Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to sibling entrepreneurs Brittany and Johanna Cosgrove of Nopesisters, the social enterprise championing ‘fashion for a cause’.
ONE: How did Nopesisters start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Nopesisters started in October 2016 during Breast Cancer Awareness month. Brittany hand-stitched a boob and scar on a t-shirt to honour the scars of our mum after her breast cancer surgery. Johanna posted our pics on social media and within an hour, we had 30 people requesting their own to wear. Our mastectotee helped fundraise for Mum’s survivor team, CanSurvive Dragon Boat, to compete at the international breast cancer dragon boat regatta in Italy this year. These inspiring wāhine ended up placing second out of 125 teams from around the world.
We soon realised there were many other things we wanted to say ‘nope’ to and saw that our tees could initiate public conversations about these issues. So we continued to design and look for related charities that could influence the wearers to talk about the same things we cared about. In the past year, we’ve added five new shirts, a range of winter hoodies and sweatpants, and developed an online store to handle the increasing orders.
[We found that] the shirts really appealed to our age group, attracting them to wear something that’s literally a walking billboard for our messages. The feedback we got from friends and fans meant that we could create products that responded to today’s burning social issues for people just like us. This contemporary reflection is what attracted Te Papa to collect our t-shirts for their permanent collection as an example of iconic fashion representing a moment in history.
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Nopesisters?
We had no prior business experience. Johanna’s a trained actor and comedian who’s worked in hospitality since the age of 16. Brittany’s been a barista in Wellington, Sydney and Melbourne since finishing school in Year 12. We had no design background either but creating something as simple as a t-shirt meant that we could literally make it by hand.
However, Brittany is very arty and loves photography so her skills have been incorporated into the business. Meanwhile, Johanna is great at interacting with people and social media, so her skills contribute to the promotion of Nopesisters.
THREE: As a social enterprise, what kind of business model do you deploy? Have there been challenges being a social enterprise compared to being a fully profit-driven business?
Our ethos has always been to cover our costs while paying something forward to groups that need regular donations to do the great work they do in our community. The non-profit charity organisations we support are sent 20% of the net income as a donation every month, depending on sales of their connected t-shirt design. The rest of the income goes back into covering overhead, handling, and shipping costs.
We keep the structure very simple by operating as a sole-trader business. There’s only enough income for Brittany to cover some costs for her time as she runs the business day-to-day and handles the orders. It’s a part-time job for her that’s slowly becoming full-time.
To be able to meet all the costs and still donate to our charities, affordable pricing was a challenge. There’s only so much someone will pay for a t-shirt, but we know they’re more than just a fashion item. It’s the value of the message and conversations they start that make them sought-after items.
We’ve also heavily relied on a lot of volunteer labour from family, friends, and people who want to collaborate with us through modelling, promotion, and photography. They want to support the same causes as us, so they give us time instead of money as their way of donating. That’s been vital to growing the business and it means that Nopesisters can literally be run out of Brittany’s bedroom in our family home to keep overheads as low as possible.
We could never put a monetary value on the enormous power of community in our social enterprise. All our free advertising comes from building amazing relationships with others and the willingness of the wearers to share our story or talk about the charities behind each shirt. The power of social media has contributed hugely to our success. We definitely could not have developed this business at all without shared values from those around us, who believe in our causes as much as we do.
FOUR: Where does Nopesisters source their materials and labour for their clothes?
Originally we embroidered every tee by hand. But now we work with a local manufacturer on an individual order basis so that each design’s stitching is translated by machine onto the shirts. It’s incredibly important to us that the embroidery is done locally. We’ve had huge support from A1 Apparel in Petone, a local clothing, print, and embroidery company. They’ve worked out a process where we can now create each shirt as soon as it is ordered.
The t-shirts themselves are produced by a Canadian company called Gildan and supplied by a wholesaler here in New Zealand that selects individual sizes and styles to custom supply for us. We were fortunate enough to find a 100% cotton product that’s sustainably and ethically produced. This was really important to us as we could have chosen cheaper shirts, but we needed to meet standards of production which could prove that manufacturing was not being done in slave factories that exploited their workers. We really didn’t want our custom made embroidered shirts to be adding to the ecological issues of fast fashion, or filling up landfill as discarded clothes. Nopesisters shirts come with added responsibility for the wearer to be conscious of or talk about the message on their shirt.
Our hope is that the reason for wearing it elevates it from a fashion item into a vehicle for social change and that the added value means it’s not worn just a few times before being relegated to the recycle bin.
FIVE: What’s your reasoning behind supporting the charities that you do at the moment?
Every charity works towards fighting issues that are extremely close to our hearts and very personal. We’ve been directly affected by breast cancer, sexual assault and harassment, mental health issues, suicide, body shaming, and the stigma around menstruation, as have our friends, family and thousands of others. We can’t do the work our charities do, but we can make a small difference by donating to them regularly and spreading their messages across New Zealand and the world. Each charity agreement lasts for a year at a time so we can review and renew our partnerships in order to maximise the potential of the donations and the impact these funds can have in the community.
Our NOPE tee charity, Sexual Abuse HELP Wellington, has been swamped with demand for counselling and support services. They needed to fundraise quarter of a million dollars this year to meet the needs of victims requesting help. Our NOPE tees contributed several thousand dollars towards this target and it was the perfect vehicle to raise the organisation’s profile so that it could reach the target and not be forced to close or cut its vital services.
Since our 18 months of successful fundraising to support Cansurvive has achieved its aim, we recently partnered with the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation for our mastectotee sales profits. We want to expand our help to a wider, national organisation that gives strong support to breast cancer research and awareness programmes. We hope that the breast cancer awareness message on our mastectotees can encourage more young people to regularly self-check any breast changes, including men because they can get breast cancer too.
SIX: Who designs your garments? And what do you look for in a Nopesisters design?
Brittany creates each design idea and we both discuss and agree on the final product. The design has to be bold, sharp, direct, clean and fearless, speaking directly to the cause it represents. We’re lucky that we have pretty similar tastes when it comes to aesthetics.
Once we’ve developed our message and final design, we go in search of a matching charity and approach them with an offer of funds.
SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
Ultimately we’d like to have a bigger range of designs and more collaborations with charities who need help. We’d really like to work on other garments beyond the t-shirts and hoodies we currently make and perhaps design our own fashion.
Of course, overseas expansions is always part of the growth plan. We already have about 5% of our clothing sold to countries like Norway and Mexico. We’d love these messages to be worn as widely as possible. Scaling up production would mean being able to possibly afford our own premises, and hopefully employing others.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.
We admire Samantha Jones of Little Yellow Bird who’s built a uniform and clothing company with very high ethical standards of production. Nisa is also a new business in Wellington creating beautiful and ethically-produced underwear made by former refugee women. Kowtow‘s designs are also ethically produced and their clothes are stunning! We also love the social enterprise Indigo and Iris which give proceeds of their vegan friendly, cruelty free mascara to curing preventable blindness through the Fred Hollows foundation.
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