When Fatuma Ndenzako of local label Collective Closets received a $20,000 quote for a specialised air freight shipment of Shuka fabric from Nairobi earlier this year, she thought the label’s fledgling design dreams were dashed.

“There was a time we thought we wouldn’t be able to do a winter [collection],” says Ndenzako, who founded Collective Closets in 2015 with her sister Laurinda.“We’d fallen in love with this purple check from our manufacturer in Kenya. So we were waiting for the year we could bring it out in huge quantity and do it the way we wanted to. Then covid happened. Kenya’s ports closed and literally everything we were trying to do with freight got shut down. Finally, we got the first quote and it was $20,000. Just to ship the fabric over. Laurinda and I were like, let’s just pack up.”

After a few fraught conversations and a small injection from a government coronavirus grant, they decided to push ahead and take the risk.

“We had a lot of pre-orders and customers waiting,” says Fatuma. “But everyone was so patient with us. Some customers waited eight weeks. But in the 300 orders we received during that time, we never had one cancellation [from a customer]. We thought [maybe] demand and the way people thought about fashion would be different [during covid] but it wasn’t the case. We were very lucky to have customers come on this journey.”

The experience also changed the way the sisters thought about the collection.

“We were forced to have to understand [the risks],” says Fatuma. “It made us understand and appreciate the process a lot more. We’re importing the fabric from another country, so [we thought] let’s tell that story. That became the main focus of the collection and our point of difference. Everyone does checks – but this is what it means to us. It was really touch and go for a moment but I think it really resonated.”

These are the kind of stories Collective Closets will tell at Melbourne Fashion Week. On November 26 Fatuma will speak on the Meet the Designers panel, as part of the 2020 program’s online MFW Conversations series presented by Creative Victoria. Alongside Fatuma will be Brian Huynh (MNDATORY) and Giulia Brugliera (Fashion Journal), to discuss the challenges and opportunities of 2020, and how they’ve adapted to a new way of working during the pandemic.

The sisters came into the industry via family ties. Instead of attending fashion school, they grew up in Melbourne cutting their teeth on the family sewing machine. Since debuting in 2015, Collective Closets has become known for its bold, unique take on the classic Melbourne silhouette, which also pays homage to their African heritage. The result is a riot of colour in the form of the traditional Shuka check, rendered in Melbourne staples like a classic jumpsuit, an easy crop shirt paired with sleek wide leg pants, and a cool kid blazer that you can easily throw over the top of your Melbourne black.

“We love living in Melbourne and the fashion and style here,” says Fatuma. “My sister and I and our parents have sewn our whole lives. We came from a very fashion focused family. So it was exciting to put a label together based on the fundamentals of where we started – growing up in Melbourne in a very African-Australian way.”

Watch Fatuma speak as part of Meet the Designers, online, on November 26 at 1pm during Melbourne Fashion Week. Other talks in the MFW Conversations series include Re-wiring the Fashion System, Fashion x Tech and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Fashion. Access is free.

See the full MFWF program now.

This article is produced in partnership with City of Melbourne.