was actually when I started living in Canberra that I met Roslyn Wright, who eventually became the co-director of Frockaholics. Weapons Electrical Engineering Officers [WEEOs] are the Navy's electrical, electronic and combat systems engineering experts. When I finished my studies, I joined HMAS DARWIN as the Assistant Weapons Electrical Engineering Officer, a member of the management team responsible for efficiency, effectiveness and safety of the ship's communications, radar, sonar, navigation, combat data, fire control and weapons systems. Since then, I have also worked as a combat systems engineer in upgrade and sustainment projects, broadly undertaking testing and evaluation of new systems, safety and risk management, project management and through-life support. One of the highlights of my career was working for the Chief of Navy as his Flag Lieutenant. A Flag Lieutenant's role is the Navy's version of an Aide de Camp - essentially a personal aide to the Chief of Navy. I travelled with both Admirals for whom I worked and highlights were attending the 90th Anniversary of ANZAC Day in Turkey and being part of the International Fleet Review in the UK to celebrate the Battle of Trafalgar.

You were deployed to Iraq - how close did you get to the action and what did you see there?

Yes, I was deployed to Iraq for seven months in 2002 and 2003. Originally my ship, HMAS DARWIN, was deployed to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq as part Operation SLIPPER, Australia's contribution to the International Coalition Against Terrorism (ICAT) - we were on patrol in the North Arabian Gulf and our ship was tasked to board dhows and other shipping that was transiting out of Iraqi internal waters and to inspect their cargo to determine if they were carrying illegal shipments, such as oil and weapons (and dates??!!), as well as protect the two important oil platforms at the mouth of the Kwah Abd Allah waterway. We were in the Gulf as tensions mounted and as the military presence in the Gulf grew. On the ship, we knew something was going to happen from late January when we received our anthrax vaccinations. I recall standing on the deck one morning and seeing a horizon dotted with frigates, landing ships, troop carriers, aircraft carriers. So, we were in the Gulf before and during the buildup, and then when the action started. One of the first tasks for HMAS DARWIN and our taskgroup was to clear the mouth of the Kwah Abd Allah of all shipping leaving Iraq. In the few days before the commencement of hostilities, literally hundreds of dhows and small boats poured out of the mouth of the river and all of them had to be herded into a grid on the map and boarded and searched for weapons. There was an extremely high risk that suicide boats would attack coalition forces and an Australian clearance diving team found a boat full of mines on one of these boarding operations. We were very close to the action, patrolling within Iraqi territorial seas on most days - close enough to witness helicopters carrying troops to conduct the first landings on the Al Fawr peninsula, watch Tomahawk missiles being launched from the American ships, witness a helicopter crash between two British helos, hear the naval gunfire that targeted the peninsula. It was very busy and very tense. My husband, an aviator, was even closer - he was at a Kuwaiti air base during a SCUD missile attack, provided top cover for British helicopters sweeping the Kwah Abd Allah waterway for mines and landed in Umm Qasr only a few days after the landings.

How did you make the transition from engineer to e-tailer?

I hear that question a lot, but it was very natural for me. I have always had a deep and enduring love of fashion and it has been a thread woven through my life, ever since my first pair of red Mary Janes as a child. There has always been a real struggle between the creative side of my nature and the more academic drive that I have. When I joined the Navy, it was uniform for day and fabulous frocks for night - I was often not recognised when I was out of my uniform because I didn't really fit the mould of the way that people expect naval officers to dress. When I was deployed, port visits were about shopping in Dubai and believe me, I returned to Australia with a much-improved wardrobe! When I worked for the Chief of Navy, it was the same and I really loved the opportunities to dress up. I have always really wanted to do something that could use my passion for fashion - it just took me a while to find it.

First, it was actually when I was deployed overseas that I realised just how powerful e-tail was and how much potential there was in the sector. We had only just enough bedding for everyone onboard DARWIN, but I particularly feel the cold. As the temperature became colder and colder through winter, I went online and ordered a blanket from a great Australian website. That blanket arrived on board the ship in less than two weeks, before our next port visit! At the same time, I recall reading lots of articles in various fashion magazines about this new British online store, Nêt-à-porter. Who isn't inspired by Natalie Massenet and NAP?? I have always, always had a love of fashion and as I continued in my Naval career I came to realise that I just didn't have a burning desire to be an engineer. At around the same time, my daughter was born and I had to make some decisions about what I was going to do. Whilst on maternity leave, I completed a workshop over six or so months, to help you develop the skills to analyse a business idea and then make it happen. The evolution of Frockaholics wasn't just a lightbulb moment - it was very considered and came out of strong desire to work in fashion and in the online market. Then things just fell into place. I moved back to Canberra and a friend of mine, who has been a retailer in Sydney and Canberra for many years, was feeling that she wanted to take her mix of labels online. We both wanted to achieve the same thing so decided to do it together, and with lots of planning Frockaholics grew from there and was launched in August 2008. I look after the running of the site and the creative direction and Roslyn does the buying.

Lastly, I just have to say how much I love this business. I really feel that I have been able to blend my military training and skills with my love of frocks and fashion and create something that others enjoy. Whilst it is very hard work and a totally different responsibility compared to my responsibilities in the Navy, it is immensely satisfying watching the boutique grow, selecting and overseeing the photography of the product, to actually loading it up on the website and seeing the response from our customers. I am a very lucky girl to be able to do what I love.

