We sat down and had a bloody good yarn with the South Australian queen of colour, designer Tiff Manuell to talk about her life, challenges, opening the 2017 Adelaide Fashion Festival and of course music!
WL: Tell us a bit about your background, from your earlier years in fashion to the point when you realised your passion for design and then decided to commit to a career in it?
So from a really early age I was always passionate about two things, drawing and designing. I was also intrigued by young people in business and for some reason I used to collect clippings about a young company starting up or two people working for themselves, I was really super inspired by that.
Regardless of that I did go on and study fashion at Melbourne’s RMIT and at the time I thought that was my real passion, I loved fashion illustration and I loved kind of inventing the process of making things but I was never the practical fashion student, I was actually a bit of a fish out of water I really hated sewing I really hated pattern making, it wasn't about the construction it was more about the concept that interested me, nonetheless I did get through it and I did work for a year in fashion design in Melbourne and absolutely loathed it, I realised there and then that I didn't ever want to make another formal pattern I didn't want to copy what was happening overseas, I was not remotely interested in the fashion industry other than personally just being creative myself. So I kind of discovered I was doing the wrong thing at that particular point in time in the industry because the industry was really stifled It was in a terrible kind of state, it was late 80’s and there was a really bad recession at the time so people were being extremely conservative. So I travelled overseas for a while and realised that I could actually make a living, well not make a living living but I was successfully making good money by creating product, I worked in a wine bar and I realised that I could make jewellery out of the wine lids that I was taking off the bottles and sell them for a nice profit, so the jewellery ended up giving me the confidence that I could make money on the side by making pretty much anything out of anything. When I was 16, I used to make products anyway and sell them through stores but I just did that as fun. I then came back to Australia and I found myself retail work but I just started producing and making, then I moved to Adelaide and realised I needed a job and went for an interview doing what I knew I could do which was fashion design, I sat in the interview and thought what am I doing here? This is ridiculous! I’m not going back into this industry and decided that I would walk out of there and start a business and so I walked out of the interview, I actually excused myself out of the interview and said I'm sorry I’ve realised I'm wasting your time and thought right, I've got to get a job that can support me on the side but I'm going to go out create a folio of work and I'm going to try and sell it and that's when I started Happy House. So pretty much I created by accident really a product that was quite unique, hit the stores with it and they just started to sell in huge volumes, it was all handmade, it was really labour-intensive and I would be up till 4 in the morning trying to make it, making these giant sized gift tags but it basically became the foundation of the whole industry and Happy House really was started when I was 26 and is now 20 years old as a business. At one stage we sold to 40 countries around the world based on products that we use to design and make and it was really all based on the fact that I was passionate about following what I love doing and I realised that I really love drawing and painting and designing products and we ended up in the gift industry, it wasn't an industry I knew anything about but the market was almost telling me what I could do and what was selling and not to offer all these other things but just offer just this because this is what was selling which lead us to become a really good size business actually. I just realised that by following my passions which was very creative and always based on colour and probably painting and drawing that the I could turn it into business.
WL: How did you transition from Happy House to Tiff?
So I kind of went through another stage, Happy House basically got so big that we turned it into a financial monster. We grew really quickly, we entered into retail and that was probably the sad part about that business is that we got distracted away from our core, our core was design and the design part of the business was doing very well but we sunk a whole lot of investment into retail stores and got caught up in Westfield (unfortunately the Westfield program is that they suck you up into investing into new stores everywhere) and pretty much in 3 years we almost imploded, which made us retract in size and really then focus on what we wanted out of the business, what we personally loved and that wasn't managing people or directing a big art team but I realised after that we were lucky we were actually an IP company that successfully sold our artwork to many companies around the world and then they produced products under their manufacturing but using our label. I realised that I could do that just on the side without a huge team or a lot of investment or work and I'd also kind of got to the stage where I’d been doing that for a long time and I wanted to get off the computer because I don't like working on computers and I want to use my hands again, so my husband just said to me why don't I just spend two days a week not even thinking about happy house and so I did and I guess that actually became the opportunity where I let go again I started painting really freely again and made a couple of handbags and there was no plan for that business to evolve but i made a couple, one was for a friend and then another girl walked past and saw a couple on my desk and asked if she could buy one and then the story goes that girls started knocking on the door and the lovely thing about that is that I didn't have a plan it was an organic process but once again the market was telling me that it was a good thing and that was exciting for me because it meant everyday more and more I was coming in and painting and started to forget about Happy House and the process was that I had complete freedom. I created a product that was based on my true loves and it was also making me happy because I wasn't conforming to a fashion industry, we’re not seasonal we just make every day, we paint every day, we cut everyday, we make bags every week and that's how simple our formula is but it means that we create a really unique product everyone is individually numbered, everyone is different and people really love that.
WL: Have you had any mentors throughout your career and if so what kind of things do they do for you was it advice or support?
