How I Do It: Collective Closets’ Laurinda Ndenzako on starting a clothing label and always staying true to her roots



“We pushed on and worked our butts off to get to where we are today.”

Impressive job titles are one thing, but what about people who have carved out their own niche and created a job specifically for them? Rather than landing that covetable LinkedIn byline, working for yourself presents a whole new way to choose your own adventure.

That said, it’s not always about exploring the road less travelled – sometimes it can mean forging your own entirely untrodden path. It’s a tough slog, but if being your own boss is your own personal dream, How I Do It is the column for you.

We round up the best career advice weekly. Keep up to date with our Life vertical.

We’ll talk to established freelancers and friends of FJ who’ve been at this long enough to have the benefit of hindsight, and they might be able to help you figure out how exactly they ‘do’ what they do. Money, agents, timelines and tight turnarounds – this is how to hack the creative hustle.

This week, we hear from Laurinda Ndenzako, the co-founder of Melbourne womenswear label Collective Closets. In 2015, Laurinda and her sister Fatuma founded the brand as a harmonious marriage of their two cultures, bringing together Melbourne’s subtle sophistication and the bold, vibrant aesthetics of modern African fashion.

In the six years since the brand’s inception, both Laurinda and Fatuma have artfully balanced the changes in their private and professional lives – becoming mothers, juggling multiple jobs and taking all the wins and woes of small business in their stride.

Today, Collective Closets is a successful business, a West Melbourne brick-and-mortar store and a brand that champions the diverse female voices in its community. From a kitchen-table idea to a full-blown business, Collective Closets has taught Laurinda to listen to her gut, trust the process and never stop learning. Here’s how she does it.

Run me through the last, say, five years of your life. What’s been happening for you?

Gosh, so much has happened over the last five years! Since my sister Fatuma and I launched Collective Closets just over five and a half years ago, we’ve had a crazy ride – in both our personal and business lives. We created our clothing label after returning from a life-changing trip to Nairobi, Kenya almost eight years ago. The trip reminded us of where our love of fashion started – one that has bonded us forever. When we started Collective Closets back in October 2015, we had no real intentions of ever turning it into a full-blown business. Prior to opening our West Melbourne store, we were both juggling other jobs alongside the business. We’ve now had the space for two years!

Our business has grown internally from just the two of us slogging it out on the kitchen table to growing our team of four (slogging it out in-store). It blows our minds on so many levels to look back and see what we’ve accomplished. On a personal note, we’ve both had children – we’re both mums to amazing little boys and that keeps us busy on a whole different level. It’s not always easy to juggle, but somehow we manage to make it work.

How do you explain to extended family members what exactly you ‘do’ for work?

I guess having a brick-and-mortar store helps explain the business easily to family. We typically sum things up by saying we have a “small clothing store”. Most of the time, we simply get asked how the “shop” is going  – it’s probably all the other intricate details of running a small business that can be a little harder to explain.

How do you explain to them how you pay the bills?

We don’t – LOL! Well not now anyway. It may have been something we discussed with friends and family in those initial years, but we rarely do anymore. Juggling the financial component of a small business definitely isn’t easy. Having an accountant to help us manage our cash flow has been one of the biggest lifesavers.

What do you wish people knew about what you do and why you do it?

Collective Closets is about sharing the story of our influences and upbringing, through both our designs and the beautiful textiles we grew up with. We want this to reflect in our pieces and the story of our label. It’s been really important for us to try and marry our two cultures and strike a balance between both. We have fond memories of our mother and aunties dressing in traditional Angolan and African attire for celebrations that marked milestones throughout our lives. ’Til this day, these memories remain some of our favourites and the ones we’re inspired by into our adult years.

We’re a business that celebrates the power of women and we strongly believe in giving back to our community. We want to celebrate our rich history, showcase the artisans of our beautiful continent and create a space that uplifts Black women in our community. Collective Closets is a label that is passionate about telling stories and uniting women through universal dialogue – we also make pretty dope threads!

Take me back to age 18, when you left school. Did you have any sense of what you wanted to do, and if so, what steps did you first take?

Funnily enough, the only thing I could see myself doing after high school was nursing! It was the one thing that I was certain about – the idea that I could turn my creativity into a marketable business honestly didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t pursue my creativity until many, many years later!

We were blessed to have a mother that was super creative and taught herself so many skills – one being sewing. She made the majority of our clothes through primary school. She lovingly nurtured and encouraged us to pursue the passions that made us happy – but still wanted us to have a formal education. As migrants living in Australia, we understood the importance of undertaking formal education and temporarily put our creative dreams to the side.

We really tried a lot of things to get Collective Closets to where it is today. We’ve done pop up shops, market stalls, short business courses and engaged with so many valuable mentors over the years. Because starting your own business takes a lot of capital expenses, the bulk of what we did in the earlier years was really organic. We pushed on and worked our butts off to get to where we are today.

Take me back to your early twenties, when you were just finding your feet. Did you have any sense of where you were going, and if so, how did you get there?

My twenties were all about my friends and the way my mother would describe it, “living in the clubs”. I really loved my twenties – carefree and nothing to worry about! My main focus was really about graduating from university with my nursing degree.

Fatuma and I were in our mid to late twenties before we started pursuing anything creatively. We’d dabbled in a few other creative pursuits before we started the brand, but we didn’t see any monetary return until around two and a half years after we founded Collective Closets – starting your own fashion label is a labour of love.

I think where we’re at now is purely credited to our work ethic – it’s all we’ve ever really known. We come from a family of four high-achieving siblings. I think seeing our parents work as hard as they did growing up has really shaped the women we are today. At 39, there’s so much I would’ve wanted to tell my younger self – the biggest lesson being that it’s okay not to have the answers to everything. Just put your head down, stay in your lane and listen to your gut.

Do you have any resources to share/any bits of advice when it comes to dealing with the money side of things?

Set budgets! It’s crucial that with every aspect of your business, you have an idea of your cash flow. Set clear goals and keep records of everything. If you can get yourself an accountant or bookkeeper, it’ll save you the possible heartache later. The boring aspects like bookkeeping are the ones you’ll be tempted to leave ’til the last minute – our advice is to get it out of the way! Be frugal! You don’t have to have a flashy studio and high production budget when you’re getting started. In the beginning, we definitely spent a lot on things that we could’ve cut back on.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of leaving school and freelancing for a while in their chosen creative field?

If you can, finish high school – but at the same time, I know the standard schooling path isn’t for everyone. Have a plan and set yourself some attainable goals. If you’re planning on leaving school, I think it’s important to understand that there might be family members that may question your decision and the ‘unconventional’ path you’re choosing to take – and that’s okay! Stand by your convictions and plan, plan, plan as much as you can!

I think surrounding yourself with other like-minded people that have similar passions can really help motivate and inspire you. It’s always great to get another perspective from people who understand the hustle. Be kind to yourself in the process and work on your mental wellbeing through your journey! Facing rejection can really play on your confidence and self-esteem. Work on your craft and as cheesy as it sounds, believe in yourself.

Learn more about Laurinda and Collective Closets here.

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