Although already widely known as a successful creative entrepreneur — Winning Telstra Businesswoman of the Year in 2006, among numerous others — philanthropist and passionate fashion fun advocate, Margot made headlines and was beamed onto the televisions of many Australian households for standing up to violent right-wing groups who had descended upon her beloved town to protest the building of a mosque for Bendigo’s Muslim community.
Leading the campaign Believe in Bendigo, Margot herself became the target of much of the same hate, and was even put under police surveillance, in her campaign for the right of Muslim Australians to have a place to worship peacefully, and to tell a more positive story of her hometown which had made the news for all the wrong reasons.
Now that the dust has settled, Margot is funnelling her creative energy into her women’s fashion brand Mimi (a namesake given to her by the grandchildren she calls ‘the myriad of divine little creatures’, instead of straight-up Grandma), designing and making garments that promote inclusivity and getting women over 50 to have fun with fashion.
Margot tell us a bit about yourself, what you were doing before you started Mimi the Label? Your creative background?
I started a Diploma in Art and Design, Graphic Design back in 1970, way before computers. Everything was hand drawn. Letraset was a revolution. I went on to primary teaching and ended up in the furniture industry because my second husband Alan is a timber furniture designer and maker. He had studied Industrial Design a thousand years ago.
We founded our business Jimmy Possum in 1995, designing and producing exquisite furniture and interiors products. We ran the business for 22 years and it grew way beyond our expectations, at one stage we had 10 stores across Australia, employed over 160 people, and had a factory and head office here in Bendigo.
Our speciality at Jimmy Possum was high end upholstered products, we used only the absolute best fabrics with a focus on unique colour and pattern combinations. When we eventually closed the business in late 2016, I retired for 2 whole weeks and then started my womenswear business Mimi the Label, which is now a year old.
When my kids were young — we have seven children between us, and now 14 grandchildren, 12 of whom are boys!! Noisy — I used to design children’s clothing and sell it at markets and fairs as. I would set up a catwalk and about 100 chairs in the backyard and hold fashion shows a couple of time a year. This was in the early 80s, way before it was fashionable to do so! It was great fun.
Do you feel you have a certain style? What influences you?
I think it’s hard to identify your own style, but my friends call it chic, relaxed sophistication! I love to make a statement with my appearance. I have about 50 pairs of glasses and change them daily to suit my outfit. At 50 when I was told needed glasses I was devastated. So I turned it around and thought right, if I have to wear glasses, I will really wear them. Luckily my prescription has only changed a couple of times over the years. I see better in some glasses than others mind you.
I think having a strong personal brand is important for a myriad of reasons, and I enjoy everything to do with dressing — the clothes, shoes, jewellery, scarves, makeup, glasses, the whole kit and caboodle. I like to create a sense of drama with my style. I have a strong belief fashion should be fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
And can you talk about the ethos of Mimi the label?
I love fashion and I’m bold with it. I don’t take it too seriously, I have great fun with fashion and like to bring that joy to others. 9 out of 10 ladies who come into the shop or visit online say they have a problem body. Big bum, big tum, too tall, too short, chubby arms, chubby legs and on it goes. My thoughts are that we find the right shape to suit. A line, swing, straight shift, wedge etc, and we work with that. When you have the shape right you can do anything by changing little details, colours and fabrics.
And tell us a bit more about the business, how the design process works, what drives you?
Mimi is a great business because so many women who have loathed fashion and shopping for years because it has become difficult for various reasons can learn to love clothes and shopping again….. because we produce our own designs we can modify pieces where necessary. Almost every lady who comes in says they have a problem with their body…but we can happily accommodate those differences.
I design all the pieces and make the patterns, and then Alan the Chief Cutter, cuts every piece. That’s a story in itself…from timber furniture maker to cutter of sequinned fabrics! I sew the samples and our sewist Sarah sews most of our garments in store.
It’s been interesting going from a large business where I was the Managing Director, and we had finance, marketing and other large teams, to a small business where I have to fulfil a lot of those roles. Mimi is intentionally a small business. The workshop, studio and retail space is on the main corner of Bendigo ‘at the fountain’, and we only live about 100 metres from the fountain, so it’s very convenient.
I’ve been involved in retail now for over 54 years. I started out in my father’s Pharmacy at the age of 11 working on Saturday mornings, straightening the toothbrushes. I got paid 1 shilling for the day’s work, which is about 10c. Originally Mimi was going to be a strictly online business, but our space became available and I’ve had shops for too many years not to have another. I’m right back where I love to be, dealing directly with customers and making things. I love it.
And Mimi does good too. We help women enjoy clothes and feeling good about themselves. Ladies come in feeling shy and tentative and most times go out feeling happy and confident. We make it easier for them. About 20% of our pieces end up being modified from the original design, and we’re happy to do that if it works.
Does Mimi the label have a typical buyer?
There isn’t a typical Mimi buyer because our product offering and look is so broad. There are super stylish women who adore fashion and lots of it! They are brave and adventurous, and they always look stand out sensational.
