NAME: Sally Burgess
COMPANY: Kopper & Zink
TITLE: Founder & Director
How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
Driven, creative, free spirit, perfectionist, caring
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today?
Wow it’s so nice to be asked the LONG version! Let’s start from the beginning. I studied Fashion at UTS in Sydney. Half way into my degree, I wasn’t sure if fashion was for me. I didn’t love the competitive nature of ‘the fashion world’ and wasn’t the best on the sewing machine. I did love to draw though, and in particular, from a very young age I always found myself drawing swimsuits and starting buying A LOT of them!
Once we hit 4th year in the degree we had the freedom to design a collection of choice - swimwear was a no brainer for me. My soulful university mentor, Val Horridge pushed me. Every time I thought the collection was perfect she said I could do more! There were plenty of tears with back-to-back late nights, sewing endlessly to 90s throwback tunes with my friend Belle. The amount of times I would hear Belle dropping the F bomb when her sewing machine had a tangled bobbin, still makes me laugh to this day. (A couple of years later and the world pushed us back together and Belle now works for Kopper & Zink with me full time. She is my right-hand woman!
Anyway, enough about uni! Once I finished, it was hard to find a job or internship in swimwear in Sydney as it is still such a niche market, with only a handful of brands that are big enough to take on more employees. So, I thought global. I emailed every swim brand I liked overseas, I even used Google translator to write to a Brazilian label. I wrote to them all constantly until they were forced to respond to me. Finally, I heard from Mara Hoffman – renowned swim brand from NYC who accepted me to head over for a 3-month internship. I extended it to 5 months in the hopes of gaining a sponsored visa. Eventually I was sponsored by a company called Amerex who produce the swim brands Red Carter, Jessica Simpson, and a bunch of private label swim brands.
Red was our fabulous design director and took me under his wing as a mentor as a great friend. There was plenty of play as well as work. At the time, I was also working at a bar 4 nights a week to cover my rent. Eventually the buzzing and Go Go Go NYC lifestyle caught up with me and I became extremely home sick for Australia. Also, feeling restricted from being able to go home and see my family and friends, I started to experience extreme anxiety, and I knew it was time to leave. It was a really hard decision because it felt at the time like I was leaving the amazing opportunity of working as a designer in NYC, and I would have to start again. I specifically remember Red teasing me saying “So, you’re going to go home to sit on mum and dads couch?” It was all in jest at the time, but maybe that gave me the extra drive to do the complete opposite!
I moved home to Oz, gave myself some time to adjust, and then started my job search. This is the land of beach culture, surely there will be a swimwear job! One company asked me to come in for an interview, and they told me “You kind of have to wait for someone to die in this industry before you’ll get a job” … GREAT!
I went home and thought, if no one was going to give me an opportunity, I was just going to make one myself! I’d always wanted to have my own swim label at some point, it might just happen a little earlier than I thought - at the age of 24. So, I sat my Dad down and told him my idea, and that I needed him to know I was serious about it. For some reason, I just needed that approval and backing. So from there I started emailing and emailing, researching, looking at other brands, formulating my structure, where I would sell, what the structure of the company was, how many collections I would do. I had lots of coffee dates chatting to people, asking them how they did certain things from distribution, to sales, to manufacturing to marketing. I wasn’t just going to be a designer, I was going to be a business owner! That year I was a WORK-A-HOLIC. I was also single. VERY single.(lol) This meant I could focus all my energy into one thing! Even if nothing was happening, I was always looking for the next thing I could do.
For manufacturing, I wanted the efficiency and technology, so China it was. I had a list of questions I used and sent to each factory to filter out any dodgy businesses. Eventually I found a small professional factory that was suited to the size of my brand. I sent him sample designs for him to make as a trial. The quality was perfect and we established a great relationship. I got on a plane with my dad and went to visit the factory. Everyone gets nervous about manufacturing in China with rip offs etc. so I went in with the approach that all I could really do was build as open and honest a relationship as possible. I said to the factory owner, “I know things will go wrong, I know mistakes will happen, you just need to be honest with me so we can solve problems together, and grow this business together”. I think you need to remember that your manufacturers are human too, and kindness still goes a long way! So far, so great with the factory, and hopefully that will continue :) Oh and always pay your bills on time!
