Nina Hendy. DECEMBER 21 2017 - 12:15AM
Two Brisbane women are having a crack at bringing back the bum bag.
The 1990s icon has had a bad rap since the end of that decade, but Emily Bitkow and her business partner Sarah Hua have transformed the daggy fashion accessory with a slimline version, dubbed the VIVRA.
Just in the nick of time, too, with the fashion world agreeing that the bum bag is back in vogue.
A new design
The VIVRA's patented bifold design removes the needs for belts and straps, folding over the waistband of garments and snapping into place with magnets.
Bitkow has been a bum bag fan since 2008, saying handbags aren't ideal at festivals, which she frequents.
"I wanted to create a solution where I could forego the belt completely so that it was less restrictive, allowing the wearer to be completely hands-free and enjoy working out, travelling or whatever day-to-day activity they were participating in," Bitkow says.
VIVRA launched in late 2016. This financial year alone, the business has turned over about $50,000 and experienced rapid expansion, with a 46 per cent year-on-year growth. The pair expect to triple their revenue this financial year.
Bitkow and Hua sell mostly online, but also sell at a market in Brisbane on Saturday mornings, rising at 3.30am to set up.
The pair have their sights firmly set on the health and activewear market, which was worth $3.05 billion in 2016 and is forecasted to grow an average of 6 per cent a year over the coming five years, reaching $4.1 billion by 2021, according to Euromonitor.
They operate lean, and apart from the assistance from occasional part-time consultants, both are completely involved in all facets of the business, including design, production, marketing, sales and distribution.
Bitkow admits that navigating the manufacturing side of things was difficult. "Having ruled out both China and Vietnam after much initial research, I came across Fiji, which proved to be a good place to manufacture."
She travelled to Fiji and stood by while the factory produced the first few prototypes. She returned home to Australia and waited for the first shipment of 500 to arrive.
'I sold about half of the wonky ones to family and friends. The rest don't exist anymore. But that support at such a distressing time for me was pivotal to my success.'
"It was a disaster. The zips were wonky, the inside seams were coming apart, the printing was back to front, meaning $6000 down the drain."
Not one to be defeated, Bitkow put on her bravest smile and sold the wonky VIVRA bags anyway, admitting she needed the money to plough back into the next order.
"I sold about half of the wonky ones to family and friends and at the market, explaining that it still works well. The other half were chucked out. That support at such a distressing time for me was pivotal to my success."
Bitkow realised she needed to work more closely with the manufacturer, explaining the quality wasn't up to scratch. Subsequent orders have been far better.
But the VIVRA isn't Bitkow's first attempt at making the bum bag a fashion statement. She has a failed business attempt under her belt after launching Be Bitko (which had a similar aesthetic) and selling at markets in 2009
But the label was unable to achieve growth, so she folded the business in 2013. The failed business left her $25,000 in debt, prompting her to get a job as a personal assistant.
"My family were worried about me, because I was pouring everything I had into the business, which was leaving me pretty destitute. I'd refinance my life and instead of paying off my debt, I'd be ordering more product with my manufacturer again."
It wasn't until she met Sarah Hua, who believed in her friend's idea to such an extent that she ploughed an initial investment sum of $90,000 into the business, that VIVRA was born in October last year. Hua has made further smaller investments since. "Sarah believed in what I was doing and wanted to get involved."
Hua was working as a sonographer, and was looking for a creative path in life when she fell in love with Bitkow's products and wanted to help. "Every time we caught up, I was really interested to hear how the business was going. I could see that she was struggling in those early days, financially, physically and emotionally, as she was doing all this on her own and I really admired her bravery. I offered to help from the financial and operational side of the business," Hua says.
She admits she's hoping to attain a healthy profit and a swift return on her $90,000-plus investment.
"However, unlike most other investors, this isn't purely a financial investment as I work full-time in the business. This allows me to come along on the rollercoaster ride that has been the VIVRA journey, which I've found immensely enjoyable."
The pair will launch a mini-bum bag for children soon, proving that the bum bag will live on for another generation, at least.