This International Women’s Day we pay-homage to Women built business, starting with Acler Co-Founders Kathryn Forth & Julia Ritorto, otherwise known as ‘Kath & Jules’ – the fearless leaders of the Acler brand. These Women have built the Acler business from the ground up over the past 7+ years, from humble beginnings to a global brand presence,
this is their story.
Q: Why ‘Acler’? What motivated you to start and run a business?
I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to have my own business and was fascinated by the mechanics of how businesses work. Coming from an Italian background, growing up with our annual tomato sauce making day, I remember once doing a profit and loss statement for my parents to show them evidence that it would be more cost effective if they just purchased the sauce pre-made from the supermarket. Of course, this totally missed the point that pride, ritual and tradition outweighed any hard-nosed cost-benefit analysis! But this is how my brain worked and continues to work, so running a business is in my nature.
After being in business for nearly 8 years I’m even more grateful that I didn’t have to battle through all the very many challenges solo and I was fortunate enough to meet someone likeminded in Kath. She has inspired me to grow and better myself both as a designer and as a businesswoman.
Why Acler? It was the idea that we could have the freedom to truly express ourselves in the art form we loved - creating garments. It was only when we started Acler did we allow ourselves to really explore our trade and give ourselves the space to push to create in a way we’d never done before.
I have always been very driven to push myself further, setting new challenges for my professional career and working to overcome them. Perhaps in that way having my own business is very suited to my personality whereby each week brings new hurdles and the opportunity to professionally develop, which in turn gives a job satisfaction that I really value. In saying all of this I don’t think I would have been motivated to begin on this journey without meeting the right person embark upon it with, and that is of course my incredible business partner Jules. They say nothing worth doing can be done alone and I absolutely believe that to be the case in the context of our brand, my relationship with Jules and the incredible team of women who work alongside us every day.
Acler was really built from a desire to work a little more by hand, knowing that unique experimental design is difficult if starting only on a page or a computer screen. We have certainly over the years encouraged our staff to move away from the computer and into manipulating fabrics on a mannequin, and while sadly does seem to be a bit of a dying art across the industry we are encouraged to see so many of our staff take up this method and embrace tactile design.
Q: Tell us about the first year starting Acler – what was it like to build a brand from scratch?
It was incredibly exciting and at the same time very overwhelming in terms of knowing where to even begin and how to tackle some of the basics that come with starting an international business. Setting up a company, bookkeeping, trademarking, logistics and of course establishing the right relationships with suppliers and contractors were all new to us and we spent many months enquiring with family, friends, mentors, and other organisations, gaining valuable insights and motivating us to persevere. It wasn’t really until the end of that first year that we had our first collection off the ground and we started to gain that momentum where we could plan for the future a little more, but certainly there were many late nights and a whole lot of determination required to get us to the next phase of our business.
Q: What has been your biggest lesson in business over the years?
It’s taken me years to learn the lesson that there really is a solution to every problem, no matter what challenges emerge on any given day. It has changed me as a business owner, manager, and colleague. The old mantra - a problem shared is a problem halved - is so simple and yet so powerful. Some of the most rewarding moments have come from bringing together the leadership and our incredible team on the tough issues and creatively collaborating our way through them. I now have the experience to keep a level head and trust that whatever gets thrown at us, we will figure it out.
Q: What is your biggest female inspiration?
My incredible group of girlfriends and work colleagues are the ultimate inspiration to me. So many smart, compassionate, hard-working women who are pioneering in their professional careers and juggling against a full personal calendars. I always find myself in awe and certainly any words of encouragement from such an impressive group is the most effective catalyst in pushing me to grow and do better.
Q: As women in business what is the biggest change, you’d like to see for gender equality?
I hope that our business and the fashion industry as a whole in Australia can be seen as a bit more of a case study into the success of female employment. I think there are still some lingering outdated ideals out there in other industries, perceiving female employment to carry retention / productivity risks should they have or decide to start a family. The fashion industry is one of the few female-dominated industries, and impressively despite part-time and flexible working arrangements being common, it exhibits impressive rates of staff retention and is incredibly economically viable having a larger export value than beer and wine industries combined. I strongly believe our business succeeds because of, not despite, the impressive 33 women who work alongside us.
As much as we’ve progressed, there is still unfortunately an inherent belief with some, that men’s roles in the workplace hold more value and importance than women’s, especially once we have children. As a business-owning, full-time working mum, I still find I get a look of confusion and pity when I tell others that I work full time and that I work long hours.
There is still an expectation that women should be the ones to pull back from the workplace instead of asking ourselves and our partners if other work/life models would better serve us and our families. I’d personally like to see a shift towards 50/50 parenting and more flexibility in the workplace to cater for that. I think many workplaces now recognise the need and benefit of supporting women around providing care through part time and flexible working arrangements, but that’s still pretty uncommon when it comes to men. At Acler, with a female dominated staff, we pride ourselves on having created a family friendly and flexible workplace and it would be great to see more of this in traditionally male-dominated industries as well.