a project by Annie + Jessica Hamilton



Chamila Flanagan is a machinist, ex-merchandising manager and entrepreneur with three businesses, including Fashion Initiate Australia, set up to help small startup labels manoeuvre offshore production. We sat down for a cup of coffee and the most delicious homemade carrot cake we've ever tried to learn about Chamila's journey from the Sri Lankan textile industry to the South Coast of NSW. 

Jess: What was it that kick-started your love of fashion?

Chamila: Everything was Madonna, seriously. When she wore those crop tops and capri pants, I thought, I need that! This is funny - for my first capri pants I didn't have any fabric or money to buy it, but next to our house was a temple and the temple gets free stuff. This priest, who was a good friend who would give us books and things to read, one day he gave me orange fabric and asked me to make his robe. I made it and then with the leftover fabric, without asking, I thought, that's my capri! So I made them and I wore them to the temple and I looked like the priest, the same colour! He looked at me and said, Oh you got good use out of that! I didn't realise that I was doing something not right, because you're not supposed to wear that fabric, it's for the priests.

Jess: And you had made Madonna capri pants with it!

Chamila: My sister still to this day laughs about it. I can make anything out of anything. You know, I was always waiting for Madonna to sing something on the TV and I started dressing like her. My mum would have a lace sari and I'd cut it and make leggings and gloves out of the lace and all those frilly socks! It was crazy. I was abnormal!

Jess: I'm trying to picture Sri Lankan saris turned into Madonna outfits!

Chamila: We didn't have money and I couldn't ask for money from my mum to have a Madonna outfit, I just had to make it! Do you remember, Madonna wore a red and black spot skirt with two big box pleats on the side? Well, I made the same thing and wore that with a crop top to my first interview. The lady was fascinated, she said, did you make that? You’ve got the job!

Jess: You worked in the garment industry in Sri Lanka for a long time, what kind of work were you doing?

Chamila: My last job was a product development manager. I used to work for all the big labels, like GAP, Next, Marks & Spencer, Urban Outfitters, all of those. I think I was 19 when I started. My first job was a trainee merchandiser and within six months I was promoted to merchandiser. Within three years I was merchandising manager and I started flying to all the guys’ meetings. It was so amazing.

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Jess: So the garments were being produced in Sri Lanka for labels overseas and you were working as the in-between?

Chamila: Yes, it was up to us to put the fabric, the trims and everything together, make it perfect, get the approvals, all that. It was amazing. Every year I would travel overseas three or four times. It was the best place to work, to be honest, but when you're young you never know what you're doing. Because you travel so much you go crazy. I missed my son, I was only seeing him every few hours. He would be with my ex-husband and he had two maids looking after him so they were the mothers, you know?

Jess: You were hardly home because you were travelling so much or because of the hours you worked?

Chamila: The work, because once you're in that sort of job there is no time. I used to work from 9-11pm, sometimes 9-2am. When you have the final inspections, if there is a problem then the inspectors call you, so your phone is next to you always and you have to go. It’s a risk if you go and approve to send it, because sometimes it can come back if it’s not the right decision.  It was a tough job, but I don’t know, I love working! I never get tired when I work. I won't stop for a long time, until the day I get sick. My body doesn't know how to stop and it's been that way all my life.

So, Hubrien group wanted to expand their samples. I was just a merchandising manager - I didn't have experience in this industry of machines. They gave me a credit card and said, there's plenty of money here, you have to set up a sample room. They gave me an empty building and I thought, oh my goodness, how am I going to do this? Then I thought, he has the confidence in me, I can do it. And believe me, I set up the place with 120 machines. I went out of Colombo to do the interviews in hotels. I still have all the connections, these people are so close to me. I think I made their lives much better and I am so proud of it. They used to work in the farms, the fields, they didn't even have slippers on at the interview, just barefoot. All I wanted to know was how much they would put in to learn something. Then I went to the company and I said, I need quarters for all the girls to stay. These girls are trusting me because I'm a woman and they had never even been to Colombo. So I arranged the girls quarters and boys quarters, and got nearly 200 girls into Colombo and trained them.

