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Changing fashion

Sophie Voon is changing fashion to help create a fairer world.
Sophie Voon
Posted May 18, 2012

Sophie Voon always knew she wanted to be a fashion designer, but she couldn’t see where God fitted into an industry known for its shallow gloss and glamour. Yet, from the start, it was obvious that God had big plans. ‘It’s really blown my mind the way God has used the business in so many ways,’ says Sophie. ‘It’s shown me how we’re conditioned to put God in a box. But God is so creative and he will use everything you give to him.’

Sophie feels that she’s ‘always known God’, but it was when she started attending youth group as a teenager that her faith grew. It was at the Wellington City Salvation Army that she met her husband, Douglas Voon.

Soon after Sophie graduated with a diploma in fashion design, the newlyweds started a fledging fashion label called ‘Voon’. They set up shop in the corner of a central Wellington market place, with the help of a local church that had a vision for assisting young business people. ‘I opened with about 25 garments and kept sewing in the shop,’ remembers Sophie.

Within three months, Voon had already outgrown its space so they moved into a small off-street shop. Within a year, they had taken over a bigger space on the main street, where Voon is still located today. Alongside other well-known local designers, the area has become a fashion quarter in the city. Today, the Voon store is an icon for Wellington fashionistas, with its emphasis on beautiful fabric and vintage design.

Voon received the ultimate accolade earlier this year when two of Sophie’s dresses were worn on the glittering red carpet of the Oscars. One was worn by Jana Barrett, whose husband is a visual effects artist for Weta Digital and was nominated for his work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Jana said at the time that she had been searching for the perfect frock. ‘I tried on this Voon dress very early on and just kept coming back to it over and over again. It’s perfect.’

Wedding style

In February this year, Voon opened a new shop next door, under the label ‘Sophie Voon’, dedicated to bridal wear. It’s a significant step, and not just in the business sense: ‘There is something significant about us dressing people for their wedding day,’ says Sophie. ‘Sometimes I question all the focus on the wedding rather than the marriage, and we’re part of that industry, but I also know that God can really use us.’

Soon after the bridal store opened, a woman came in to be fitted for a wedding dress—she and her husband were renewing their vows, in front of their two-year-old daughter, because he had just been diagnosed with cancer. Sophie discovered they were fundraising for treatments. ‘I said to her, “What can I do to help with fundraising?” So I emailed all our brides and asked if they would like to wear their dresses again.’ This became a fashion show held earlier this month, featuring real-life brides. All proceeds from the event went to the couple, to contribute to the husband’s treatment.

It’s the fourth fashion show Sophie and Douglas have organised to fundraise for causes close to their hearts. Among other events was a grand-scale show at St Paul’s Cathedral, partnering with The Salvation Army and with all proceeds going to Stop the Traffik, a charity raising awareness of human trafficking. It was an event worthy of any fashion week runway, featuring nationally-celebrated Wellington designers like Robyn Mathieson and Starfish.

When I comment that they must be gifted event organisers, Sophie politely disagrees. ‘Douglas and I were saying that there are people who would find organising events like this so much fun. We don’t, but we still think we’re supposed to do it. It comes back to that thing that where you can make a change, you choose to do it.’

Choosing change

Through the years of growing and developing Voon, Sophie’s eyes were opened to the hidden suffering behind the fashion industry. Even if garments are designed and made in New Zealand, the industry is hugely dependent on materials likely to be made in sweatshop conditions overseas. It affects everything from fabrics, to zips and buttons. Instead of turning her eyes from the problem, Sophie decided to start making changes where she could. Along the way, she and Douglas found a passion that now drives what they do.

Sophie set out to find fairly-traded silk—a fabric they use in their wedding dresses year-in year-out. She made a special trip to China, with the aim of sourcing ethically-traded fabrics. Instead, an export agent took her to a factory where the workers slept, ate, and worked seven days a week in unsanitary conditions, among overwhelming noise from the embroidery machines.

‘The factory owner told us through a translator that he could organise a skilled sewer to come and work for us in New Zealand, and we could pay them a very low wage,’ says Sophie. She refused, and the conversation ended abruptly after a heated debate. It was only later that Sophie realised he was offering to help her bring an illegal worker into New Zealand. ‘I was so naïve. Ironically, I ended up finding the exact opposite of what I was hoping to find.’ She returned home downhearted.

