A Personal Connection, With Muse
This conversation is available to enjoy on Apple Podcasts.
Family-run womenswear brand Muse demonstrates how ambition, conscious values and a personal touch can draw unexpected paths to building a fashion company. Founder, Christine Kourim is a natural self-starter and a life-long creator of fashion. When she attempted to sell her high-quality garments at a Melbourne market stall the success was immediate prompting Christine to enlist the help of her daughter, fashion designer, Sarah Kourim to translate the brand to a permanent home online. In this episode, we’re joined by Sarah to learn about her and her mother’s independent journeys, how they translated the intimate setting of market stall to e-commerce, and the under-representation of modest voices in fashion.
Advance Copy: Could you paint a picture of how you grew up, as well as your and your mother’s life journeys before starting Muse?
Sarah Kourim: I grew up with two very creative parents. Mum was always sewing, drawing, and painting. And my father owned a CD store in Melbourne, which had quite a cult following. We were around different elements of culture and arts, which was really interesting. I grew up in a single parent household, so I’d spend my weekends with dad, which was in the city in his CD store, around all these subcultures. And during the week, I grew up with mum in the hills, with a more of a country life. I was painfully shy growing up. I think clothing was a great way for me to express myself. I just have the fondest memories of always dressing up and loving fashion. I was always drawing, and I remember mum helping me bring those things to life. Any kind of vision I had was encouraged by both parents. I went on to study fashion at RMIT in Melbourne and landed my first job designing for big fast fashion labels. It really opened my eyes to the industry; I don’t think I was prepared for what was going to happen. It was disappointing, and I did come close to quitting the industry because it was just so cutthroat and not a fun place for creativity. I was looking through job vacancies and I stumbled across a brand [which was] all about community-based projects and ethical manufacturing. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I was just so wrapped up in the fast fashion bubble that I forgot that labels like this existed.
For mum, I know she always loved sewing but growing up in the seventies she didn’t have the opportunities that we have now. She didn’t get to pursue a fashion career. And then being a single mum, she had to put that [dream] on the back burner. But she was always sewing.
AC: What were your earliest memories around clothes or fashion?
Sarah: I don’t know if there was a point. I always knew that I did want to do it and maybe that was mum’s influence. But my earliest memories are just dressing up, dressing up my brother or finding something in an op shop. Fashion was a really big part of my world. Not being able to express myself around people verbally I felt that clothing was my language. It was very much a part of me and my personality.
AC: How and when did your mother, Christine, start Muse? What was her intention for the brand?
Sarah: I don’t think we had the intention of starting a label. Mum had injured herself at work and couldn’t do what she was doing any longer, so she started sewing again. She was determined to sew some clothes that she’d designed and have a market stall. I remember telling her, “Mum, I love what you’re doing but don’t be disappointed if nothing sells. It’s a hard industry.” I [received] a phone call from her after the first market stall, “I’ve sold out of everything. There were lines, I couldn’t keep up with demand.” That’s when I started to listen to her. She would work so hard, sewing 15 hours a day to get enough product for the market and then it would sell out again. I was helping her with design and color palettes and marketing, but it was [mainly] mum just working so hard and creating an amazing community. I think that was really important because lot of labels are just online, so you don’t see the person behind it. [Customers] were meeting her, they were meeting me, looking at this stall and everything was made by her. That connection was a big part of Muse. That’s how it all started which is not traditionally the way that I would’ve thought to do something. But mum – also being a single parent – has this crazy work ethic which I’ve inherited too, which is a good and a bad thing, she worked super hard and was able to get to a point where she was able to live off the brand. Unfortunately, Covid happened, and she couldn’t do any markets – that’s when I came on board to get Muse to a point where we could be online.
“We are lucky enough to work with some incredible local photographers and stylists [who’ve] become close friends.”
AC: How did you translate this very personal story and Christine’s customer relationships online without losing the community feeling of the market stalls?
