I found out about Velvet Heartbeat via Summers the Label, and I loved what I saw – strong values, cool bags and a sweet-as zine. I was keen to interview Suzie about her vegan accessories and the values that underpin her business, so I sent her some questions to answer. When I got back her answers I was like “this lady is extremely cool” and decided not to edit. That means this is a longer-than-usual read, but I enjoyed reading it so much that I wanted you to have the whole thing. I hope you enjoy!
Hi Suzie! Let’s start by finding out a bit about you!
Did you grow up loving textiles/design etc?
Definitely! Ever since I can remember I was always playing with the fabric and buttons in my mum's sewing area, just making things up as I went along, draping glamorous handkerchief gowns on my Barbie. Then in my late teens I would pretty much always make something to wear to go out, often a combination of deconstructed jeans and random fabric that you could truly get away with in the late 90s!
Did you study (and if so, where? What did you like about it/what would you change?)
I studied at NZ Fashion Tech, I really liked how technical it was, I think I came out with strong skills in sewing and pattern making. I would have loved some marketing and business components too, it's the type of thing I'm learning on the run now!
Is there any person or particular life event that inspired the path you’ve taken?
I think it's always been there really, my wonderful Mum taught me how to sew on my late grandmother's machine, and I think I've always loved the artistic expression of it. However, I convinced myself it was just a hobby for a lot of years and explored other more corporate career options and kind of drifted. One day someone I worked with casually said “I think your next stop will be management” and I suddenly felt fearful of being trapped in a creativity-free job forever and promptly quit and applied for fashion school! [Ed note: this resonates, don’t tempt me.]
How would you describe your approach to style?
My personal style is definitely greyscale with tiny pops of colour, maybe glamour-bogan, is that a thing? That probably extends into my brand too, like classic accessories that can fit into the wardrobes of anyone really but a little edge in the design features or hardware. I think I'm also heavily influenced by movies and music, whether it’s a literal inspiration or just a vibe of a character or song.
It’s a pretty major deal starting your own business, particularly in accessories (which requires specific skills and abilities). How did Velvet Heartbeat get started?
It's a huge deal! I was sort of between things, I'd been working in the film industry making costumes for a couple of years and a contract ended and there was nothing much going on. I was having a few health issues at the time and had a bit of money saved so it felt perfect just to nestle into my sewing room and see what I could come up with. I was lucky to learn a few leather working skills in costume that could transfer into the vegan textiles I wanted to use. Honestly though I've been building to this for a long time, doodling logos, collecting fabric and loading up journals and Pinterest with inspo pictures!
There is a definite aspect of wanting to fill a void as a consumer too, I was looking for certain styles of accessories outside fast fashion that weren't made of leather and were high quality. Buying a bag that feels plasticy and cracks or peels really easily is tiresome and wasteful, I knew I could offer something better.
What is the best part of being a designer in New Zealand and, conversely, what do you find difficult?
I think like all Kiwis I'm intensely proud of this country, we are small but mighty! I've always thought the pool of talent and the cool vibe of the designers, including subtle regional differences is very impressive and worthy of the world stage. I'm definitely proud to be involved in the industry. I like how “2 degrees of separation” it is, everyone is linked and it's nice!
Maybe the difficulties are around being small too, it can be hard to access both resources and people sometimes. I've had to give up the idea of certain materials because I'd need to import bulk or buy from a dubious source and I'm just not that kind of brand. It's ok in the end, I think sometimes it pushes design in a different direction and you get something more unique.
Has anyone given you particularly good advice or mentored you to help you get underway?
So many people really, including my incredible family, I interned a lot and had a variety of jobs between uni and having my own business. There are many people I met along the way who imparted their skills and experience on me. A stand out really has to be the wonderful jeweller Nga Waiata (now based in the UK as Waiata Jewels). I started as an intern with her then ended up working part time, she was (and is) definitely a fiercely supportive mentor and friend for me. I was struggling to find a job in the industry, it felt like a club I couldn't get into, and she said “If the fashion industry won't give you the job you want, give yourself the job you want!”. It really stuck with me, and to this day we keep in touch and she always has a pep talk if I need one and regularly tells me how proud she is of me! It is incredibly soul nourishing to surround yourself with passionate and vibrant people, I'm really lucky to have a lot of those types in my circle!
I’m always impressed when I meet NZ creatives because they obviously wear so many hats – designer, accountant, marketing exec, tea lady…what skills have you had to develop since starting a business?
I don't even know if I realised how many hats I'd be wearing! I knew I had the technical skills and I would easily add to those as time went on, the marketing and business side however I had no idea! I didn't even have Instagram before starting the brand so everything had to be learned on the run.