Jess: Were all the workers women?

Chamila: Girls and boys, you can't choose. Anyone can learn anything. Sometimes it helps when you have talent but everyone is capable - we are very adaptable. Some girls they were scared to sit on the machine because once you turn it on the noise sounds like a big machine. But they got it and within a year they were well trained and my bosses would not let me go! They appreciated what I had done and still most of the girls talk to me and send messages every new year telling me that they are in good places, thanks to me. It's the best thing, you know? So with all of that I came here and applied for jobs, but every interview I had in Sydney said I was overqualified.

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Jess: When did you come to Australia?

Chamila: In 2009, from Sri Lanka.

Jess: Had you been to Australia before, with your work?

Chamila: No, my sister had lived here since she was 18, but Australia was never on the map for fashion for us, I don't know why. Me and my sister were very close, we were connected by the hip. I definitely would not survive by myself. When I came here, everybody in Australia from the first day I arrived have been the nicest people I've met. Seriously.

Jess: What kind of jobs were you looking for in Sydney?

Chamila: All within the garment and clothing industry, I knew everything. Just give me a sketch on a tissue and I'll convert it to a garment. When I came to Sydney I started my own label, a kids label actually.  I was trying to find something to do while I was looking for jobs. My sister kept saying, you are so talented! She took me to markets and said, this is what people do here, you just come up with something and introduce it at markets. I did it, and I had all the nicest comments, but it's not possible to provide support to live. It was a struggle. Especially when you come here trying to find a job and you have so much qualifications and knowledge and people are knocking you back saying you're overqualified, you think, that is not a reason! I started stripping back my CV, but because I'm so passionate about clothes I talked too much and they'd say, well you know too much. Because I make patterns, do grading, I sketch, I do everything from A-Z. The fabric technology side I learnt, too, so I know everything about it.

Jess: You’re now running a successful fashion production business from your home. When and how did you set this up?

Chamila: I was still working while I was doing my kids label. I was sewing for Zimmerman, Wayne Cooper, Marc and Camilla. I didn't come across all the machines at once. I am very fortunate to have met people who had the biggest hearts. I started in Sydney with this lady who must have been about 94 when I met her. She had a business to supply uniforms to bakeries and needed workers. I didn't even have a machine, but I went there and I think I said I'd do it for $50. I thought, OK I'll take this order and then I'll find a machine! She said she would arrange fabric for 200 pieces. I went home and thought, how am I going to do this! I went on Gumtree looking for machines and found a machine for $150, that was the cheapest, that would get me somewhere. I don't have a car, so I looked on Gumtree again and found someone and said, please help! This guy, he was just a teenager I think, he said, I have a car and a mini trailer, if you give me $100 I'll do it. So this lady showed me the machine and I am sure she must have seen so much through my eyes. I had the sample with me and I said, do you think I can do this on this machine? Oh yes love, you can, she said, I'll show you. So she took a kitchen towel and cut it into shape and started sewing to show me. She gave me the other half of the kitchen towel and said, there you go, you do it! Then she said to me, this machine has made my life complete, so I think it's good it is going to the right person. I was a single mother all my life, and only with sewing I survived. Believe me, this machine is going to look after you. And it did. Even if it breaks down, I'm not going to let it go! It has a lot of good blessings.

Jess: I love that story. So now that you had your machine, how did your first order go?