Has your military background provided any practical applications for the fashion business? Belinda Seper used to be in the Army Reserves and she has said that she gained valuable knowledge about logistics, which subsequently came in handy.

Both my military and engineering backgrounds have very practical applications for a fashion business - after all a business is a business and it has many facets. I have a strong background in systems engineering and project management, both of which translate very well into any business. I took a project management approach to getting our business off the ground, using project management tools to plan and manage all the tasks that needed to be completed. As for setting up the website and running the website itself, this was very straightforward compared to the complex weapons and other technical systems I have worked with throughout my naval career. I feel I have had a real advantage dealing with contractors and service providers as much of my engineering work involved developing specifications for systems and managing the deliverables from the contractor.

Also, problem-solving in the military has taught me to think out of the box, so we have established some innovative business practices to enable us to keep our costs down and get our frocks to market as quickly as possible. Along with thinking outside of the box, it also taught me to think of the big picture. When I look for a solution to a problem, I consider the ramifications of a decision and consider where we might be in a few years time, rather than taking a more ad-hoc approach.

I also work with plans a lot - we have a short term and five year plan for this business and we are trying to progress the small things on a daily basis to be able to grow Frockaholics into the business we want.

My work in the military also taught me a great deal about logistics and supply chain management (yes, no joke - I worked for a number of years in the key defence logistics organisation).

How are you finding retail in general at the moment

The reality is that Frockaholics hasn't seen anything other than a slow market - we were born in a depressed economic climate and have planned accordingly. As a business, the current economic climate is all that we know and we feel that once the downturn passes, our business will be in a stronger position than ever.

Do you think it's any easier for e-tailers than it is for the bricks and mortar brigade in the current economic climate? Nêt-à-porter’s sales for the year ended January 2009 were reportedly up 50percent.

I don't necessarily think that it is easy for anyone in retail at the moment however I think that e-tail has a few advantages. I believe people are carefully considering their purchases at the moment, irrespective of whether or not their household bottom line has been affected by the current economic situation, and therefore are researching what they buy before they make a purchase. Many women spend time researching online and this naturally drives them to e-tailers. If you then have what they want to purchase in your online boutique, offer reasonably-priced shipping and a generous return policy, then it is a natural progression for some of those online researchers to become customers. Also, the devalued Australian dollar is encouraging international customers to buy from Australian e-tailers. Lastly, whilst growth is slowing in the retail sector, there remains significant potential for growth in the Australian online market, which is still quite immature. We are at least four-five years behind the US in this arena so, whilst retail is contracting, there is growth in the online sector.

Lastly, the military has taught me just how important military-type values are - teamwork, honesty and integrity, honour. These values are now a part of the very fabric of our business and are infused in everything we do. The military places a very high value on its people and the leadership skills that I learned over nearly 12 years of service will stand Frockaholics in good stead as we continue to take on staff to grow our business.

How much competition is there in fashion e-tailing in Australia?

I think there is solid competition in fashion e-tailing in Australia however the reality is, competition is global in this industry. With fast shipping and anything you want at your fingertips, being a local e-tailer isn't the key driver for customers. It’s all about great frocks, quality imagery, fast and cheap shipping, free return, excellent customer service and a genuine point of difference.

How has the business grown and what is working well?

Business is growing monthly and our website traffic and customer database is expanding at a very pleasing rate of 150percent per month. We are finding that the product mix is working really well. We have an excellent lineup of designers and a range that satisfies our clients' needs for glamour gowns as well as the wardrobe building blocks. We have been very pleasantly surprised at the popularity of the shoes on our site and our layby option is proving to be very popular. We also have new arrivals every Tuesday, which maintains excitement amongst our customers.

What are your predictions for RAFW - do you think we are going to be seeing as many shows as last year in this climate? What about new talent - have you made any recent discoveries?

I suspect that we won't be seeing as many shows as last year however those labels that do show will greatly benefit from doing so. Shows are such an important marketing tool and savvy consumers are watching the shows as they happen, or viewing pictures shortly afterwards - they like to be in-the-know and want to feel excited about fashion. We have many customers who e-mail us pictures from shows to specifically request particular garments. We will be Twittering during Fashion Week, to keep our customers in-the-know about what we think is hot, what items we will be ordering and to offer them an opportunity to talk to us about what they want to see in-store. I think many retailers will have a similar story so, those designers who do show at RAFW, will have a clear advantage over those who don't. The next few seasons will be about exciting our customers - women who feel excited about a frock and have that 'I just have to have it' feeling will buy them.

And finally, is that a boilersuit that you are wearing in the shots? If so, have you embraced - or deliberately avoided - the jumpsuit trend at Frockaholics?

Yes, they are known as combat coveralls. Embedded with a fire retardant, they are very itchy and scratchy until they have been washed many times. And like the jumpsuit, it is tricky to get a good fit. So yes, we have deliberately avoided the jumpsuit trend at Frockaholics. Instead we have lots of lovely greys for winter, and a fabulous lineup of military jackets!


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