I listen to a lot of marketing podcasts while I sew and often jot down little ideas to work on later. I'm also in a lot of business networking groups on Facebook which gives a huge resource of people just like me who maybe have the skills I need and vice-versa.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Network and collaborate! Some of the coolest opportunities and interactions I've had have been from doing these two things. And talk about your passion and story to everyone, all the time! People always buy in to your enthusiasm and want to help. And a big one, balance – make time to be social and practise self-care rather than getting stuck in the “I'm busy” trap. Having a business is very demanding but keep re-reminding yourself that you set the rules and the whole thing lives and dies by how you look after both the business and yourself!
What is one thing you think would improve the business landscape for small businesses?
So far I'm finding it pretty good! If you have a good idea, passion and the ability to support yourself while making it a reality then there is a pretty good chance of success. There are great networking opportunities both online and in real life. Also it's really easy to set yourself up as either a business or sole trader without much red tape. Hearing from overseas small businesses it seems more complicated and or costly.
This may sound flippant like it's super easy to run a small business, it isn't, it takes grit and determination, money and a sense of humour! But I don't think there is anything I wish I had to make things easier, the resources are out there and it's up to me to use them to my advantage.
One of the major features of Velvet Heartbeat is its focus on being sustainable. Where did that passion come from?
The tragedy of the Rana Plaza collapse and subsequent launch of Fashion Revolution truly lifted the lid on the horror of the fashion industry. I already knew I wanted my brand to be free of animal cruelty so I would only work with vegan textiles. But the sudden influx of information, articles and documentaries about both the human and environmental cost of fashion pushed me to structure my business in the kindest way I could. I feel if I can lead by example I can be both a designer and activist until one day I can just be a designer because all fashion is ethical and sustainable!
If you could encourage people to make one environmentally friendly change, what would it be?
Just one? So hard to choose! Just start somewhere, right now, get informed, change one thing - ditch single use plastics, do meat free Mondays, research your shopping choices and buy within your values, figure out where your values lie and uphold them in your daily life. It really is a personal journey based on your ethics, even small positive changes should be celebrated. Don't worry about being perfect or trying to live to other people's values, it's impossible, just do something!
You’re launching Piñatex later this year. How did you find out about this textile?
The foundations of Velvet Heartbeat are around removing animal cruelty from fashion. I love working with leather and there are certainly more ethical ways to make leather products (check out Outliv!) but my brand had to be cruelty-free to align with my own values. The more I looked into ethical fashion and sustainability I knew that conventional leather alternatives aren't as kind to the environment as they are to animals. I get around this in a way by using industry surplus fabrics in my designs to prevent them from ending up in landfill, but more sustainable options have always been the focus for me. The challenging part is getting hold of these new innovations! When you are a small brand from a small country at the bottom of the world you have to push hard to get noticed by these companies and I've had more than a few polite No emails from different companies until I got the makers of Piñatex to talk to me in depth about my brand values and what I'd be doing with the textile.
Can you give the readers (and me) a bit of a blurb about Piñatex - why it’s special, what properties it has (compared to leather and more standard non-leather alternatives)
Piñatex is really the ultimate in circular economy. The fibres that Piñatex is made from (pineapple leaves) are the by-product of existing agriculture, so transforming them into this strong and versatile textile gives pineapple farmers an extra income and turns a former waste product into something valuable and covetable!
They've taken a lot of time developing the product and rather than just sending bulk out to market for anyone to use in any way they wish (which may turn it into something less environmentally friendly), each brand requesting to work with the textile is vetted on their sustainability values, and given a set of guidelines to how the textile can be used.
Do you have new designs in mind for Piñatex?
Yes! So many ideas, I really want to have a full range of options available from wallets and pouches to backpacks and larger work bags. Hopefully New Zealand falls in love with pineapple leather like I have.
I work in a seasonless way so just release pieces whenever I finalise them so expect new things to pop up regularly!
You also publish the Choose Nice zine – how do you have time for it all?!
I just do fun stuff and make what I like, that way it doesn't feel like a drag. The zines do take a while to put together but it's a creative outlet that is different to my day-to-day sewing. I always wanted to make a zine, it seemed like a unique way to spread the word about ethical fashion and lifestyle in New Zealand, and a touch of shameless self promotion. It just felt way cooler and more authentic than just a flyer about my business.
What’s been the best thing about creating a zine?
By far the collaboration with other businesses. We're all like little islands doing our thing, it can be lonely and can feel like you're not part of anything bigger. I wanted to shout out some of these people, tell everyone we're here and we're doing something pretty cool, join in! Plus as smaller brands it’s a great opportunity for collaborative marketing, everyone involved can show their audience so we're pooling our resources and followers.
What’s one thing you discovered that surprised you?
That the hard task was battling the photocopier! The first issue of Choose Nice almost broke me both emotionally and financially when I got to that part! I have since found a wonderful and reasonably priced local printing company who removed that particular horror from the process. So now it's just a tranquil forwarding of a PDF and then a lovely box of pages to sew together.