Chamila: So I got the fabric. I didn't realise how thick it was and I was cutting 200 pieces by hand. My sister helped me, she was working but would come in the night. She said, oh my goodness, this is major! I said, I promised her 200 and I'll make the 200 somehow. And I did it. But then I didn’t have money to deliver it to her. So, you know those travelling bags? I took one on the train, went down to Museum station where the map said to go and I got on the bus to Rose Bay. This bus was prepaid and the driver said, you can't pay with money, you need a card. My face was like, sweating, I'd just dragged this heavy bag. Then this lady said, don’t get down love, I've got this! Believe me, I was blessed all along. I went and delivered it, she checked it and said, oh my goodness, these are perfect, now we'll give you work every month, it's going to be 4 or 5000. I said, I’m so sorry, I can't cut that many! Then she went down to her basement and came back with a massive cutting machine! I was thinking, how am I going to carry this back with me? So I packed one bag into the other, and then the cutting bag inside and dragged it all the way back! And that was my start.

Then there was another lady who owned the last factory in NSW. She gave me two machines, so I had three now. One day she said, I'm going to go bankrupt, so come and pick all the machines you want, so I got eight for free! Who would say no? And that's how I have the machines here. Then I went and found people to sew. I never knew how to do this, but I was not scared of it, I was ready to sit down and make sure I got it perfect. Now I can do anything, I'm happy to sew.  But you know, my passion is baking. When I'm done with clothing I'll do baking. When I'm not young enough to sit in a machine I'll bake my grandma cakes!

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Jess: You could start a bakery, I reckon this is the best carrot cake I’ve ever had!  Can you tell me about Fashion Institute Australia?

Chamila: FIA is mainly set up to outsource clothing manufacturing. I had four designers come to me at different times over the last five years or so, to get me to do their samples. I was growing slowly, too, especially with Camp Cove, so I said, where will you do manufacturing? They were going overseas. I sent one girl an email after 6-8 months and asked how she was going with her label - I always love to check and see how people do the things. But this girl actually cried. She had gone to Bali and paid the money in advance. She said she never got the goods, she lost all the money. It kept happening to three other girls that came to me, and I thought, hang on a second, there's a gap in the market here. So FIA was set up to help these girls not lose money overseas, because millions of dollars get out of the country. Sometimes when you're starting out, you have to save, you have to cut every dollar until you achieve something. Maybe you have to give up your coffee just to save that money to have your label up and running. There's a lot of sacrifices people make. Then to lose that money? It's not right. I have a small operation in Sri Lanka that I set up with my friend because I need someone who is as responsible as me. I want my eyes there, otherwise you can't commit, you know? When I take orders now I say yes and that means yes, it's not going to change.

Jess: We keep hearing that one of the of the biggest obstacles for small scale designers about going offshore is that you need to have the budget to fly yourself over there and be in two places at once, or to hire a production manager.

Chamila: Australia is a very expensive place when you have to courier stuff, but it's still better than losing all your money. For the designers, I would say, if you can handle the outsourcing by yourself, then do it overseas. Otherwise don't - it's not going to happen right. Often what they’ll do is make a quality sample so the designer sees it and then they pay. But then these people overseas take the sample to another factory, or somebody sewing in a garage, I don't know. They get it done, because they have to make sure their profit is bigger, so let's say they make $1 out of it and they pay someone 10 cents. You get a 10 cent job.

Jess: Where are the factories based that you work with through FIA?

Chamila: I work with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. I will never work with China. They are paid a ‘per piece’ rate - the intention of the workers is not to sew quality, it's to sew as much as they can in a day so they can get paid. I know they are industrial machines, but unless your eyes are focused you can’t do a curve straight. Imagine if you have an armhole and you straighten it because it's faster? That's why shapes are coming back wonky.

Jess: Is there an accreditation or standard you follow when choosing factories?

Chamila: Yes, all the suppliers that I worked with in my past experience are all approved in the trade for what they do. The big labels won’t go through the orders if the compliance is not there. When we have to take a new factory, we have to go through everything and make sure that includes about the workers, their hygiene, etcetera. Ethically doesn't just mean the place, or that you’re not hiring kids; there is so much. Like how we handle plastic in the factory - because fabric always comes wrapped in plastic - so how you can recycle it, everything has to pass compliance in the particular factories. In Sri Lanka, most of the factories are compliant; I don't know about the smaller joints I haven't worked with. Likewise in Pakistan. I have learned so much and made so many connections along the lines. Anybody can say anything if there is nobody to check.

locallymadejournal chamila flanagan

Jess: So you would also consider the growing of materials, like cotton, when working with factories?