I got my first collection made and shot, and went bold and big with a submission to trade at the Miami Swim Trade Show. I was accepted. I was pretty exhausted at this point and was struggling with stress, so I remember this little victory very well. For the first time in my life I had tears of joy and tears of accomplishment :) In saying that, it also meant lots more work to get it sorted!
Mum and I headed over to Miami with my friend Jess. We sat at the trade show for 4 days relying on passersby to come and place orders for their store. It was a pretty long disheartening process. I thought this would be my big break and put me on the map. I also wasn’t confident talking to buyers as I still didn’t feel I knew what I was doing 100%. A few small stores ordered, and I still had to commit to MOQ with the factory, which is very daunting when you don’t have many pre-orders!
I networked with a bunch of people, and found buyer emails for the big US stores. This is what I was going to need to fill these orders.
4 months later, I was back in the US with a new collection, and I had managed to set up meetings with Shopbop, Revolve, Intermix and a few others. This was the first sales meetings I had ever done. Jess came with me again as she had some sales experience and we walked into the buyer’s offices together. Fake it till you make it! After my first sales meeting, I broke out in hives because I was so nervous! But they loved it, and it snowballed from there. That trip I also managed to secure sales reps in LA and NYC who were going to manage all my US orders. I also secured a logistical warehouse and a P.R company.
The following year we showed at the Cabana tradeshow in Miami and things have been going ‘swimmingly’ ever since! The brand also showed at MBFW Sydney and have been invited to show in Paris next year, as well as a catwalk in Miami.
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is your elevator pitch on what you do?
I am the founder of a women’s swimwear label. I was a designer, and I now wear many hats in order to keep the company afloat. It has been a test of determination and a balance of satisfying my creative outlet and a learning curve in how to turn that into an income. I wanted to create an opportunity for myself that reflects my lifestyle and is not just a job, but is something that I would be excited to work on every day and is what I want for anyone who works with me too.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago?
I am still on the younger side; I am 27 years old and the brand has been running for 3 years now. I think I always knew I wanted to design swimsuits but I didn’t think I would be working for myself as early as I did.
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’?
Success is a very interesting word and I think if you asked me when I first started I would have a different answer for you. So I will tell you both.
When I first started, success would have been - being the best, being known, having a company with people working for me, being a big deal swim designer. I wanted that, and I wanted that as fast as I could get it. This was determination and this is what drove me to get where I am. However, I also drove myself into the ground. Work came before everything. Having a few health complications particularly around stress management forced me to reassess everything. Now, success is going into work every day to do something you love, to grow and change with the company. Success is to see the final photo shoots that sum up all the late nights, all the worrying, all the creative passion. That is personal success and achievement and that is what I value. Success to me is also the ability to create a workplace that your staff want to come to everyday, and make them feel valued and empowered. A team of passionate people is much more effective.
What do you still want to achieve?
Professionally I would love the company to grow to a point where I can then focus my attention purely on all things creative, and it’s slowly getting there! It’s definitely a challenge to balance the creative stuff with the biz stuff but I do enjoy both parts now.
Personally I think it is important to have dreams aside from your brand because it is easy for the brand to become your identity, when really I love so many other things. Belle & I both have our own personal inspo boards that are unrelated to work; places we want to travel, family, goals etc. to have at our desk and remind us of all the things we also love outside of work.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in?
Yes, I studied at UTS (Syd, Aus) and did a bachelor’s degree of Fashion & Textile design.
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date?
The most rewarding things have been my first acceptance into Miami Swim Week within 6 months of starting, and every single photo shoot. I live for those photo shoots, and the chance to see everything that I’ve imagined, designs, colours, locations, styling and concepts come together. There is so so so much that is represented in one photo for me! We also showed at MBFW Sydney this year – our first runway show.
Separately, now having my best friend work with me is pretty cool. To have someone who cares about you and the brand just as much as you and be on the same page about things is amazing and I am super grateful.
Tell us about your workspace, and what inspires you about it?
We have just moved into a new space and now I am lucky enough to work in the most beautiful setting. My family lives on property in the bush overlooking the valley, 15 mins from the beach. Our studio is a separate building on the property surrounded by palms, and nature with big windows and sliding doors onto a deck. It is bright and open and has enough space for the stock to be in the same place. I tried working in an office space in the city but it just wasn’t me. I need to feel a sense of freedom and openness; it helps the creativity flow and the stress levels lower. I love colour, so I love Mexican inspired rugs and collecting other little colourful things along my travels that inspire me and that I can add to my work space. My boyfriend just bought me my absolute favorite Gray Malin print for Christmas for my work space. I cried when I opened it!
