Interview: Unempire

Zoë Lea is her name, and socks are her game.

Zoë Lea is her name, and socks are her game. The brains behind Melbourne-based unruly sock brand Unempire, Zoë Lea has risen to the challenge of holding a successful reign over the boring and bland accessories for your feet in this city and beyond since the launch of her brand in 2013. Speaking about her passion for ethical production as well as the best and worst fashion trends ever known to man, we gain a little insight into the world of an Unempress paving her way to the top one toe at a time.

Why socks?

Okay, in a nutshell, prior to starting my own business I was designing for another company and I was doing accessories for them. I had success designing socks for them, so I wanted to start my own business and that was just a guaranteed place to start I guess, and just a place to go really crazy with the designs.

Do you think socks are underrated, are they making a come back?

Oh that’s another thing, they’re a big trend at the moment, so yeah it was good to get on that, well…it’s not going to last forever, but it’s still going, people are into it. It’s an easy way to spruce up an outfit.

You launched Unempire in 2013?

Yeah in 2013, it was a really quick process; from coming up with the idea to actually getting socks here it was around three months or something.

What’s been the biggest challenge since last year when this all began?

It’s all been pretty smooth sailing, the hardest thing I guess, because this is all I’m doing, it’s my full time project, so when it’s a slow month… it’s really slow. Cash flow gets pretty scary at points, but I’ve always come out of it. It’s just the environment it’s not my product or my business, so that’s always the hardest thing.

You run the business alone, is there any advice you wish you’d heard before you jumped into this on your own?

Nope! Wow… that sounds really up myself… but I knew a lot. All the decisions I made, starting the business and so on, I’d had so much experience working for other people and every step that I’ve made in my business is something that I’ve been educated on already, so I haven’t made any wild decisions, it’s been quite strategic.

Any words of advice to others in the fashion world that are thinking of starting their own brand?

Just start small, stick with your skill set and what you know. Don’t try and get ahead of yourself, I know so many people that just want to be big, and want to be known and want to make heaps of money but it takes time to get to that point. If you’re desperate, people can tell that you’re desperate and they can smell that desperation on you.

How do you go about promotion then?

Organically. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve had a lot of people approaching me which is really, really great, it makes me feel good about the business and that people are interested in what I’m doing. Also when I see a blog or something that I like, I don’t say ‘Hey I’ll send you free stuff if you do this and that’, I always just send an email saying ‘Hey I like you, check out my website and I’d love to know what you think’, and I do send free stuff out occasionally, but I haven’t given away a whole heap.

So how much of the design process is done by you and how much is done elsewhere?

Everything is done by me, all the graphic and design work for the socks and promotion is all me, the only things that other people do for me is printers, and the manufacturer of my socks.

Most of the designs on your socks are pretty obscure, what’s your creative process for that?

There’s no real process… it just comes to me. A lot of the designs up to this point have been food, and you know, people like food! I have quite an obscure taste in art and design, but I knew that that would be a risky place to start. I just wanted to hit a really broad market, and food is something that isn’t specific to any sub-culture or age grouping, so cheese and sausages and croissants…who doesn’t like that?!

You seem passionate about ethical production, but you get your product made in Taiwan, what’s the reason you didn’t want it sourced locally?

Well quite easily, no one in Australia can do it! There isn’t sock machines in Australia that can do this stuff.  There’s a handful of hosiery manufacturers, but they don’t make the same knitting or do it with the same intricacy that I can get done overseas. I’ve been working with this company basically my whole career, I met them in one of my first jobs and I’ve just carried them with me to every job that I’ve been at, so that was another thing, I had a trusted supplier that I knew made good stuff and I had an existing relationship with.

Why do you think ethical production is so important in the fashion world?

Fast fashion, just like fast food is not good for the environment – it’s just not good. Just having a bit of care and thought in the process of what you’re manufacturing, how much, and the reason behind it. I don’t want to be a millionaire, I just want to make a good product. It’s not about making thousands of one unit at a really low price, just to maximise profit margin and all that sort of jazz. It’s becoming more expensive to manufacture in China, so others like Bangladesh are stepping in, that’s a big one, they had that factory collapse, and that happened because Bangladesh saw a market for manufacturing, and so they just started building makeshift factories in buildings that weren’t designed to withstand vibrating machines, and that’s what happens!

What besides a good pair of socks (obviously) is the next best fashion staple?

Ohh, wow! My wardrobe is all over the place…but I would say, a good jacket. Something you can just throw over anything and you look awesome. You can put a cool leather jacket over your pajamas and you’re “fashion”.

What would you say is the best way to style a pair of your socks?
I like them best with jeans and the cuff rolled up so you can see a hint of colour and the design!

If there was on celeb you could have wearing Unempire, who would it be, and what design would they be in?

Rhianna, I love her – I’m obsessed, I have a massive girl crush. She would probably be wearing the’ East Side West Side’ design, it’s the most gangster out of them all, and look, she’s a pretty tough chick.

What would be the best and the worst fashion trends you’ve lived through during your lifetime?

Oh wow, I’ve lived a lot. The worst one, which I hope never, ever comes back would be the really low-rise jeans, and you had those little fake g-string attachments…with jewels…

The best, camo. It’s one of my favourite things, I’ve always loved it. It’s had its time as a fashion trend, but it’s just a classic – it’s like black to me.

What’s in store for the future?

I’m going to stick with socks, I was thinking about expanding a couple of months ago, ultimately in the future I would love to be a full unisex street wear brand. Really cohesive, mini ranges of just awesome stuff. A shirt, a bag a hat…but I’m just going to stick with socks. I’ve still got grounds to cover! I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.

Order online from unempire.bigcartel.com


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