I think probably my mentors have come in the form of friends. I’m very luckily attracted to people who are in business, some of my best friends are really successful business people in their own right and I went through uni with a couple of girlfriends who are great fashion designers now so we bounce a lot of each other, our own experiences, ups and downs and so they come with a great source of knowledge as well. One of my best friends is and Anna Diamond who runs Palas Jewellery and that's a very successful business. A couple of mentors have also been people I’ve worked with, whether it was as a waitress and having an amazingly creative chef or having worked in the fashion industry and working for a boss who is hard arsed, you kind of learn something from everyone but I have always been inspired by small business so I'm always kind of intrigued how people operate, how they deal with people, I think that's the biggest thing as a small business operator running a successful team and being a decent person in the process.
WL: Which designers or artists have inspired you?
I’m not a very well read person as far as I'm not absorbed by art movements or famous artists but I definitely have my favourites. I love Picasso, I spent a fair bit of time in Spain and would walk in and out of the gallery in Barcelona and just be totally inspired. I grew up with people like Ken Done, Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson who were very visual artists and also textile designers as well so they influenced me just because they were completely colour lovers and I guess I am too. Then there is other creative businesses like Dinosaur Designs which I'm really inspired by as a business and Creative Design Company who really stand on their own two feet and wave an amazing flag for Australia with ethically produced product & design so they're inspiring, gahhh there's loads of artists!
WL: What challenges have you faced throughout your career and do you have any advice for any up-and-comers?
I’ve had massive highs in my career and massive lows, one of the highest would be just realising that I can create successful business based on my own concepts and part of that success would be forming a team that I can look back and go well all these people have a job because I have created a business, it's a nice feeling and it sometimes can be challenging leading people and being a successful leader and then of course personal loves out of that is that you see the success of the product that you design and that it gives great happiness to people. I get amazing comments back from girls who have grown up with Happy House and have just said how it impacted on their life, how it made them feel so that's a very nice aspect of being a designer. I also get the same from creating Tiff as well, I find it quite overwhelming that it affects people the way it does. The downside is that when you grow business especially to the size of Happy House and the financial stresses and challenges that it put on me and my husband at the time. It gave us the opportunity where we sold our first tiny little property and invested every cent into our first print run, it got us to a point where we could afford to build a beautiful new house and travel a lot for business and it gave us great things but it also took all of those things away. So when our business kind of imploded we pretty much had to sell up everything, we didn't go bankrupt but we could have easily but it was a decision that I made, that I wanted to trade out of it and fortunately we did. It took a long time and I feel grateful that we could manage to do that but there's a enormous stresses that come with growing a big business and taking big risks especially ones that you are fully investing on your own but at the same time the upside is that life is one big experience and journey and the second time around you do things really differently and this time around with the Tiff business I have a very different attitude towards it. I like the idea of it remaining small and something that I can come to work every day and not be daunted by but love and that I have a handle on it and it doesn't turn into a monster, that's something I feel equally passionate about doing every day and it doesn't have to be big to be successful and I guess one thing I always say to anyone who is wanting to start a business I say baby steps, baby steps all the way never feel like you've got to invest a lot or lay everything on the line because even though we did. We did initially do a lot of research and hand make the product for almost a year and a half and so I tested the market and I was pretty certain I was right, so just don't over invest without having fool proof knowledge that it's going to work
WL: Have you got any nuggets of wisdom that you sort of live your life by?
I just feel like I'm always wary of people being burnt too early because I think what unfortunately happens is they close the door on it because they feel they're not right for the business, but there's so many lessons to learn and often the hardest lessons, if you just take small bite size pieces you're learning by virtue of small mistakes and not catastrophic ones that can put you off completely. Also to never be complacent, I feel like every day you need to push, you can't just rest on the fact that something's been successful because tomorrow you might have a competitor or tomorrow people might not be interested. You have to be consistently on top of things and be always thinking what can we do next that's innovative and new. If you're not busy doing the right things it can come around and bite you in the butt.
WL: You’ve managed to sell Tiff Manuell designs worldwide and even been stocked in the Tate Modern whilst all the while remaining based in Adelaide, what makes Adelaide so special from a creative point of view?
It's just home and I feel comfortable here and creative here I guess. I think the happiness comes out in the artwork and I could probably pick this business up and move anywhere which is the lovely part about it. If I wanted to scale it all down then I could do that too which is nice, I think here in Adelaide we tend to do things a little differently, I don't know why that is I just think that we do have to work a little harder to make something successful, we don't have as big of a pool of people so we have to push a bit harder but at the same time I don't feel like I've ever had to sell, we’ve had organic sales that have come to us. The essence of South Australia is that it's a happy living space, it's full of beautiful inspiration. We have managed to take that from everywhere, it's an affordable place to do business, it's an easy lifestyle, you don't spend 3 hours in traffic trying to get everywhere. I can pick my kids up, be at home, be at work or whatever it is I need to do all within 20 minutes. So, it means it's effective and efficient. I think we have it easy from that perspective, I think Adelaide is quite an inspiring place to work from, although it can be a bit lacklustre when you travel to New York and then come home but it's an easy place to come home to and utilise all the inspiration that you've got put it back into your work.
