From the source: Susannah Khouzame, Billini
This month, on-trend footwear label Billini celebrated its 10-year anniversary, as the brand kicks off plans to open more stores across Australia and the rest of the world. Founder Susannah Khouzame discusses the need for speed in fast fashion, the challenges of shoe size diversity and the key to creating great social media content.
Inside Retail Weekly: Congratulations, Billini’s celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. How did it all begin?
Susannah Khouzame: Billini started back in 2009. It piggy backed off a sister brand that I originally started in 2007, which was called Billie. Billie was all about unisex streetstyle canvas products and disposable footwear. It was when that whole fad of $20-$30 sneakers was in. During that time, we had a lot of interest from customers for more fashion-forward women’s product. It’s something I was very passionate about, so we launched Billini.
Billini started in my garage and I used to get a lot of complaints from neighbors about the smell of shoes at the time. There were a lot of rubber shoes when we first started! It was all me, me and me. I was the invoicer, the pick-packer, the delivery driver, the salesperson, the designer, the quality control in China – I used to do all the trips, I was going back and forth all the time when I didn’t have children.
At the same time, I was also studying a Bachelor of Law and Accounting, recently married and working full-time in fashion. I was basically managing a retail store and doing a bit of buying on the side.
As things progressed, we got manpower on board and after six months, my sister joined us. It was a small team for quite a while; it’s only been recently that it has expanded quite substantially. At head office, we have 30 people, and in stores, we have 80. It’s quite hefty. We also have sales agents in each state that represent the wholesale division. We have three divisions – wholesale, retail and online.
IRW: Tell me about your previous experience in fashion and how it helped you launch the business.
SK: I was working in a retail store at the same time, so I had good sales experience and retail knowledge as well as buying experience. However, at a footwear level, I had zero experience. I was basically self-taught from the word ‘go’. I had a passion for shoes, and that was it. I saw a gap in the market for affordable fast fashion footwear and I jumped onto that. I was basically working full-time and working on this project after hours every night. I started from scratch with sourcing and had some design ideas and after six months of back-and-forth with prototypes and designs, I basically came up with our first little capsule collection and learned lots of lessons along the way. I guess I used my strong communication and negotiation skills and persistence to progress the brand. I think the fashion and retail experience helped me, but only minimally. I learned everything along the way.
To this day, I am involved in the creative aspects of the business, so I basically control the product, design, production and marketing. I still have a good understanding and knowledge of the financial department. I’m fortunate to also have a very business-savvy husband, so we work well together, according to my business coach.
IRW: How has the business evolved in the last 10 years?
SK: When I first began, I had to convince my husband at the time to invest in this business because I had so much passion and belief that there was a need for a brand like this in the Austrailan marketplace.
I didn’t expect it to grow to the point that it has today, but it was basically a one-man team at the beginning and now, some of us here call it a big Billini monster. We have a lot of talent behind us and it’s grown into something I’m really proud of. We’re offering girls out there that on-trend look for the season without the high price tag. We pride ourselves on our branding, our quality workmanship and all those things we’ve invested in our core values as a business.
IRW: What are your plans for the next 12 months?
SK: A lot happens in a short space of time here. In the next 12 months, basically we’re looking at expanding into international markets. We’ve just finished selling our first season in the US; that’s the main market we’re concentrating on initially. We’ve got a great distributor in the US who represents other brands like Lack of Colour, Quay and Acler. We’ll have the first delivery drop in March next year, when Billini will launch in the US. We’re going to showcase the next range in February in Las Vegas and New York and then we’re also going to expand to other countries worldwide. We’re actually selling at the moment to Greece, Cyprus and quite a few parts of Asia and we’re looking at places like Europe and South America.
IRW: Would you mostly look at doing wholesale overseas or would you open stores too?
SK: You can never say never and we’ll definitely look at stores if it’s successful. Going by the feedback we’re getting from our distributor, everyone’s loving the product and pricepoint. Although the US is such a large space, there’s still a gap for a brand like Billini.
At the moment, we’re also concentrating on more stores locally. At the moment, they’re all in New South Wales, but we’re looking at national sites as well, like Queensland and Victoria.
We’ve only had retail stores in the last five years; we were just wholesale for the first five. We have 12 stores now, with one opening in Wollongong and lots more to come.
IRW: What’s the footwear market like in Australia?
SK: In Australia, the market is quite small. I feel like the competition really does lie with the big international retailers. In terms of our look, feel and type of product, there are not many brands out there doing what we’re doing. There are a lot of conservative leather brands with double the pricepoint, then you’ve got more low-end brands, but in the middle, there aren’t many, and that’s where we’re trying to capitalise.
Our goal is to build that cult following. We want to become that destination for girls in the Australian market. We have such a huge range, we can’t physically buy the range that we develop for our stores, we just don’t have the space. Our wholesale offering is much larger, so we select product according to the location and demographic. Even the sizes are different depending on the stores. But online, we generally have our entire range, which is a big powerhouse in itself. We’re about to relaunch a new site, which is exciting.