Chamila: These companies don't use chemicals with their cotton, you know, when you're washing it. I don't take fabrics from India because they use dyes and chemicals that go into the rivers. If I could stop plastic today I would, it's so bad. Some things came into the world like a curse, you know? People don't put much thought into it. You know, like in India they use manual hands and people were getting cancer after 20 years of work, because the dyes are so toxic, but this never comes to light. It is not normal. We are all connected - just by wearing clothes or a garment - but people don't realise it. Here the connection is, well you have money, you buy it and wear it.

So our factory in Sri Lanka is a small factory, a bit bigger than this here. You know the girls I trained a long time ago? Actually three of them are still working for me. In Sri Lanka people have a lot of trouble with domestic violence, it's major. These girls end up in a  situation that they can't come out of. I want to find girls that want to work at home but are single and have kids, because I want to help them to be able to improve their lives. I’m happy to train them, because that way I am looking after their families and maybe a kid or two. That is my passion. In Sri Lanka women have very little help, it's a male dominated country. Whatever man says goes and women have to go through a lot of shit. Sometimes that is why suicide levels are high and sometimes mothers kill their children. If there was a little way they could help themselves, they’re not going to think, I'm done with this life, I can't put myself through this.

Jess: So if your machinists have young kids with them -

Chamila: That means they have married somebody and they ended up thrown out.

Jess: Do kids come to work?

Chamila: That's the problem. The best thing is to buy them a machine so they can work from home. As long as I get a good quality garment, I don't care. In my head this garment has helped a family along the way to get to your body.

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Photo by Jessica Hamilton

Jess: How did you become so successful as a woman in Sri Lanka?

Chamila: I always think somebody has been looking out for me, every day. I have learned to fight in my own way. Coming to Australia taught me lessons. In Sri Lanka what happens is if you become a single woman and you go back to the family, there is no way of living. Here I see that single people are so strong, they look after themselves. People are not aware that they can do that. Some people when they get helpless commit suicide, because they have no idea you can survive in this world alone. I always say, you come alone, you go alone - you make friends and family that's all you have.

Jess: Do you still design and make your own clothing?

Chamila:  I am going to start again, but right now FIA needs maybe another 6 months. I still check everything myself and I should be able to eliminate that once I am 100% sure when I take someone’s money. So far everything is good. I have a passion; I collect vintage patterns. Anywhere I see them I buy them. My husband and I, our free time -

Jess: How do you have free time!

Chamila: Once a month he and I take the day off work and go a little bit away and go through all the junk shops. He's a collector, he finds so many crazy things! And I collect vintage patterns. What a way to do it! These are the most beautiful clothes, you know? I want to work like that, not manufactured, but tailored clothes. But my main work is manufacture, and I think the gap I have filled is major and people need to know that they don't need to go out of the country to manufacture. I'm sure it can't be just these four designers who have lost money. Our minimum quantity with FIA is 60 pieces, which is low, and I did that because I love people, especially girls - I think it's just in my mind coming from that background, but I think if women want to do something they should be really given a helping hand.

Jess: Thanks so much for chatting to us! Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Chamila: My Message to the emerging designers are that it is going to be a tough journey once you start at least for the first 18 months. Don't expect things to turnout exactly how you planned as it is always not the case and you will adjust along the way. Lastly in this trade it is always not what you know but it is who you know in the end to make it successful.

You can find Chamila on instagram at @fashion_initiate_australia and online at www.fia.net.au

Header photograph by Jessica Hamilton

#14: BASK

#14: BASK

#12: NORTH

#12: NORTH