For a year, Sophie continued to pray. She found a family-run business overseas but the fabric that arrived wasn’t useable. It was another brick wall. Then, out of the blue, Sophie received an email from a business woman who imported silk, working with over 150 women from their rural homes in Cambodia. ‘They’ve set up the silk weaving business under their houses, so they can look after the animals and farms during the day, and still make money from weaving,’ says Sophie. ‘And it is beautiful silk.’ She finally had the fabric that now features in many of her wedding dresses—and her answer to prayer.

Give … but don’t give up

In finding new ways of doing business, Sophie has often faced more brick walls than open doors. But her mantra seems to be simple: never give up. ‘It is difficult, and sometimes there’s a conflict between good product, design and being fairly-traded,’ she says. Currently, Sophie is working on a line of children’s wear, hoping to source tee-shirts from organisations overseas that will help create jobs. Largely based on volunteers and with an unreliable supply chain, promising contacts have so far faltered. But she’s not giving up—the search continues.

It’s all part of Sophie and Douglas’ belief that their business should grow in line with the biblical principles of giving. They have forged a relationship with a small organisation called Empower Asia that works with children with high potential, but that are at risk of being trafficked. Empower Asia provides a safe home and an education through to university.

‘The idea is that these children become leaders in their community and can influence change. It’s a long-term view, with long-term outcomes, so it’s really about the prevention of trafficking,’ says Sophie. Today, for every wedding dress sold, $100 goes to Empower Asia. Information about the organisation is on the swing-tags of each dress, and it has become an integral part of the Voon marketing strategy.

Sophie says that she has become increasingly aware of the importance of giving as part of her business practice: ‘It’s even to the point that if things are starting to get a bit quiet, I think, “Where can I give more?” It’s a recognition that God is in control.’

A family affair

With the arrival of their two children—Poppy (9) and Olive (6)—the couple made the effort to cut down their working hours. Instead of the six-day weeks and midnight deadlines that defined their early years, Sophie now works until 2:30 pm to prioritise time with the girls.

Last year, they took a family holiday with a difference: along with Poppy, Olive, and another family of three children, they travelled to Cambodia, Burma and Thailand to learn more about the organisations they support, and to explore new trading opportunities.

Visiting Empower Asia homes in Burma was ‘a totally wild experience’, recalls Sophie. Shrouded in secrecy for fear of being discovered by authorities, they could only visit after dark. ‘We weren’t allowed to tell anyone what city we were going to, and we had to travel in darkness,’ says Sophie. ‘Once we got there, we had to be completely silent, including all the children. When someone walked past, we all had to quickly hide behind the wall.’

But the next day they were able to take the Burmese children out to a local adventure playground. ‘They were so excited. Some of those kids had never been on any type of outing before. They were wanting to hold hands with our children the whole time.’ At times, the kids’ excitement became quite surreal: ‘They put on this beautiful big dinner for us, and …,’ Sophie stops mid-sentence with a laugh, ‘… the girls stood there and fanned us while we were eating!’

In Thailand, they visited Rahab, a ministry that teaches ‘bar girls’ from the local red light district jewellery-making and hairdressing. Sophie bought silver and pearl jewellery, which is now selling well in her bridal store.

The real work

But Sophie was surprised to discover the real purpose of their adventure: ‘I felt from the beginning of the trip that God was saying “just pray”. And I thought, “You can’t spend all this money just to pray.” ’ But they were in Bangkok when the devastating floods of last year hit, and Sophie realised that being there made all the difference to her prayers. ‘I was in a shop buying fabrics and talked to a woman whose house was underwater, and that makes you want to pray more because they are real people to you.

‘I thought that we had put in years of prayer and now we were going to the real work,’ reflects Sophie. ‘But I realised that prayer is the real work.’

This has been a theme throughout the years of growing their business: ‘There’s been times when I’ve thought, “We’ve got to do something more spiritual with the business,” and those ways haven’t worked,’ says Sophie. ‘It’s always been about God placing things in front of me at the right time … I’ve seen miracles happen in the way that God has opened up opportunities.’

God in the fashion industry

Sixteen years after beginning their fledging fashion label, Sophie clearly sees God in the midst of the industry. ‘I’m in this business because God wants me here, and doing business with people can be the answer to all sorts of problems in the world,’ she says.

‘As I became interested in child trafficking, my question was, “How could you stop that happening?” and so many things come down to poverty. Lack of education and lack of choices come from poverty. If people are able to work for a good wage, children can go to school and are less likely to be trafficked—and parents don’t have to make the choice to send their children away. So, doing business with people can open so many doors.’ It is with this passion that Sophie and Douglas are helping change the fair face of fashion

Sophie Voon online:

By Ingrid Barratt (abridged from War Cry, 19 May 2012, p5-7)