A local husband-and-wife team have proven that small businesses in regional Australia can successfully compete in national and international markets.
Like most entrepreneurs, Charmaine Saunders and Denis Keefe had a dream. They also knew to make it happen they’d have to bite the bullet, take a risk and put all their time and money into turning that dream into a reality.
They both gave up executive-level careers, invested everything they had including their house and spent three years undergoing market research, product trials and business planning before they brought their dream to fruition in 2015 with the birth of Mainie, a luxury fashion label featuring authentic Aboriginal Dreamtime designs on luxurious silks from the Silk Cities in China.
“Australian Aboriginal art is the world’s oldest unbroken arts tradition, and we wanted to find a way to not only showcase this art to a world-wide audience but to also help the Aboriginal artists earn an income from their own work,” says Charmaine.
Their maiden collection included 12 unique and authentic Aboriginal designs created by 12 artists. Today, they work with 20 artists, featuring women’s and men’s fashions from approximately 30 designs. They ethically source their artworks from Aboriginal-owned arts centres in accordance with the Indigenous Art Code.
The vibrant and colourful wearable artwork is created mainly by Warlpiri women artists from Central Australia’s remote Tanami Desert but also include local artists. Their designs are based on ancient, ancestral stories and sacred ceremonial customs.
“These are the stories that have been passed down through generations over thousands of years,” says Charmaine, adding that the artists own the copyright to their artwork which ensures they receive ongoing royalty payments for their designs. “Most of the designs originated many thousands of years ago as part of ceremonial decorations, so they’re very meaningful designs.”
Mainie is primarily a wholesale business, but it does have an Aboriginal art gallery and retail space in Scott Street and an online shop (www.mainie.com.au).
“We know that probably 80 per cent of our product is bought by overseas visitors, so we’re going to expand our range,” says Charmaine, who was a Queensland finalist in this year’s Telstra Business Women’s Awards. “We are currently developing an Australian merino wool scarf range to suit the northern hemisphere environment.”
Mainie will also have a strong presence at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai. It is the approved official gift supplier and the supplier of uniform scarfs at the Australian Pavilion. It is also in discussions about attaining a retail presence at the global Expo as well.
Charmaine, a descendent of the Gunggari Aboriginal people from south western Queensland, worked in remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland and the Northern Territory before she left her executive role with the Australian public service in 2012 to focus on Mainie.
Denis had a long career in management for major multinational companies as well as having CEO roles for national sporting teams including the Townsville Crocodiles, the Cairns Taipans NBL franchises and the Toyota North Queensland Cowboys.
“It is absolutely wonderful to see a start‐up fashion business from Cairns identifying an opportunity in the market and going for it,” MP Warren Entsch told Parliament after Mainie’s launch. “I look forward to seeing Mainie grow into a globally‐recognised brand from these humble beginnings in Cairns.
“I hope that other local Indigenous and non‐Indigenous entrepreneurs will see the foundations that have been laid and be further inspired to take Aboriginal art, culture and fashion to the world.”
Mainie continues to expand and now has approximately 80 stockists throughout the country.
“It’s growing pretty quickly,” Charmaine says. “This year, we are concentrating on increasing the number of our stockists, growing our conference gift and corporate uniform business and improving our e-commerce capacity. Our e-commerce business component is of vital importance as it allows us to sell globally.
“It is quite humbling when we see how far we have come in such a short time. While we have made mistakes along the way, Mainie’s growth is an indication that we are doing it right.”