Swimwear is the last business venture you would expect to find in drought-ravaged western Queensland, but it’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention.
For Ilfracombe’s Julie Brown and her husband Adrian, the need was extreme.
I didn’t ask the usual questions – do they have any stock left? When was the last time they saw decent rain? – most of the answers were staring me in the face and it didn’t matter anyway.
The stress of coping with a life and a bank balance turned upside down, year after year, has been weighing heavily on Julie’s mind.
“It’s been good to focus on something positive,” she said. “I found 2015 a very hard year. You don’t like to see animals and your neighbours suffering. And now the land is groaning under all this heat.”
The “something positive” is a brand new business venture, a colourful, cover-up range of swimwear branded Coola Cozzies.
Julie explained that it all came about when she was tailing out cattle at Marchmont, giving her plenty of time to think.
“My parents, my brother and I all have fair skin and we’ve all had basal cell carcinomas removed,” she said.
“When my parents retired to the beach 10 years ago I thought rashies and boardshorts would make the perfect Christmas presents, but I couldn’t find any I liked. I was after long sleeves and coordinated boardies. I ordered some from the US but I wasn’t happy with them.
“I was thinking about it this day, and it occurred to me, others may be in a similar situation to me. This could be my off-farm income. I rode over to Adrian to tell him about it because I was excited, and he just rolled his eyes.”
Julie freely admits that she’d never operated such a business before and she didn’t quite know where to start.
After a foray into more shops and still not finding a comfortable, fashionable design, she sat down and wrote out a business plan and researched over 50 fabrics.
It led her to the world’s largest online marketplace, Alibaba, where she found a Chinese manufacturer who could shape her ideas into reality.
They included long sleeve, short sleeve and sleeveless swim tops in excitable, eye-catching 50+ SPF colours by the names of Island Girl, Fireworks, Beach Belle and Mermaid.
The decision was made to go ahead and last December, cartons of sunsafe swimwear began rolling in and were safely stashed away in the old kitchen, now schoolroom, and the grand announcement of the new business was made through social media.
As luck would have it, the Brown’s communication tower failed at the critical time, just a day after the launch of Julie’s Facebook page and in the leadup to Christmas, and it took 20 days for it to begin working again.
In order to deal with the orders that were coming in, Julie was driving to Ilfracombe each day to access the internet.
“I was really busy,” she says, in the understatement of the year. It was a huge thing to take on and launch, filling out 80 orders despite the odds, and now she’s happy to have a website and Facebook page presence to build upon.
Her children Xavier and Bronte don’t seem to mind sharing their schoolroom with cascading piles of plastic-wrapped merchandise, proudly announcing, “Welcome to the Marchmont Coola Cozzie schoolroom”.
Customer feedback has been very positive, according to Julie.
“People are telling me they’re so comfortable. Some are wearing them over their swimmers, and everyone seems to love the colours.
“All options have sold but the brighter colours are the most popular.
“People are putting in requests for zips and collars, and I expect I will adjust the designs to take in customer requirements, as well as offer new patterns and colours.
“I just set small goals – 500 Facebook likes by Christmas – and now I’d like to place another order in October, which means selling all my stock.
“At this point in time I’ll stick with online sales. Down the track I might expand that to retail outlets.”
Underlying the need to find an alternative source of income is the desire to participate in worthwhile work, something that has been eating at the self-respect of people on the land for years as drought takes their usual work away.
Being able to contribute to encouraging people into exercise in the water, all the while respecting the statistic that Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, is a satisfying thing to Julie.
“If we help someone avoid a melanoma, or get someone back in the water because they feel more confident in swimwear that provides a bit more cover, than the journey has been worthwhile,” she said.
Julie and Adrian are donating 5 per cent of each month’s takings of the Coola Cozzies profit to the Western Queensland Drought Appeal.
She says that people have been so kind and generous throughout the prolonged drought, they would love to pay forward that generosity.
The whole plunge into the world of fashion and finance has been emotionally draining for her, on top of the drought, but she says it has pushed her into doing something she never though she was capable of.
“For that I will always be grateful,” she said.
You can check out the designs and place an order at: www.facebook.com/coolacozzies