Pivoting - turning tea towels into masks - what Melbourne companies are doing to survive

Pivoting - turning tea towels into masks - what Melbourne companies are doing to survive

Lockdown Innovation; tea towels to face masks

Koh Living began 2020 on a high, with a bold goal to achieve $4M in business turnover. We had 600 retail stores ready and waiting to help us get there - many located in high profile, popular tourist destinations across Australia, such as Ayers Rock Resort.

Our warehouse had just taken delivery of a brand new range of products in March. This included a range of high quality cotton tea towels, featuring our popular Aboriginal designs by artist Kathleen Buzzacott. Bright, colourful Aboriginal designs, perfect art-inspired gifts.

It was the first time we had transformed Kathleen Buzzacott’s Aboriginal designs into a larger format, with her permission and careful guidance. The result was amazing and we couldn’t wait to show these tea towels to our customers.

Then overnight, our business was in turmoil.

Just as we were getting ready to launch our new range across Australia, along came COVID-19. Sales dropped 100% in April. All tourism destinations closed. No international tourists – previously one of our biggest target markets. Borders closed. Today we are still 70% down on last year - and our biggest selling retail outlets are either still closed or experiencing a significant reduction in trade.

Throughout this challenging time, Koh Living has never stopped working to innovate and pivot to continue to trade, support our dedicated team and artists, and our loyal retailers as best we could. And in order to find a solution to our devastating loss of sales, our first action was to completely review our target market – with a new focus on Business to Consumer, instead of Business to Business.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

The impact of COVID-19 on Australian businesses and the economy has been immense, especially for those in arts and culture. As a society, Australians are avid consumers of art, whether live performances, or artwork displayed in galleries and exhibitions. Even though restrictions are easing in some parts of the country, opportunities to physically view and purchase art are still severely limited – and this is causing huge difficulties for independent artists and especially for artists within the Aboriginal community.

Talented independent artists like Kathleen are solely reliant on the sale of their art pieces as income. That’s why it is so very important to us that we promote and support Aboriginal artists right now. Koh Living is honoured to be able to offer our beautiful art-inspired giftware for sale and do our part to support artists through this difficult time.

Kathleen Buzzacott’s beautiful Aboriginal designed tea towels were sitting in our warehouse and had not even seen the light of day – this product had not even hit stores! Then, in conversation with our Australian artist Anna Blatman, we heard that fashion designer Fella Hamilton had their own business pivot; making face masks.

When we got in touch to confide that we had thousands of high quality cotton tea towels sitting in our warehouse, together we reached the conclusion that these would make perfect mask material.

Fella Hamilton were especially excited about using Aboriginal artwork and contributing to the ongoing success of the Indigenous community.

It was a fabulous collaboration from the start. With Kathleen’s express permission to once again use her very special designs in an innovative way, within days, 800 tea towels were being created into cloth face masks for use in Victoria, and sales have skyrocketed.

Support Australian artists with wearable art

Kathleen has been delighted with the result, and so are we. It is so important to us that we support Indigenous artists like Kathleen, who have also been hit hard by the fall-out of this pandemic. Now Kathleen has not only received commission from the sale of the tea towels, but from the sale of the masks as well.

A sustainable, art-inspired solution!

At Koh Living we are not waiting for ‘COVID normal’. We cannot control what is happening – so we are just doing what we do best, keeping our business alive and supporting our artists and our retailer partners. To be able to innovate and collaborate with other businesses to help keep them stay alive too is even better!

Having product sitting on warehouse shelves doing nothing is not sustainable for any business. We are so excited that we were able to find an excellent solution that has benefited all three businesses, and offer the consumers products that are not only beautiful and practical, but also give back to underprivileged Australia communities.

Our Aboriginal tea towels are continuing to be sold to Fella Hamilton and transformed into comfortable, art-inspired masks.