Know this face?
If you haven’t chewed on it yourself, you probably know a small human being who has.
A French global icon, Sophie the Giraffe’s journey to Australia is a tale of two love stories going back eleven years. Originating in the city of love, Anglesea Victoria also plays a special role in Sophie’s successful immigration to Australia. The Sophie story also provides inspiration to would be sea-changers chasing entrepreneurial dreams and flexible work arrangements in Geelong, Bellarine or the Surf Coast.
The story starts in 2004 when French native Isabelle Gardy was living and working in Paris. Her best friend Cecile was over the ditch in London with her Australian husband.
“Come over for the weekend,” Cecile offers. “We have a visitor coming to stay who we’d like you to meet.” The hint of cupid wafting across the English channel was initially shut down. “I don’t need you to find someone for me. I’m not coming,” Isabelle replied.
But Cecile isn’t one to take no for an answer. A Eurostar ticket arrived by post, and off Isabelle went, journeying into the terrifying match-making unknown.
“I met Mike for 20 hours over a Saturday night. He was flying back to Perth the next day, and I was flying back to Paris, ” Isabelle recalls. Despite the haste, the meeting was successful. The two began regularly calling each other from opposite ends of the world. And so began a lucrative time for international airlines as the long distance couple stole a fortnight together here, and a month in Paris there.
“After a while, I thought ‘let’s give this a proper go’, ” says Isabelle. Taking a year off from a web editorial role with Michelin, Isabelle spent time with Mike in Perth on a working holiday visa. Then came a longer stint in France until 2006. With Mike taking a job in Torquay as a landscape architect, the two settled on living the Australian beach idyll along the Great Ocean Road in Anglesea.
Back in Australia, Isabelle became pregnant straight away. Around that time matchmaker extraordinaire and high school best friend Cecile moved to Melbourne from London, also in ‘the family way.’
“We agreed that we both needed to find something to do together. We didn’t want to work for a company. Coming from France we thought, ‘let’s do something that will allow us to travel back home and remain connected to our country.’ ”
With that Isabelle and Cecile opened a children’s boutique in High St Armadale. While the beautifully made French clothing was hard to shift, Sophie the Giraffe was one item that sold particularly well. Isabelle and Cecile decided to approach Sophie’s producer in France. “Who do you have distributing Sophie in Australia?” they asked. There was no one in place. Isabelle and Cecile grabbed the opportunity and their company Les Folies was born.
The first two years was an informal arrangement. “At the start we just wanted to sell directly, explains Isabelle. “Then in 2007 we decided to try wholesaling.” Isabelle and Cecile continue to enjoy exclusive Australian rights to Sophie the Giraffe products today. “We have five brands that we look after at the moment – some are licensed Sophie products. We’re also launching Sophie la Girafe Sunglasses this August! It’s a collection designed in collaboration with Eyetribe.”
Not all friends can work together successfully. But “right from the start we enjoyed doing things that were quite complimentary,” Isabelle reflects. While Isabelle handles all the business administration, BFF Cecile manages storage and distribution to retailers. There’s a lot of contact with brand HQ’s in France, and annual overseas trips.
Although word of mouth about Sophie was growing, there was low product awareness in the early days. Australia was only the second export market for Sophie when Isabelle and Cecile began importing. Building distribution was hard graft. “Initially we did the key trade markets – about three or four a year – including Magnolia Square.”
The US market exploded almost overnight, with celeb stalking paparazzi snapping high profile bubs munching on Sophie the Giraffe. Saturation coverage of US celebrity goings-on in Australia saw that craziness spill into the local market. “Sophie also began exporting into other international markets around that time. And as Australian’s are such big travellers, the exposure grew very quickly,” Isabelle adds.