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey?
Frustrations, honestly would be the Australian wholesale market in comparison to overseas. Although we are the sunburnt country and renowned for our beach lifestyle, wholesale here is really tricky to get into.
When was the last time you where overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work or work load?
Actually, this question struck a nerve with me as managing stress and feeling overwhelmed is an ongoing challenge for me. At the beginning of last year, I hit a tough time and was generally burn out. After 2 years of working non-stop on the brand, as well as dealing with stores that were much bigger than I felt my brand was, I was constantly trying to keep up and maintain face that I was a big dog when really I was relativity new to the biz.
I had planned a trip to Mexico with my friend (my first non-working trip in a while) however I was still answering emails and trying to maintain the company whilst away. My passport was stolen and on my return, my boyfriend was preparing to be overseas for the next 6 months. It was safe to say that everything caught up with me, and I had a bit of a breakdown. From all the stress, I had developed a copper toxicity in my blood which furthers the feeling of a racing mind, anxiety, stress, panic attacks and the inability to relax. I also found out I have Pyrroles Disorder which stops the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals that help you to relax. I had been running on adrenaline for too long. The way to balance out your copper levels is with lots of zinc supplements – can you believe it, I had an imbalance of copper and zinc… THE NAME OF MY COMPANY! – Kopper & Zink (the weird workings of the world!) Anyway, I had to step back from the company for a couple of months and attend to my health. It took a good year to fully recover. From this I have realized that I am number one and it is not selfish. For everything else to benefit – career, creativity, relationships etc. I need to be operating at my best. That means looking after myself! When I need a break, or a sleep or to meditate then I do and everything flows much better for it.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this increased or decreased as you progress in your career?
Yes. I am a perfectionist which has its positives and its negatives. In the beginning, I was so determined that I wanted to do everything myself because I knew how I wanted it and I knew I could do it the way I wanted it. It took me a while to learn that it’s okay to let people help you. In fact, it is essential. Now, I’m all about – ‘if someone can do it better than you, get them on board!’ Don’t try and do things you know you aren’t good at. Other people specialize in these areas. Work with them!
If you are a business owner – and you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough?
This is so tricky and I think is so important for every business owner to know when to turn off and enjoy all the other things in life. You really have to work at this constantly. I no longer have any email access on my phone. I will only check them when I am sitting down at the computer ready to work.
I think it’s also essential to have someone who you trust to take the reigns if you need to go away or have a sick day. That was my biggest stress in the beginning when it was just me, how could I go away when orders needed to be shipped every second day? No one else knew how to do things like I did, so it meant that only I could do them. Although Belle and I have our certain areas we each work in, we both know how to do everything in case needed.
Has your career affected your personal life/relationships? If so how?
Yes and no. In the beginning yes; my mum and dad were my biggest support, so, unfortunately, they also took the brunt of anything stressful or any unsuccessful moments. I was living and working there and eventually realized for myself (and them!) that I needed to separate my work and living space to create some sort of structure. I think when I started it was all I wanted to talk about, but it was important to remember that not everyone cares about what colour thread that sample should have come with, or if something was printed the wrong shade of pink. My brand is my company and my passion but it is not my entire identity
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How?
YES! As my manufacturing occurs in China, and most of my sales occurs in the States, there were days in the beginning that I would think OMG I haven’t spoken to an actual physical person today, one that I can see and feel! There was so much emailing! Belle and I are now work side by side with music constantly going, which is so nice for support and to bounce ideas off. We also have our network of others near by working on the brand.
What causes you anxiety/sleepless nights?
In the beginning, it was probably more nervous excitement and anticipation, waiting for responses. Also, I was dealing a lot with the US so they are working whilst I was sleeping/‘meant’ to be sleeping! I got into a habit of waking up multiple times through the night to check my email and see what had happened overnight.
I don’t do that anymore. I don’t even have my email on my phone anymore as it becomes a habit to just flick through it like all the other apps.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently?
To tell you the truth not really… Any little bump along the way has been a learning curve. If anything I wish I didn’t stress so much at the beginnings of it all because it did affect my health eventually, however because I had worked so hard, setting up the systems. I got the brand to the point it is very quickly and was able to step back from the company slightly to get better without it affecting the business too much.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self?
