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The Social Entrepreneur Series - Felicity Wright of Flying Fox Fabrics

This series is part of our annual Fair@Square Ethical Lifestyle Festival, where we interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs to hear their amazing journey, what drives them, how they started their enterprises and what they see for the future:

Felicity Wright' passion of hand made fabrics, Indigenous art, culture and fair trade led her to establishing her social enterprise Flying Fox Fabrics a business that specialises in high quality authentic, unique, ethical products made through cross-cultural collaborations with remote Australian indigenous communities and women in Cambodia.

Q. Describe your journey so far as an ethical enterprise - what is your purpose, and why you embarked on this journey?

My vision is to have as many people switched onto the beauty, depth and integrity of Indigenous Australian arts and cultures as possible. Plus, foster respect for artisanal skills especially in relation to hand-made functional objects.

Indigenous people and subsistence farmers all over the world have such important knowledge and skills that have historically been treated with contempt by colonial powers. This is our loss and has been to the detriment of all life forms on the planet. Our environment is out of balance and many societies and individuals are also living lives out of balance. I believe we urgently need pathways to ancient wisdom.

So, that’s the big picture but how do I do this through an ethical enterprise? One very modest way is to create products that are ethically made, are a pleasure to wear and/or use and can be a way of educating consumers about Indigenous cultures.

The idea for making bags, purses etc out of Australian handprinted fabrics came to me when I was browsing in my favourite handicraft store in Phnom Penh in 2012. It was a block from my apartment. I was looking at the range of Messenger Bags made from hand-printed fabrics with Khmer designs. It suddenly struck me that it might be possible to get bags made from fabric printed in Australia. Remote community art centres print on fabric and most don’t have the capacity to value-add and bags can be complicated to make. I asked my friend the owner (Hok Thanan) and she said ‘why not?’.

The funny thing is bags/purses are so ordinary but so valued. They are part of everyday life in all cultures. Women, especially, ‘get’ bags. In my experience they have universal appeal and I’ve gifted and sold Flying Fox Fabric bags and purses in Cuba, remote Australia, the USA and many other places in between.

It was not a new thing for me to create an ethical business project. I came to work in ethical enterprises by accident when I began working in a very obscure niche sector – remote community Aboriginal art centres in 1986. Nobody used the words social or ethical enterprise back then. We (the managers) often struggled to communicate just why art centres are not ‘normal’ businesses and why they are worthy of support and patronage.

Aboriginal art and craft centres are not conventional businesses. They operate in communities where educational, enterprise, and employment opportunities are extremely limited, and they fulfil important sociocultural and training functions in addition to their commercial activities.

Many years later I was volunteering in Cambodia for two years (on the professional AVI program – not working in an orphanage!!) and I heard people in the international development sector abuzz with the words ‘social enterprise’ and how they could change the world. Hmmm, that sounded familiar.

Social enterprises are businesses that trade to intentionally tackle social problems, improve communities, provide people access to employment and training, or help the environment.” - Social Traders

Flying Fox Fabrics came about from seeing a range of resources, need and opportunities that just made sense. It was a matter of joining the dots.

  1. Indigenous artists have talent, wonderful (meaningful) stories, beautiful designs and art centres have the capacity to print fabric. They benefit economically and socio-culturally from expanding the market for their fabrics. (Ever seen how proud an Aboriginal artist is when they see someone wearing a frock or carrying a bag in their fabric design??)

  2. Disabled Cambodian artisans have skills, commitment and the ability to make quality products through the social enterprises they work for/with. They need customers/work (especially in times of a pandemic).

  3. Non-Indigenous people have financial resources. Many are yearning for connection and greater understanding of Indigenous people and their knowledge systems. Many want to show their support financially and morally – ‘make a contribution/difference’.

  4. Everybody needs to buy/use clothes and bags and homewares at some point whether out of desire or necessity. Keeping ethical products affordable

So Flying Fox Fabrics is an extension of my commitment to promoting Indigenous arts/cultures whilst at the same time as having fun indulging in one of my long-term passions: fabric! Oh, and throw in my loves for Cambodia, cross-cultural learning and experiences, ethical business, right livelihoods and artisanal skills … and you can see it meets my needs as much as it does the people I collaborate with.

Q. Can you give us an overview of the supply chain process from sourcing the fabric within Australia and then producing items in Cambodia? Our hand printed fabrics are sourced from remote community art centres. I do this in a variety of ways. Some art centres have their own website shops or online sales platforms, like Etsy, so it’s possible to buy online really easily (Injalak Arts, Babbarra Designs, Ikuntji Artists and Nagula Jarndu are currently the best examples). Others don’t, so the fabrics need to be bought in person from the centre or from markets. Choosing fabrics for products is interesting. Some designs work really well in bags and purses or cushion covers and some don’t. It can be surprising what works and what our customers respond to – and often you don’t know until they’re made and in front of potential buyers. Some colours have a lot more appeal than others and then there is the issue of base cloth. It may be the right base cloth (175 gsm+) but the wrong colour, or vice versa. Then it’s a matter of deciding what will work in a bag or purse, and what style of bag or purse. Each producer partner has their own range of bag and accessory styles.