In just three years, the unknown squishy giraffe toy went from small-scale retail stockists to heavy hitting chains like Baby Bunting and Toys R Us across Australia. The twice yearly trade fairs in Melbourne and Sydney are still vitally important Isabelle maintains. “If people want to meet us, we go to the fairs rather than travel everywhere for individual meetings. In August we see Christmas product and we do the February markets as well. ”
Success comes from moving on
“Ultimately it’s a great product,” says Isabelle. “Once you have a good product, it’s unbelievable how quickly things can escalate.” But focusing on the success of Sophie came from failing at something else first. “Clothing was a major focus of our original boutique business. European clothing is such good quality and can be hard to find here – especially for children. Unfortunately, no one else liked the clothes that we did,” Isabelle concedes. “We lived in France for six months and the kids are all so stylish! But we’re much more casual in Australia. And if you don’t sell clothing when it’s current, you can’t sell it next season.”
Moving past the not so great and persevering with the positive is key to Isabelle and Cecile’s business success. While business is flourishing, Isabelle’s Mike has taken a career break to head up parenting and domestic life. “Just over two third’s of the products we manage are linked to Sophie the Giraffe, including bath toys and other teething products. We’re also trying out other brands that are toy or gift related. Because we’re a wholesaler, people are seeking us out. Sophie is in 800 shops across Australia, so we definitely have the distribution network covered now.”
Managing competition and scale
Isabelle and Cecile keep a close eye on competition within the marketplace. “Compared to when we started, there’s lots of European product on the market,” Isabelle notes. Scaling the business to a level that’s manageable remains an on-going challenge. “We did initially look after New Zealand as well, but it’s too far away, and too hard to manage with all the other products as well.” Carefully expanding the product lines, as the sunglasses range demonstrates, is the focus for the time being.
Remote working tips
Isabelle and Cecile’s business gives them absolute control over the way they work – which is flexibly. “It’s hard starting a business when you have kids and your partner is working full time,” Isabelle warns. “Childcare options in regional areas can be limited, so be aware that you might need to travel into a larger nearby town to access the kind of hours, or services you need. This is really important to think about if you don’t have family nearby who can provide that kind of support. Anglesea has some occasional care but many families travel to Torquay (15 minutes away) to access longer daycare services. In the beginning we only had one car, so for a while I was catching the bus to Geelong to get the train to Melbourne. It was crazy!”
Avoiding the conventional trappings of business can also keep overheads lean, Isabelle suggests. “We thought about getting office space at one point, but we just don’t need it. We can each manage everything from home. Phone and email is all we need.” Isabelle drives to Melbourne once a week, avoiding peak traffic times. A locally based IT provider in Geelong is the go-to for tech support, while a full time employee adds grunt to the Melbourne effort.
Isabelle is keen to pursue another six-month family stint in France before her two children start secondary school. “It’s a great thing to be able to do and it’s important to help the kids realise who they are. It actually works really well for the business too, because it means we’re running 24 hours a day with Cecile working to Australia’s time zone.”
There’s no place like Anglesea
While the short-term language immersion might a great opportunity for the kids, and great for business tempo, the French native is hooked on the surf coast lifestyle. “I lived in Paris for ten years. But living here is just so easy, and the kids love it,” Isabelle enthuses. “They prefer having space to run around, compared to French schools that are far more compact. My husband is a surfer and mountain biker, so he wanted an outdoor lifestyle. For me, I figured if I’m moving all the way to Australia, then I definitely want the beach life! We really are living the dream- we’re very lucky.”
Isabelle notes the changes locally since making the move to Anglesea and spruiks Le Petite Ecole – a Melbourne French pre-school opening a new centre in Belmont. “They do everything: language, reading, cooking.”
Sophie’s epic journey to the southern hemisphere reinforces the value of migration to Australia, proving that migrants don’t take jobs, they create them. Isabelle and Cecile’s story also highlights that for enterprising women, creating your own business can be the best path to workplace flexibility and financial reward.
- Geelong Ring Road has made a big difference for commuting to Melbourne.
- Caruggi – a great Italian restaurant in Little Malop St Geelong. They were previously in Anglesea but we’re happy to travel to support them
- Bistro St Jean – totally authentic French Bistro in Moorabool St Geelong
- Aireys Inlet Pub
- Mc Gains Nursery in Anglesea: best coffee and lunch in Anglesea!
- Public transport from the coast is not ideal if you need to get all the way to Melbourne.
- Internet is very slow. It definitely needs improving in this region.