We first met Shannon of The Dharma Door in the early days of The Harmonic. Shannon has a beautiful photography studio in the hinterland of Clunes, which we hired to shoot our pre-loved collections before we had our own space.
We were immediately drawn to her warm, generous spirit and were inspired by her purpose-driven approach to business.
Shannon and her husband Mick started The Dharma Door, a beautiful homewares brand, upon returning home from a year living in India, where they spent much of their time in a Tibetan community. In this community, they met a local man who had set up a sewing workshop for newly arrived refugee women.
This encounter was the catalyst for starting The Dharma Door, as they were able to witness first-hand the positive impact this employment had on these women.
It was an honour to sit down with Shannon to discuss why she built a business around fair trade principles and how operating in this way positively impacts the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.
You created The Dharma Door after spending a year travelling through India and Nepal. What was it specifically that motivated you to launch the business?
While living in a Tibetan community in India with my husband, we became friends with a man who had set up a sewing workshop to help generate employment for newly arrived refugee women. I was so moved by his mission and the plight of so many that we’d met many during our travels that I wanted to help when it came time to return to Australia. I designed a simple product with him, we agreed on a fair price and after having success with that item, the business grew from there. We now work with incredible artisans across Bangladesh, India and Africa and our collection is available globally.
What has made you so passionate about sustainability and ethical practices?
I first learned about Fair Trade as a child from my grandmother so my awareness was imprinted at a young age. Once I had started on the path of working with craftspeople who were marginalised or disadvantaged, I observed the positive and life-changing impacts of paying them fairly and treating them with respect first-hand. After 18 years of practicing true Fair Trade with artisan groups, we’ve seen entire communities transformed as women become the main earners in their families. This gives them equity, respect within their families and a voice about how their income is spent. We have witnessed child marriages being replaced by girls being educated, improved living standards, a reduction in domestic violence and the opportunity for the women to look beyond tomorrow and plan for their futures. I believe everyone deserves these basic human dignities and I can’t imagine doing business any other way.
If you could change one thing about the industry you work in, what would it be?
I would love to see more companies choosing to genuinely produce their products ethically and sustainably with small scale artisans. So many homewares are handmade in factories and unless the factory owner is comfortable with being transparent, it’s really difficult to know if the people making the products are being treated fairly. It takes commitment, patience and a lot of heart to create this kind of change and it’s up to business owners to care and demand more from their suppliers.
Where does your design inspiration come from?
My design inspiration and process is quite different to a typical designer. The starting point is observing the artisans in their own village communities. I look at woven fences and rooftops and everyday objects they have in their homes or use for transporting goods. This forms the foundation of the materials and techniques for all of our products and I then adapt them to design functional or beautiful products that we can sell. There are many benefits in designing this way but most importantly, working with things the artisans are familiar with helps the whole sampling and production process flow more smoothly. It also helps to keep their skills alive and honours their traditions and environment.
Fashion and interiors have a lot of crossover, can you describe your personal style?
My personal style is simple, neutral and quite utilitarian. Stripes are the closest thing you’ll find to a print in my wardrobe and maybe an earthy-toned leopard print for a night out. I’m also a practical person so I like my clothes to be easy-to-wear - jumpsuits with pockets are my go-to for a busy day! I have a genuine appreciation for high-quality materials, natural fibres, a great cut and true craftsmanship, and this certainly translates to our collection of homewares. I also like to add interest and layers to a neutral palette with textural elements - whether that is with shoes, belts, fabrics, interior finishes or home decor pieces.
What does circular fashion mean to you?
Ultimately, it means an opportunity for there to be one less item of clothing in landfill. In all honesty, I could be described as a hoarder when it comes to clothes. I tend to keep pieces for well over a decade - I might pack them away, not wear them for several years and then rediscover them and wear them in a different way. It’s like having a new piece all over again!
Have you ever sold your own clothing or bought pre-loved?
I’ve always given clothing to charity stores if I know I’ll never wear it again. Buying pre-loved really appeals to me but I rarely do it because I think there’s real skill in finding the right pieces and knowing where to shop. I understand that the thrill is in the hunt and that takes time that I rarely have. I love how The Harmonic has done all the hard work for us in this way.
What advice do you have for someone who would love to start their own business like you have?
Talk to other small business owners in and outside of your industry and pick their brains. I wish I had done this earlier. Most experienced and accomplished business owners are really happy to share their knowledge with people who are starting out. I would love to say I did plenty of research and created a business plan but when I started, I jumped in head (and heart) first and learnt the ropes as I went along. Business is never stagnant and there will be plenty of highs and lows over the years. Especially if you choose to be a trailblazer in your industry like we were in the early days. The key to riding the waves of small business is resilience, being solution focused and always having a creative approach to whatever is thrown at you.
Finally, what is your current favourite piece from The Dharma Door collection?
We have some new baskets - the Rani collection - that feature our signature textural woven jute on the outside and we’ve made them super functional with recycled rubber for structure and a lovely hand loomed cotton lining. They’ve quickly become a favourite for our customers too!
You can see and shop the full The Dharma Door collection here.