Before COVID the fabrics were taken to Cambodia in hand luggage. Now it all needs to be shipped which is frustrating and expensive and doesn’t include the pleasure of a trip to Cambodia. It also makes it very difficult to oversee production and support my partners. Once the products get back to Australia they need to go to their destination. I have been making products on behalf of art centres, particularly Bula’bula Arts in Ramingining and Ikuntji Artists in Haasts Bluff, both in the Northern Territory. Their stock goes directly to them. All other stock is warehoused at my home in Coffin Bay, South Australia. To date the sales channels have been markets and online via Etsy and now the website.

Q. How has COVID impacted this process and how did you adapt your business model to overcome these challenges?

Flying Fox Fabrics was one of the businesses that thrived in the last six months.

When Flying Fox Fabrics started trading in 2019 I thought direct sales to customers interested in artisanal products was the way forward. My Etsy shop was set up, but relatively modest and achieved less than 15 sales by February 2020. Instead, I took products to Finders Keepers (Brisbane) and Bowerbird (Adelaide) and also did local markets.

Women (90% of my customers) are tactile, they need/want to touch the fabric products and investigate how they will work/look. I am also promoting products with a complicated back story, that takes time to explain and when done in person a ‘light bulb’ goes on. I spent a lot of my time at the markets educating customers because most came in with almost no knowledge of Indigenous hand printed fabrics.

Come early 2020 and the pandemic it became clear I needed to focus online.

Online selling is such an interesting space. From early 2017 I had worked really hard to get traction with online sales during my time as Mentor Manager with remote community art centre Injalak Arts - and had some success with more than 2,500 sales on the website and Etsy. See an ABC article here. That meant I was familiar with both the challenges and the opportunities.

A key barrier to increasing online sales is the lack of tactility. Another is that Flying Fox Fabrics’ small social media presence at the time would mean that driving traffic to online sales platforms would be difficult. A third pertinent concern would be quality. People browsing online are rightly concerned about whether the actual item matches the image and description. They have even more hesitancy when it’s a product that appears to have ethical currency. It may be a bit crafty – you know the Oxfam handicraft stock that was very well-meaning but daggy? So, there is a bit of a fear they might order it online and it turns up and is disappointing. I am actually a bit of a quality fiend and will only work with partners who deliver a consistently high standard. I also have a no-questions-asked returns policy (or refund if the occasion calls for it) much rather lose a bit of money than have a disgruntled customer.

So, I had to roll up my metaphorical sleeves, take a deep breath and work at it. Building up social media has been interesting and is actually quite a lot of fun. There are people out there doing wonderful things and it’s been so great connecting with young(er) women who are sewing. They get very excited about the fabric lengths I sell on behalf of art centres and some have hordes of followers. I also had to overcome my phobia of taking bad photos (I have such a critical eye but such a mediocre capacity in the photography department) and knuckle down and practice and try to improve. Also had to get organised for packing and dispatching efficiently. I have yet to set up stock inventory but it’s in the plan.

The biggest blessing of online selling is being reminded that it’s a big world out there and that a niche product has appeal around the globe.

The biggest challenge that COVID has thrown up has been not being able to visit periodically to spend time with producers and maintain relationships. Any partnership relies on relationship maintenance and that can be really difficult at a distance, especially cross-cultural ones. There has been some hand wringing in recent weeks trying to organise shipments.

Q. Does each fabric and hand-printed pattern made by Aboriginal artisans hold their own story or significant meaning? YES! In my experience Indigenous artists and artisans rarely create images or objects that are purely decorative i.e. without meaning. The only time I have known artists to do that is when they are culturally constrained from sharing meaningful designs. Fabric designs are the most wonderful expressions of cultural knowledge and observation of the environment, natural or physical. Fabric designs may be ancestral creation stories that depict an actor like Namarrkon, the lightning spirit, or may be a personal or clan totem like a crocodile. Or a design might be in relation to a contemporary event. Essentially, it’s story-telling, from an Indigenous perspective. What I am constantly reminded of is there is an important exchange going on here – non-Indigenous people are so keen to understand the meaning of a design and the artists are so happy to share it.

It is an utter joy to watch an artist work on creating a design. Browsing different art centre Facebook pages and albums you can find images of design workshops in progress. For example this album shows a workshop in 2015 during which the wonderful Dilly Bags design was created at Injalak Arts with trainer Jude White. To me provenance is crucial, therefore good labelling is critical. Customers want to know about the meaning of a design and who created it. On every flying Fox Fabric bag, purse or cushion cover I attach a hand-written label identifying the origin. I also supply a design story from the art centre if they have them. At Injalak Arts I worked with a graphic designer to create a suite of labels that could be attached to fabric and fabric products that identified the artist, a short bio and the story of the fabric design. We had more than 40 different designs by men and women and the customers LOVE the labelling. Unfortunately, this is still rare amongst art centres. I could talk for hours about fabric design!!