WL: What do you do when you’re not creating or designing your next piece of work, are you out sourcing inspiration or trying to clear your head?
Yeah I used to probably be a fairly agitated person if I wasn't being creative, but I have my girls who are a bit older and independent now so I'm a little bit more at peace because I'm not a frantic as a Mum. I do kind of look for things that are a little bit removed from my everyday work, I love nature, I love being in my garden, I’m a bit of a landscaper. We’re currently transforming a once native garden to a very sustainable arid looking cactus filled garden so I'm kind of inspired by that and I love spending time with my friends and my family. I try to be feeling less like I have to always be creative and just be more at peace with myself and giving myself time and space to just enjoy peace and quiet and not feel like I forever have to be doing 1000 things at once because you burn out especially my age hahaha but yeah music too all of those things i'm a massive lover of my house space so yeah I tend to spend a bit of time enjoying that.
WL: What sort of music do you listen to now and who did you grow up listening to?
I’m a product of the 80’s, hilarious because I went through a time about 5-10 years ago where I couldn’t stand listening to anything from the 80’s and it was because I think I lived it and I really love new, I don't like actually seeing a movie twice I kind of like what's happening now and what is new but when my friends play the old 80’s tracks now I'm like okay yeah I kind of dig that that's everything from The Cure, The Smiths etc. I could real off like a 1000; whether it's Michael Jackson’s really early days to pretty much everything. Music has really impacted me, I met my husband when I was 16, we obviously didn't become partners for a long time but music was quite influential throughout our relationship. These days I’m much more moody, I tend to go into the studio and they play a whole range of 90s and everything from RnB to rap and everything in between, even movements that I was not necessarily into but I really like to listen to, I’m passionate about all sorts of music but I'm very comfortable listening to solo artists. I'm a total misery guts I paint frantically and love being here on my own and listening to something really tragically sad like Damien Rice at full capacity and will paint in a fury because for some reason the sadness is very moving and my family just go this is horrendous. So that's always kind of on my playlist. Chet Faker too, those sorts of moody sad songs are really good for painting but I do also like Acid Jazz or if I'm at home it's kind of all sorts of jazz, I love listening to anything new too. We've always got Triple J playing and I like that because I feel I’m not decision-making on the playlist so I can sort of zone out and often you hear something that you really like and think ‘what’s this?’
WL: Have you had any standout musical experiences or favourite memories?
Nick Cave I suppose, I’ve seen a couple of his concerts and got married to The Ship Song, it’s just moving and beautiful and special, so his concerts have been just perfect for me. My first big concert was U2 which was very euphoric and my University concerts were very late 80s university style bands that became really big so always really memorable.
WL: Any favourite artists at the moment?
I love The Smiths at the moment. I'm terrible at recalling specific artists. I really liking female vocalists, some Australian female vocalists like Amy Shark, there's a whole range of girls that I think at the moment are quite phenomenal.
WL: Finally, what does the remainder of 2017 hold for Tiff Manuell?
We’re super busy because I've taken on something way too big for my own good and put myself particularly under pressure but also my team a bit but we are doing the Adelaide Fashion Festival not because we had to or because it was something that was really important but we were offered a really beautiful opportunity, and that was to open up the festival and then to follow it up with a really large second show. I wonder why I say yes to these things but I realise it's because I get bored and I love to push myself to the next level, it takes me right outside my comfort zone and I feel anxious and nervous and scared but at the same time that's when my best work happens and they might only be pinnacle moments but the beautiful part about this business is that I've always wanted to collaborate with other creatives and this opportunity is really awesome because we're collaborating with Oisima who is DJ-ing all of his music throughout the show and another vocalist as well who is in Adelaide girl. We’re also working with Jason Fassbender who won hairdresser of the year and he's the first South Australian to have ever won the award in its 40 years. I also invited another young designer Natalie Ivanov to showcase her swimwear with us and I've got amazing creatives doing the production and the direction and the videography and yeah it's just an awesome team! So I couldn't say no. It was an opportunity that's really big for us and I hope it gets us some awesome exposure. I’m not a big PR girl, I hate self-promotion I find it uncomfortable but I love the fact that we might be able to showcase to other people what we can do and how we do it differently. Even though we're not fashion people it's still allows us to express and showcase what we do and how we do it differently so that's really awesome. We're still selling well to Tate but we've also had a couple of other pretty awesome meetings, including one with MOMA the modern art museum in New York and we're talking to their retail stores at the moment, nothing certain. Our main aim is just to really stay the size we are and keep our production the same but to do more business on our online store because it's drawing a bigger crowd from International and that for us is really great because our profit margins are very different without working too much harder. So it is that window to the world, building our social media is the natural course of action, spreading the word about what we do because that really draws business.