It is somewhat ironic that Fiona McPherson recalls contemplating the idea of designing colourful face masks quite some years ago.
Fiona, who was working with Rip Curl at the time, regularly travelled to Hong Kong and noticed that people there would wear a mask to dinner when they had a sniffle they didn’t want to pass on.
“I was surprised because I always thought they wore a mask because they didn’t want to catch germs from us but they were actually protecting me,” she remembers.
“When I understood that I started thinking, ‘you need to have masks with smiles on them and patterns’ but I obviously didn’t take it any further.
“It was just my creative mind going stupid but, in retrospect, I should have been onto it,” she adds, laughing.
Fiona may not have pursued the idea back then but that all changed when the pandemic hit earlier this year.
In fact, her Jan Juc based clothing label OKKI has gone into overdrive thanks to the demand for her quality made fabric masks.
“Back in March I was watching what was going on overseas and I could see things were getting really serious,” Fiona says.
“Then I saw that breweries were turning into hand sanitiser making companies and I thought, ‘well, this is a time we all need to pivot our businesses and help out if we can’.
“I contacted the government and said I had access to a factory in Moolap and, if they needed it, we could skill up people and get them sewing PPE gear or whatever may be required.”
At the time Fiona got a message back saying her services immediately but she would be contacted in the future if that changed.
In the meantime, she set about making masks to sell through the OKKI website.
“I put up a post on Facebook one night saying that I would be making masks for anybody that needed them and then I put it up on my website as a preorder item,” she says.
“I didn’t know whether there would be much demand to be honest.
“But then I got inundated with 200 orders in one night.
“For the next few days
my website just kept on pinging every 10 seconds with sales just flowing through.”
Since then Fiona – the founder of former award-winning children’s label Oishi-M – has been working overtime to meet the demand, all while homeschooling her two children aged 11 and 15.
“I’ve been up at 4am in the morning and I’m sewing until about 6pm,” she says.
“Then I usually pick and pack from 7.30pm until 9pm.”
Fiona already had one seamstress working for OKKI and she recently reached out to Diversitat to see whether they would know of any seamstresses looking for employment.
She now employs three female refugees who have come to Australia from countries including Iran and Afghanistan.
“Diversitat has been fantastic and put me in contact with some refugee women with insane skills,” she says.
“They are sole parents who wouldn’t have found work otherwise and they are just divine ladies so I’m feeling really fortunate with that.”
Fiona, who was recently named runner-up in the National Wool Museum’s Meet the Makers global design competition, is firmly focussed on the positives coming out of this challenging time.
That includes being put on a government list as a highlighted regional supplier who might be called on to produce up to 17,000 masks in one order.
Corangamite Shire has also contacted her about an order of 350 masks.
To ensure she can accommodate those bulk orders, Fiona has purchased two second-hand cutting machines and had a custom workbench made.
“I’ve always had to find opportunity and also be resourceful and change quite rapidly,” she says of her ability to pivot quickly.
“I think that’s what you need to be able to do in business these days is to never be locked into one system and be prepared to change.
“It has served me well in this instance.”
Her fashion label, OKKI, has both adult and children’s ranges and is known for its bespoke designs, uncompromising quality and dedication to a “reduce, reuse, recycle” mentality.
Fiona says being able to use offcuts of tight-weave fabrics that are suitable for masks has been another sustainable outcome of the mask-making business.
“It has been a fabulous exercise in being able to use the beautiful ends of fabric I haven’t put into garments,” she says.
“There are opportunities and there is great stuff coming out of this that has been absolutely amazing.”
Fiona’s fabric masks can be purchased online at https://www.okki.com.au/ and you can follow OKKI the label on Instagram @okkicollective