I remember first seeing Natalie Wakeling in a fashion editorial spread in Cosmopolitan magazine back in 2000. For the first time in Australian fashion magazine history, here was this gorgeous, curvy woman, (who wasn’t a size 4 or 6), in one of Australia’s most popular magazines. Natalie then went on to be the magazines cover model in 2005.
Natalie was signed with FORD models in New York, BGM Models in Australia, and Elite Models in LA shortly after her first appearance in Cosmo.
Natalie went on to become one of the pioneers of plus size models in Australia and internationally.
Over the past 19 years, Natalie has enjoyed a meteoric rise to becoming one of Australia’s most recognisable plus-size models, working with every major Australian title, plus-size brand and large retailer.
In 2006, Natalie started her own plus size clothing business, Embody Denim. Natalie was tired of not being able to find high quality jeans, so she decided to design her own range. The label then went on to become one of Australia’s leading plus-size labels.
The business expanded to enable a diverse range of women to be able to wear the Embody Denim range and was renamed, Embody Women.
Manufactured in Sydney and Melbourne – “not just to ensure quality control, but sustainability and fair work conditions” – Embody Women comes in sizes 8-22 and allows customers to send in their measurements so suitable styles can be recommended. How fantastic is that?
We chatted to Natalie about her business and how she manages to balance being a successful entrepreneur and a mum to three busy boys:
How did Embody Woman get started?
Embody Women launched exclusively online in 2006 as Embody Denim. During my career as a plus size model, one of Australia’s very first to sign international contracts with agencies such as FORD models in NY and ELITE in Miami, I had worked for all major brands here in Australia and could see where the world was heading for curve on an international level.
My understanding and knowledge of dressing curves comes from a personal place. Every photo-shoot I was booked on in the early years involved some pretty daggy plus size clothing, that was shapeless and made me look 10 times my age. After a modelling trip to the USA in 2003, I saw a huge gap in the market for on-trend, well fitting denim here in Australia.
In 2005, I set out to design my own collection of denim jeans that were premium, well made and manufactured in Australia, specifically for women that had a natural shape. I invested a huge amount of research into designing jeans for different body shapes in sizes 8-26, this was my driving passion.
My own personal experiences of having to wear men’s jeans and awful plus size fashion made me feel left out of the fashion industry. I come from a rag-trade family, my mother & 3 other sisters have all worked successfully in the space and owned their own boutiques, so I had a good idea of how retail worked.
Seeing first hand, at the family boutique, the disappointment of women not being able to buy beautiful clothes in sizes over a 14, gave me the idea to start my business online. Embody Denim was launched with a clear message in mind to the consumer, it was all about recognising your assets and working with what you have, regardless of your size or shape.
The brand expanded to include over 12 unique styles in the denim collection, in sizes 8 -26, one of the very first online-etailers in Australia that was size inclusive and Australian made. In 2009, the brand expanded into offering on-trend clothing designed for the fuller figure, women were starving for beautiful fashion in their size.
In the first few years, what were your biggest hurdles to running a business?
There was a distinct lack of support for the curve industry and a lot of people thought it was very strange to be selling jeans online, particularly plus size.
I had to constantly give myself a pep talk to keep going, and believe in my own vision. There are so many big decisions to make when first start your business, and a lot of these you are not equipped for, taught or told.
Learning to ask lots of questions is the only way to navigate this.
My biggest mistake was not registering my IP correctly in the beginning, I had set up my whole business including printed deliverables and a website and then ended up with a infringement that cost me financially.
I had to start all over from scratch.
I almost decided to call it a day when that happened, but failure was never in my business plan and I accepted that I was going to make mistakes.
Cash flow, dealing with suppliers, and untrustworthy people that take you for a ride are some huge pitfalls I learnt the hard way.
What did you struggle with?
Surviving as a small start up that was completely self funded was definitely a struggle, there is also a lot of personal sacrifices you have to make along the way.
Both my husband and myself started our own businesses at the same time, which meant moving back in with the in-laws for a year while we found our feet.
This is difficult for anyone, particularly when there are babies involved.
Working ridiculously late while kids are asleep, sacrificing coffee dates with girlfriends or a few other issues to navigate.
How do you juggle three children, a successful business, a home and life? Do you think you have a work/life balance?
I think women can have it all, but it does come at a cost if you cannot ask for help.
I don’t think I have balance everyday, thats impossible.As a family we do have a pretty tight schedule to help us all stay on track, and to help keep communication open.
Two years ago, I desperately needed to change how I managed my time, as I was completely burned out trying to do everything by myself.
I sought the help of a business mentor that helped me to learn about out sourcing your life.There were certain tasks within my business that I did not need to do myself.
This removed a huge burden and freed up some precious time I could spend with my toddler.
Balance definitely requires assigning tasks to people in your circle and asking for help.
What advice would you give a woman wanting to start her own business?
Do plenty of research before you start investing lots of money and make sure you Have identified a Niche Market.
Don’t quit your day job! Make sure your business is ticking along nicely as a side hustle before putting intense pressure on the business to cover wages, rent e.c.t
Do not expect to be making money in the first 12-24 months- expect that you may have to re-invest to grow the business.
Be really honest and do a self annalysis, can you cope well with stress and possible business debt?
Get an excellent accountant.
What is the most important thing you have learnt?
Keep your own tank full, A busy business women is no good to anyone running on empty.
Make your health a priority and schedule time out.
Who do you admire or find inspirational?
I love a good trailblazer like Ita Buttrose. Ita’s tenacity and never give up attitude is something I admire.
My good friend and fellow model Laura Wells is one great human that is doing amazing things in educating all of us on the environment.
I also have a huge amount of respect for single mums and dads that get no credit for all their hard work when raising kids on their own, If they can do so can I.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Sleep on it!
A very smart business women once gave me this advise when I was about to respond to some controversy.
She said “type it out but don’t send it until the next day, make sure you sleep on it”.
I have done this plenty of times in my career and I cannot tell you how much it has saved me from embarrassment or a bad business decision.
What would you say your personal style is?
Ha! Black and classic, I just love it!
It has to be effortless, quick and durable.
I live in my embody jeans nearly 5 days a week, I throw on a T-shirt and jacket with some converse or boots.
My days can involve so many different activities and I find this outfit gets me though most situations.
Being a Woman of Style and Substance yourself, what do you think are the most important attributes a woman can have?
Kindness, sincerity and forgiveness.
Our five favourite pieces from the Embody Women range: