Dana Lenko launched her own clothing label accidentally.
In 1999 she began hand-making clothes for herself – T-shirts with drawn animals and “random things” on them. “I’d wear them, and people would ask me where I got them,” says Lenko. “I’d tell them I made it myself and they’d ask me to make them one. I had similar experiences wearing them into shops, until eventually I was making whole collections. So I opened my own store.”
Lenko opened her namesake outlet in the Cathedral Arcade in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane. It stocked her own range as well as apparel by other small Australian independent labels and some from overseas. But it was the reaction to her own work that drove her on.
“The first time I walked down the street and saw somebody wearing something I’d made it was so exciting,” she says. “My first reaction was to go up say, I made that. But of course my second reaction was, no don’t do that, just be cool.”
In 2005, circumstance forced another small win that led to big success. It was Melbourne Fashion Week, and Lenko had a collection due to hit the runway the next day. But at the last moment, one of her styles fell through.
“I had a whizzbang outfit for a guy,” she says. “But when the model arrived from the agency it just didn’t fit him. It didn’t look good. I went home that night and quickly sewed a grey sweater with a yellow llama on it. It was a rush job – pretty dodgy and hand sewn – but it ended up being the star of the show. Everyone wanted it. I called it my ‘Last Minute Llama’ and it was the first Lenko Animal Sweater.”
The range became a hallmark of the brand. So much so that today Lenko has pared her label’s production back to an annual limited-edition run of sweaters. The designer lives overseas for much of the year – when we talk, she’s in Mexico City, before that she was in the Middle East, and before that, Texas – but she always returns to Melbourne for three months in summer to develop and produce her sweaters for the coming winter. 100 per cent Melbourne made, Lenko now makes more than 500 sweaters a year and still insists on hand-cutting all of the appliques herself.
That DIY approach extends to running her own business. Lenko runs all her finances through MYOB – it has been a staple in her business toolkit throughout her creative career.
“I’ve been using MYOB since 2001,” she says. “I use it for everything: tracking stock, inventory, payroll, profit and loss, invoices. It’s super simple. It definitely takes the stress out of running a business.”
Lenko says learning to manage the financial side of business was a necessary skill that in turn leverages her creativity. “When you’re starting out all you want to do is make pretty things. But there’s always a person who tells you that you need to be able to produce a profit and loss statement at any point in time. And of course now that killjoy is me, telling other young designers to learn to love the numbers. You need to be able to see and understand what you’re spending and making. It’s the last thing a creative wants to hear, but once you learn to fall in love with the numbers it makes you a much smarter designer.”
Especially if the end result is more animal sweaters in the world. “I hope people’s love of my sweaters reminds them of the weird and wonderful animals we share this planet with,” says Lenko. “There are so many ways we can tread more lightly to help keep them from extinction. From reducing single-use plastic to avoiding fast fashion, we can make a big differences daily.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with MYOB.