Look after your self and be gentle on yourself. Listen to your body and give it what it needs.
Who are some women in business you admire & why?
I admire any girl that is giving it a go and not just in terms of running a business. I think the most admirable girl is the one who is showing the world her talents and dreams. We have friends who run a gym, my cousin is a physio for patients with ear balance problems, and another friend who wants to open an op-shop exchange store. All are so different but so empowering as they are following their bliss and projecting positivity.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with?
My family are so so so supportive and understanding. Dad is strong any driven and mum is nurturing and caring and insistent on helping. It’s a nice balance to have. Sean is a proud brother, always spreading the word about the brand and fuelling me with marketing ideas.
My boyfriend Chris is rational & calm! He is constantly thoughtful and open minded. It is impossible to be stressed in his presence. He has opinions in creative aspects too, so it’s nice to bounce things off him and let’s face it, me asking his opinion on different swimsuit models isn’t the worst thing in the world for him! We have the same outlook of a balanced lifestyle and not always doing things the way you are ‘meant to’
Belle is similar like that too, we often chat about how much we actually love going to work and can’t imagine what it would be like doing something we wouldn’t want to do. We often check in with each other to make sure we are both happy inside and outside work.
Finally, my other friends. I was luckily enough to find gorgeous girlfriends in high school, university and when I lived in NYC, I love them all for different reasons and that’s what keeps things interesting. They are so supportive of me and the brand and each other. From meeting other girls, I’ve realized it’s pretty unique to have a group of girlfriends who are constantly uplifting each other :)
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it?
I have to agree and disagree with you Samantha! (Sorry!) I wanted to create a career and job for myself that reflects my lifestyle. So, in that sense I guess work and life is blurred. However, I do think it is so important to balance everything or at least try to. It has become my new word this year as well as ‘acceptance’. Everything needs balance.
Work and play.
Drive and contentment.
Love and time to yourself and love and time to others.
Obviously it’s easy to be thrown off balance, and sometimes certain things require more energy and effort, but I do think it is importantl to come back to this to be able to stay sane, happy and successful!!
I have started mediation this year which has been the best thing for me. It helps to maintain an equilibrium. The troughs of highs and lows aren’t so extreme and it’s easier to stay content and grateful no matter what’s going on. Sorry to get all Zen on you!
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit?
Yes. It’s so much responsibility! You are committed, especially if you want it for the long run! It’s like having a baby! If you want to go away, you have to think who will look after it, whilst you’re gone. Also, often people my age quite their jobs to travel for long periods with no responsibility, so it did make me question what I was doing, but then I guess I was content with the freedom of my work so it all balances out.
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
I think at the beginning because I worked for myself or because I was flexible and could make all my decisions, I had a few comments like “oh that’s right you don’t have a REAL job”. It was too much effort to to correct them, but I read a great quote that said “hard work will reveal itself” Otherwise I feel pretty supported and am lucky enough to surround myself with the right tribe of people
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry?
Do your research and trial things, have a plan and idea of how you want it to work, but you don’t have to have every single detail sorted. You will learn and grow along the way. I think when I first started trading internationally I was sitting in a logistics meeting and had an out of body moment where I was like ‘how did I end up here, I am a designer and now I am sorting international taxes and customs and shipping containers?’ I certainly didn’t think I’d become an expert in that!
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what?
Yes I would! I have the freedom to create the company the way I want it to work. I have honestly never had those dreaded Monday feelings. Even when things are busy, I still enjoy mid week as much as the weekends.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be?
‘Find YOUR way’ If you have an idea and drive there is always a way, you just have to find the door for you. If someone said no to me, I didn’t really ever get upset. I would just think ‘that’s not the door for me’ or that’s not meant for me right now. That way you are always motivated to keep working, failing is never an option and you can bounce back from any disappointments.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)?
Everyone needs to help one another! My friend Sal, wrote to the Samantha Wills foundation without me knowing and when she told me over the months that she had been writing in, I burst into tears at how thoughtful and supportive she had been. That’s what we need more of! It doesn’t have to be so competitive out there. Everyone should want everyone to succeed and we can learn from hearing each other's stories. It’s also lovely to be able to share my story because it’s not something you want to talk about all the time. It’s nice to stay private and humble.
What are some of your favorite quotes?
What would you do for absolute free?
If I could promise you everything would turn out okay, what would you do? – My Dad
Lets get this done! – My best friend Jess Raye