We’re so in love with our new Southern Wild Co partners, High Tea with Mrs Woo and the amazingly talented women behind it, Rowena, Juliana and Angela Foong.
High Tea with Mrs Woo is a proud, Australian-made, small-run, slow fashion clothing label. A collaboration between three creative sisters. Established in 2004, High Tea with Mrs Woo sees the sisters, designing and manufacturing their clothing and accessories range in-house using natural fibre fabrics and selling through their flagship retail store in the city of Newcastle.
The brand’s enchanting name emerged from the sister’s childhood, growing up around many strong women – their mother, grandmothers and aunts. They say their name ‘captures the synergy of the women who inspire them’. The sisters came to Australia in 1988 after growing up in Malaysia where their grandparent's century-old gold-smithing and watch-making shop was also their family home. Worn wood, rusty tools, aged materials texture their DNA, with memories of the beauty they found there still resonating.
Trained in graphic design and visual communication, Rowena and Juliana draw on their diverse skills whilst Angela brings her economics and commerce background to form their dynamic and wonderful sisterly team. With a penchant for making and sewing with artisan skills honed and cultured from a young age, they work with a small production team from their Newcastle workshop.
“Truth be told, we really love working with each other – 15 years in business and still going strong! We collaborate in life and work, and dip into our shared experiences to create our styles and designs,” says Rowena.
The sisters are fascinated by the memory of clothing, they explore the ability of fashion to unfold a great yarn. They describe and name each garment with a moment in time – Stuck in Ueno, Irreversible, We’re All Mad Here and Waiting for Jack, to name a few.
High Tea with Mrs Woo uses traditional tailoring methods to develop their unique shapes from conventional dress forms. They practice slow fashion values using materials and creating designs that are appreciated for their craftsmanship, wearability and materiality while maintaining a small and sustainable scale of production to make collections that are worthy of care and enjoyment and a long and useful life.
“We love a little drama in our styling and in the details of our designs but we’re ultimately focused on producing highly wearable, long-lasting styles. Our styles can be worn across seasons rather than just being seasonal,” says Angela.
The philosophy behind this gorgeous brand is about living consciously while creating a sustainable business that supports their families, to grow in healthy ways. From day-to-day practices such as recycling and packaging supplies, to establishing healthy workplaces and relationships with customers and suppliers. We love that they are constantly mindful and looking to improve their ethical footprint.
To help extend the life of High Tea with Mrs Woo garments, the sisters have also created High Tea with Mrs Woo Lifecycle Facebook Group, a marketplace for buying and selling pre-loved Mrs Woo garments of good to excellent condition and this little initiative is just one step in their community-aligned inventiveness.
We asked the Foong sisters a few questions about all the gorgeous curly bits sprouting from what at first glance seems a traditional fashion design enterprise but is actually so much more.
Tell us more about your Slow Wearing Well initiative? And this work won you a national award last year?
Ah actually, they’re two connected but separate things.
Slow Wearing Well is a community initiative that we started as a way to inform and inspire our customers, friends, family and the greater community on ways to have a healthy, workable approach to their wardrobes and lives.
We use this program to host walking trails, clothes swaps and gatherings to share stories and skills. We also produced LIVE Wardrobe Edit sessions where we exposed and edited someone’s wardrobe in a public forum, in front of a live audience. We’ve hosted these sessions through Tamworth and Lake Macquarie City Councils events. They were interesting presentations – a little confronting for the audience but super insightful. We’ve halted these events since Covid restrictions… but maybe we can resurrect these conversations?
We won an award with a project called Six Seasons – Low Waste Slow Fashion Future. It was a collaboration with the University of Newcastle. We experimented with new developments in sustainable fashion, applying innovative solutions to low-waste pattern layout and print technology to create environmentally sustainable garments that inclusively fit a range of body shapes, are gender neutral and flexibly adapt to changing climate conditions. You can read more about the project here and find more information on our winning entry on the We The Makers Award (National Wool Museum, Geelong) here.
Do we have to come to Newcastle to buy your clothes?
We’d love you to come visit! But of course, one of the best ways to find us is online! Since the pandemic, we’ve transitioned to connect with our customers more globally from our online store whilst maintaining our love for the in-store experience with a new partnership – contemporary jewellery store Studio Melt in Newcastle. We’ve pooled our resources and created a unique co-retail-store. It’s turning out to be a great collaboration, and curation, of two distinctive businesses operating from one beautifully, shared space.
We came across another element of your practice – Fabrica. What is it?
Fabrica is the latest step in our sustainable work practices. We’re embracing the circular economy – we’re working to design out waste, keep products and materials in long use, and bring regenerative processes into every part of our work.
We used to collect fabric in garbage bags and we were like, why are we treating fabric like this? It’s important stuff! So, we began putting it in white boxes, and now it looks valuable. We realised that the language around what we do is everything. If you say ‘offcuts’ it means less worthy but if we say ‘cuttings’ we are talking about propagation and plant cuttings and regeneration.
So now we are regenerating! And effectively creating yardage with our materials. For now, little can be done with the tiniest fabric cuttings – sending them to Spain or Hong Kong where sustainable yarn recovery and textile waste upcycling companies are would be costly, so we’re holding on to them while we look for a local solution.
We love the philosophy behind kintsugi but to approach mending clothes this way is, well, gold! Can you elaborate?
Borrowing from the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold alloy, we’ve developed a kintsugi for clothing practice as a way to cherish and extend the life of our favourite garments by gold thread visible mending.
The tools and materials we use for this task are simple – gold embroidery threads, sewing needles and snippers, wooden darning mushroom or the curved side of a cup. You can gather these things yourself or you can get going with one of our Kintsugi Mending Kits.
We came up with the Modified Eyelet Stitch particularly for mending small holes made by insects – yes, our moth-eaten superfine Merino wool tops inspired this!
This kintsugi mending practice is not about achieving a perfect result. It’s partly a philosophical activity that’s defined by straightforward repair and the practice of restraint. The gold threads are not used to embellish but to do the effective and symbolic work of darning and honouring a broken moment. The fault is not relinquished but highlighted, the memory valued.
When you apply kintsugi practice to daily life, you’ll find yourself having more meaningful relationships with your belongings, your environment, yourself and the people around you. You’ll learn to hold back from always wanting more. You’ll come to acknowledge and treasure your creases and cracks as signs of strength rather than flaws and defects.
We love the cross-seasonal way of dressing. It makes a lot of sense for a sustainable wardrobe. What inspires your designs?
The longer we practice, the more it makes sense to produce clothing that rolls across the years. We’re inspired by the seasons, and by good design – which involves a complex relationship with material, craft and supply chain. The slow fashion model is about wearability and enduring design, not like fast fashion where things become outdated quickly and thrown into landfill. We like to think our pieces will earn vintage status one day! We’d be thrilled to see our signature Boyfriend jacket in 50-years’ time in a vintage clothing store, with a beautiful patina and totally collectible.