Sarah: We did have a website, but it wasn’t anything that people could browse and shop from. We had a bit of a social media following at that stage [which] also helped propel people to the website. I think our community wanted to support and to help Muse through this lockdown time because they knew that small brands needed help. The support that we got from our community really helped us to then have the time and the financial support to be able to look at where we were going and decide how we were going to go forward. Before this we were working nonstop. So, it was time to pause and think about the direction of where we wanted to go. I don’t think we would’ve been able to do that without the support of the little Muse community that had been there for the last two years.
AC: You’ve created a brand which really resonates with people, and I like to think that authenticity speaks for itself in a million subtle ways.
Sarah: Everything that we touch for Muse is mum and I. And I think that does give us more of a personality, through our social media, website, and the garments. It is us.
AC: The moment of strategic reflection which you just described: what kind of questions and kinks did you aim to address in the business at that point?
Sarah: We needed to have a business plan [because] we didn’t start with that, and we didn’t have any intention on where we were going. That’s when I also had to make the decision: are we going to do this together? That was a big moment, to sit down and to work out how we were going to work together. Working with family can be hard but I think mum and I have a very close bond. We are lucky in that aspect that we do have a great working relationship, but I had to evaluate if I could see Muse in my future. That was a big part of the discussion. I was getting so much enjoyment out of working with her and, creating these, beautiful clothes, and stories through our shoots. I knew that it was something that I needed to spend more time on. Mid-2020 is when the Muse you see now started.
AC: Now that Muse has expanded, who are the key people behind the label?
Sarah: We couldn’t do it all, and we probably found out the hard way and just burnt out. We got to a point where we did have to get people on board. And I think it was hard for mum and me, because we had our vision, so it was hard letting people in. But now we have an incredible seamstress who is local and has become a close friend of mum and I, and another seamstress who helps us when we get wholesale orders. We’ve got two sewers that are subcontractors. We also decided to invest in a pattern maker [and] a new wholesale agent to help with the sales side of things. As for marketing, that’s still all done in house. And the majority of sewing is still done by Christine but we’re slowly learning to let go.
“When you’ve got your own small label, it’s all consuming.”
AC: Muse doesn’t produce according to seasons, but you do sell through selected boutiques which rely on seasonal deliveries. How does the mix of limited releases, made to order, and wholesale work for you?
Sarah: We have been trying to get to a point where we can meet the wholesale calendar and it’s difficult. I find that sometimes when we’ve got these deadlines, it puts you out of the creative space where you can create something you’re proud of. I’m lucky enough to have found a great wholesale agent who understands us. She’s able to tell our story and sell based on our fashion model and I think that is something that stores are looking for: something different.
AC: Could you explain your and Christine’s approach to visualising Muse’s aesthetic? Whether it’s through photography, styling, or the storytelling on the journal section of your website.
Sarah: We both grew up through the 90’s and 2000’s and had very different ideas of those times that we’re able to bring together and the age difference brings something quite fresh to the table. We are lucky enough to work with some incredible local photographers and stylists [who’ve] become close friends. Having a connection does help bring your image or your ideas to the forefront. We have our Journals on the website [where] I wanted to connect with our community and keep it alive from the market stalls where we had a personal connection. Even though it’s not face to face, through Instagram and social media, we’ve been able to meet some incredible people. And I wanted [them] to be a big part of Muse’s story. All these people have become good friends of Muse. It’s been a fun process and it’s something I want to keep sharing to expand our community and to touch more people.
AC: What have been some important lessons or pieces of advice that have stayed with you and Christine on this brand-building journey?
Sarah: I think it’s just having a good work life balance. When you’ve got your own small label, it’s all consuming. There are positives you can take from that too, but it does become your everything. And we’ve learnt the hard way where we both were so overworked that we weren’t enjoying any part of the process. We needed to hit that rock bottom to step back and re-evaluate a lot of things and understand that we need to have a life outside of Muse too. Stepping away has made us so much better in the way that we interact with each other but also what we are doing with Muse.
This interview has been edited and condensed.