There are ladies who love beautiful fabric and our fabrics make their heart skip a beat. We have ladies who love loads of vibrant colour, and ladies who just love black, black and more back. And then there are those ladies who just want a dress for a special occasion. They don’t want to stand out, they just want to look nice.
A big point of difference for us is the fact we make the clothes, and we can make it for you. The right length, the right width, the right arm length. The right neck shape. So often when women go clothes shopping they feel disillusioned, nothing fits, nothing looks quite right. But that’s not the case at Mimi, just choose a shape and off we go!
Our customer is mostly the 40 and 50 plus woman, but we also produce for some younger women. A big market for us is the Mother of the brides or groom, who don’t want just the typical look. They don’t want to look dowdy. They want to look current, stylish and funky. And often, the feedback is that we have managed to make what had been a stressful time, easier and even fun.
You are also a known philanthropist and have even had a spot on the ABC’s Australian story. Can you tell us a bit more about that and the issues that are important to you?
The Australian Story episode came about because I was the founder and leader of a community movement called Believe in Bendigo. A mosque had been approved for construction in Bendigo and some within the community disapproved. They became very vocal and brought to our city far-right extremist protesters who held violent rallies in the heart of Bendigo.
It’s a much longer story of course, but I wanted the leaders of our community to stand up and speak out against hate speech and bullying of our Muslim community. Believe in Bendigo was born in our home lounge room with about 40-50 community leaders present, and became a very successful and powerful voice for inclusion and welcome in Bendigo. The ABC came here to film one of the rallies and was shocked at the level of anger and violence. I was interviewed and the ABC Australian Story episode entitled ‘A Force of Nature’ aired in November 2015.
Throughout my life, I have tried to be compassionate and generous towards others. I have had great trauma in life and know how hard it can be. I follow the message ‘But for the grace of God there go I…’
Our previous business Jimmy Possum enabled us to be very generous within the community of Bendigo and further afar. We donated houses of furniture to the Otis Foundation, which provides holiday retreats for women and their families that are dealing with breast cancer. We supported Otis from the get-go, and right up until Jimmy Possum closed we provided furniture and artwork for their latest retreat home. We also supported many education initiatives because I believe education makes such a difference in children’s lives and can break unfortunate cycles.
Jimmy Possum became a business that was synonymous with generosity and community support. We supported our staff and their families in many ways. And when we closed the business, the last 5 stunning armchairs which rolled off the line were donated to the wonderful Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo to be used stage chairs.
How do you feel about trends and how the fashion industry shapes how women see themselves, particularly women over fifty?
At almost 65 I have seen many trends come and go, and in times gone by trends were stricter than now. I remember when you could ONLY wear midi skirts, and then you could ONLY wear gyspy skirts. I remember stovepipes and overdyed denim, and you could ONLY wear stovepipes and overdyed denim.
There is far more flexibility now to wear what you choose and love. And hopefully what suits you. I think in Australia as our horizon has been opened to the rest of the world, our tastes have been widened, and there is a far greater breadth of choice & options.
I think there is no question the fashion industry is a powerful influencer. It is sad to say many women feel excluded and unable to keep up with fashion and trends for a multitude of reasons.
I think women over 50 are virtually ignored by the fashion industry. Labels targeting women of this demographic are few and far between. And they are often dowdy! It’s a great shame, and businesses are missing a trick because we are a very powerful and inspirational group.
You would hope that women over 50 would have developed greater confidence, but many are still very self-conscious. A long time ago I gave up thinking I would ever have a great shape and it’s been years now since I have been on a set of scales.
There is no point comparing myself to the women I see in magazines because I just wouldn’t cut the mustard, and I don’t give a fig. The most important thing I think is that you wear what you like or love and that you wear it with confidence. Bugger fashion, bugger trends. I’ll wear it if I want to, I will wear it with confidence, and I will look great while doing that.
And that’s what I love about Mimi the Label, because we produce garments that cater for all bodily idiosyncracies. It’s a lot of fun and it’s great to see women leave the store inspired and full of beans because we have found them a great shape that suits, paired with some beautiful fabric. We want women to know they too can look great, feel comfortable and have fun with fashion.
What are you most looking forward to in the future?
I’m not quite sure but it needs to include our massive family. The Chief Cutter (Alan) and I have a lot of children and grandchildren between us, and we are very actively involved with their lives. They are so much fun. I had always intended to have a big family because my parents died when I was only 15, and then my sister was killed a couple of years later. I only have one brother.
Mimi has been very successful in its first year so we will continue producing beautiful pieces. Alan and I just like creating beautiful things. Whether it be fashion or furniture, or family.
Margot Spalding is a fashion designer, business owner, philanthropist and much loved Bendigo identity. You can watch the ABC Australian Story program Force of Nature here, which details Margot’s story and her mission to help others around her. If you are in Bendigo, do yourself a favour and drop into her fantastically warm and colourful store Mimi, located on the corner of High and Mitchell Streets (across from the fountain). You can also follow Margot on instagram at @mimi_thelabel, or order pieces online at