Profile: Samantha Hardman (Bento)

Samantha Hardman is a woman of vision with a passion for fashion who traded in her career to build a socially responsible, timeless fashion label. Samantha was professional and passionate enough to win a representation contract with Jack + Bill for three months, which is how she came to our attention, and now we are fortunate to have had her take some time out to answer some questions for us about her journey.

B&L: Bento is a major change from your previous role. What inspired you to create the label and strike out in this direction?

The inspiration for Bento was the result of many things. To start, I’ve always been passionate about fashion. I’m so captivated by the really emotional connection many people have with clothes and so forth as well as the societal implications of what we wear. In terms of the specifics of the label – luxury essentials – this was really a response to a series of factors I saw lacking in the market. Beautiful, high-quality classic styles that were available season after season and would last for many years combined with socially responsible, sustainable and ethical manufacturing.

B&L: What makes Bento special?

A few things! We have an incredibly tight supply chain – everything is made very locally. When you consider Bento has been compared to labels like Stella McCartney and Jil Sander I think this is a huge testament to the calibre of talent we have in Australia. Also, you won’t find quality like Bento elsewhere. Our manufacturers produce pieces for some of Australia’s most well-regarded labels and even they can’t get over what we spend on fabric and our quality control and testing processes.

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B&L: The whole process for your label is carried out within 10kms of your Melbourne studio, how did you achieve that?

It’s actually 20km now – one of our manufacturers moved! It has definitely been difficult to establish and it takes an awful lot of research. What I’ve discovered though is that the ragtrade industry in Australia is very close-knit (no pun intended!) so it’s a bit of a snowball – once you get a few contacts they often know others and on it goes. The really tough part has been still ensuring labour standards are upheld. Just because something is produced locally, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to be incredibly vigilant with checking working conditions, union paperwork and so on.

B&L: How important to your label philosophy is it that your garments are produced on such a tight supply chain?

It’s definitely a core part of what we do, but perhaps not for the reason many people assume. Producing with such a tight supply chain allows us faster turnarounds than many labels. It also means everything we do supports the Australian economy – can you imagine if everything you bought was produced this way? Finally, it keeps our carbon footprint very low. One day we hope to potentially replicate this supply chain in other regions, such as America and Europe to support distribution there.

B&L: Speaking of your studio, it is an old toy factory – how did you come across the space and how much did you need to modify it?

It’s a studio, it’s a house, it’s a warehouse… It’s a lot of things! The actual building was built around the beginning of the 20th century and takes up most of the street. When it stopped being used for purely industrial purposes, it was subdivided into sort of terraces, each around 350 square metres and we have one of these. In the same street is another few clothing designers, two shoe makers, a film director and an architect! The space constantly evolves as we need it to – studio space, photography space (we’ve shot editorial here), distribution – my husband is an artist and gallery curator so he uses it too!

B&L: You are currently being represented by jack + bill. Can you tell us a bit about how this came about and what it entails?

Being represented by jack + bill is probably my biggest success in the industry to date! Jack + Bill was born in New York and is named after the two original founders of big-deal PR agency Porter Novelli. Jack + Bill is a pop-up PR agency run by a team at Porter Novelli that represents three very different emerging labels for three months, free of charge. This opportunity was the result of a serious application and an interview which was far more nerve-wracking than some of the other things I’ve done – like presenting to CEOs of multi billion dollar companies, or playing at a concert hall! There were some phenomenal labels that applied to be represented and I’m beyond thrilled that they chose Bento.

B&L: Bento is still a very young fashion label, it must have been a challenging journey. What has been your biggest challenge in the journey so far?

Gosh, you mean I have to choose just one?! If I’m selecting a single challenge though, I’d have to say getting noticed. This is an industry overrun with products, offerings and labels. Particularly in the current economic environment getting boutiques and media to see you in the crowd is tough. Luckily, I have a background in marketing and now I have jack + bill!

B&L: Can you tell us a little about the new collection and what we can expect?
Every season of Bento is centred around three things:

  1. Timelessness
  2. Quality
  3. Wearability

We take the most popular pieces from each season and add them to our core range and continue to expand on that. The new pieces in this collection were largely inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly that I saw at the coliseum in Verona – there’s a military tailored component and a fluid, draped element too.

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B&L: Bento seems to have been quite a steep learning curve for you. Is there anyone in particular that you have learned an extremely valuable lesson from?

There are a few individuals that I look to for advice – my husband who manages the operational and finance components of Bento, a friend and fellow designer Annie from Habbot and my dad who ran his own business for many years quite successfully until he retired. In terms of valuable lessons though, most of them have come from mistakes. I’m inherently far too trusting. I believe that people will do their best work for me and will pay me when they say they will. These beliefs have backfired several times and I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s not the most talented that necessarily succeed, it’s those who are the toughest.

B&L: What does being a woman mean to you?

Wow! Curveball! To me, being a woman is about having the mind to be analytical and the influence to do something with that information. I don’t believe women as a group are better, weaker, smarter, stronger, or anything -er than men as a group. I do however, feel that women are far more powerful than history suggests and that equality in terms of men Vs women is not something that will be achieved until society as a whole can stop considering us two separate groups. As long as anything is measured by sex inequality will always exist.

By the way, I used to be a sporting shooter. Did you know that shooting is the one sport in which women and men must compete separately because women are inherently better?

(Michelle’s note: No, I didn’t know that – but thanks for sharing and now I wish I had left the quirky fact question in! )

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us!
A squillion thanks for wanting to talk to me – I love Beauty and Lace!

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