Q. Flying Fox Fabrics involves inclusion of remote communities and disadvantaged individuals, how has your business venture benefited these communities?

Never underestimate the importance of meaningful work to a human. Right livelihoods are a really important outcome of the project in two countries.

There are so many flow-on benefits of fabric printing for communities it is hard to encapsulate them because they are quantitative and qualitative. I have a number listed on my website under social impacts.

What must be understood is that fabric printing can only continue if there are fabric sales.

The materials for fabric printing are expensive – the base cloth, inks, equipment, electricity to heat set – it all costs.

Flying Fox Fabrics contribution is to 1) buy the fabrics and 2) create products that the designers/printers appreciate and are proud of and will share their art and stories with the world.

In my experience, children will often come in to print workshops and watch their parents create designs and print. School children see it as a potential vocation they can do on their own country. Visitors to the art centre watch the printing happen.

For Indigenous Australian artists, knowing that people appreciate their designs is deeply affirming. Knowing that people not only appreciate the designs but choose to wear and carry them in public is doubly so.

One of my favourite things about Flying fox Fabrics is that Indigenous Australians are enthusiastic customers. They are also very pleased when gifted products and that is part of what I do. It is not the economic aspect of this that gladdens me, it’s that they have a place in the lives of Indigenous Australians. I have yet to meet a remote community resident who buys original artworks from other artists to put in their home, yet so many have bought the bags and purses. At Art Fairs, Indigenous artists come to the stand to buy the bags and purses and they also buy online. They are happy to wear other people’s designs as well as their own.

Most of the partners in Cambodia are women running small businesses that employ disabled people. Only one is headed up by men. Trying to be brief without being simplistic; Cambodia is a patriarchal society and disability is stigmatised. Therefore, supporting women’s small businesses in that sector is a significant way of making a meaningful difference in the Kingdom of Wonder.

In Cambodia the impact we’ve been able to have during COVID is huge, much more than anticipated. Each of the partners had their own retail outlets for tourists. With COVID their local sales almost entirely disappeared overnight and they had to close or radically downsized their outlets. International wholesale orders have also dramatically declined. Nevertheless, they have workshops and out-workers who rely on them for work (it is easier for many disabled people to work at home). For example, I approached Women For Women, I hadn’t worked with her for a couple of years but was wondering how she was impacted. She was so happy to hear from me. She explained that she’d kept her staff on despite having no work for them and was getting increasingly anxious. The first batch of bags from the new order left Cambodia yesterday (late November) and more fabric is on its way to her.

Q. Working with two distinctive cultures, how have you collaborated to achieve your overall vision? Logistically, pulling Flying Fox Fabrics together is very challenging. It requires working cross-culturally in different directions and each partner has their own perspective (cultural, geographical) and peccadillos. I have lived and worked cross-culturally for nearly all my adult life and it still does my head in at times. It also means working with people who are thousands of kilometres away so there can be very real barriers to easy communication. For example, trying to explain to the Cambodian partners that: the fabric they are working with is worth AUD$100 a metre is impossible, totally beyond their comprehension … and that maybe the customer would prefer that the matching fabric is not bright pink – even though that is your personal taste – and I did request black … and perhaps I will not be able to find anyone to buy it. Working in the arts/creative sector also requires working with creative individuals, who often are driven by mysterious imperatives.

It is foolish to assume to know people’s motivations (yet I still do at times). Pushing or pulling a certain lever often has unintended consequences. As my African friend often says to me: ‘everyone has their own way of reasoning’ – the challenge is working out what it is. In Australia there are also a range of challenges, including dealing with changing management/administrative personnel in art centres (staff often change every few years) who have their own experience and competencies or lack thereof. My business is very organic and responsive. I try to work with the strengths of the partners. Some partners create fabric designs that are extraordinary for most products, whereas others might be just right for cushion covers or purses. Each of the manufacturing partners has their expertise in certain types of bags/purses. In all honesty, I relish a challenge and often working cross-culturally and in complex situations. In ethical enterprises you need to think tangentially and do all sorts of risk management that other businesses would not experience. People in both communities I work with have experience large scale trauma, sometimes multiply. In Cambodia, for instance, there were the Pol Pot years followed by 15 years of war (which a lot of people don’t know about) and then my partners have disability in a society that views that very negatively. Plus, there is no social safety net – no disability pensions, no health care system worth speaking of. Back home, Indigenous Australians continue to experience the impact of colonisation in their daily lives in so many major and subtle ways. When I pull it off – a shipment arrives and it looks amazing and I think of all the different players involved in the acts of creation – it’s so satisfying. For further reading – this catalogue is being published next year and has a number of very good essays about fabric printing in remote Australia. I contributed the essay ‘The Production, Marketing, and uses of Screen Printed Textiles’ for exhibition catalogue: Aboriginal Screen Printed Textiles From Australia’s Top End, Fowler Museum UCLA

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