IRW: Can you talk to me about the process of making fast fashion footwear?
SK: It depends on the business and brand, but generally, a non-fast fashion brand will have a lot more time in between the processes, but overall, the processes are still the same.
We develop so many SKUs, we need to be on the pulse 24/7. We need to be continuously looking at what A-listers, celebrities and influencers are wearing, what’s on the streets of Fashion Week, the arrivals in high street and department stores, the new arrivals in the Australian market and what the girls are wearing here. We need to have all those bases covered in order to be fast enough. One of my suppliers, who deals with fast fashion accounts all over the world, jokes, “Most of my customers are running, but you guys are just flying!” He jokes that we’re developing for 2025, but we really are very fast.
We’ve got hundreds of SKUs in production at once. We are dropping new styles every single week. At a wholesale level, originally, we only had a summer and winter [collection]. Now we have four or five summers – main summer, second summer, high summer, injections and in-between. Really, that’s the only way you can keep up with the trends and be quick to market. That girl wants that look and if we parked a style for the following season, it would look too dated. So we need to have lots of injections, whether it be jumping onto it straightaway at a retail level for our stores, or wholesaling it immediately. We normally blast out flyers [to our wholesale customers] and say, ‘This is the new look, you have three days to place your orders and stock will arrive in a few months’.
In terms of quantity, we’ve got hundreds of styles this season. We’re showing new product at least once a month to our customers and delivering hundreds of styles every season. We can fit about 300 SKUs on average in our stores and we’re obviously injecting new styles, and styles sell out.
Sometimes in the Australian market, you don’t want to be too fast and we have to rein things in because we feel like our girl is not ready for a particular trend and look. We jump onto most trends, but we hold out on others, especially in the synthetic area.
IRW: There’s a lot of talk about sustainability in retail these days. What are you guys doing in that space?
SK: We’re always looking at ways of improving. We go through tens of thousands of satchels for online orders, but we’ve now teed up with a company that offers recyclable satchels. I’ve culled my suppliers down to a few main ones and they’re big on social and ethical standards. They’ve been audited by internationally recognised companies and if you do visit the suppliers, you’ll see a big difference from other things you’ve witnessed in China.
IRW: Another hot topic these days is size diversity, especially in fashion, although not so much in footwear. What are your thoughts on that?
SK: There are limitations in footwear. Traditionally, our sizes range from five to 10. On the odd occasion, we do get asked for fours and 11s, but it depends on what the supplier holds in terms of lasts [the shoe moulds] – they cost thousands of dollars just to make full ones in one size. It’s not as simple as clothing, where you can keep using paper patterns.
Footwear is different, so at one stage, we were making our core basics in a size four, but there were only a few requests. It wasn’t something we felt like the market really needed. The sizes just weren’t selling. These days, girls are asking more for 11s, but not often. It’s something we consider. To be honest, our sizing runs a little bit large, so we do get a lot of feedback that girls with a large 10 or 11 can fit into some of our 10s. So generally, it’s not something that’s required. In the US, it’ll be something we’ll be asked about more, and we’d be open to increasing the size range when needed. It depends on the demand.
IRW: Is there much diversity in terms of different calf sizes in your range?
SK: It depends on the style, but nowadays, we’re actually making some boots with a stretch microfibre as opposed to something that has lining. A lot of the boots made from stretch microfibre will fit any calf. We also have one boot which has become a staple style in our range, which has a front panel made from suede or PU with lining, and the back panel is elasticised, so it’s made for girls who like a firm fit and have a bigger calf. We’re definitely onto that.
The Aussie foot is quite wide in general; we generally try to steer away from narrow lasts. Suppliers generally ask us to use the European or US lasts and we always go with the [wider] US lasts. Some brands have a very narrow fit; however, the majority of our ranges are more roomy.
IRW: Social media plays a major role in your strategy. Can you tell me about the kind of content that you upload?
SK: We’ve got an amazing, very engaged online community, and we have questions and feedback thrown at us all day every day, mainly on Instagram. That’s the space where we connect best with our followers. We have a dedicated social team answering questions, posting and scheduling content, working with content creators and shooting content in-house That’s something we believe we really focus on, as opposed to our competitors. Content is key these days, especially for shoes. Girls like to see shoes on foot. On the shelf, they look very different.
We like to post styling videos and show followers how to style our favourite shoes right now. We also do brand Q&As, where followers tell us what colours, prints and shoes they love most and what styles they’re on the hunt for. We do regular in-store tours as well, where we visit a different store of ours and do a story on that. Influencers support the brand immensely, we love sharing their posts on social media; it’s the way of the world. We also love taking our followers on buying trips. If I go on a trip, I’ll take everyone on that journey so they can check out upcoming trends and what’s happening overseas.
We’re always shooting in-house content every week. We’re shooting around the office some days or shooting on the street or on locations. Then sometimes we shoot on models with professional photographers. It all ends up going on social media. It’s vital to have strong content these days to show people how to wear and style things and how influencers are wearing them.
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