A week after I interviewed Dee Tang, founder of homewares label Kawaiian Lion, something weird happened. I noticed I hadn’t touched any of my flippy summer dresses for ages and instead had been wearing the same grey tee and denim overalls for five days straight. Then I realised: I’m dressing like Dee. Ha! Such is his girl’s chillaxed tomboy vibe, it’s impossible to resist. And that’s what makes her label so damn awesome. From peace-sign wallpaper, to yin yang cushions and Make Waves Not War pouches (perfect for stashing keys, wallet, phone!) Kawaiian Lion has dibs on practical, unpretentious, surfer-girl chic. And for mums, that’s especially rad. Because, yep, once upon a time as single ladies we dolled up however we wanted – no matter how precious or expensive. And though we’ve retained that Chief Doll-er Upper title, these days we need stuff that’s less precious/expensive and more comfy/tough. “It’s really important to me that kids and guys love everything I make because home is a space for the whole family,” Dee says. If you’re anything like me you’ll want everything from Kawaiian Lion… and chucking on a pair of denim overalls is a great place to start.
Name: Dee Tang
Background: Founder of Kawaiian Lion
Kids: Kawa, 17 months
Tell us about you! What was the spark in your past that led to your creative career?
I loved drawing and was always a creative kid but kinda lost my way through my teens into my mid-20s. My parents heavily discouraged me in creative pursuits, so I found myself distracted by travels and wanderlust. Years later, as a 24-year-old in a tiny Japanese town on top of a tiny green tea field where I was teaching English and painting surfboards on the side, I realised the importance of following my heart and brushing aside those feelings of not feeling ‘good enough’ to pursue the arts. I enrolled into RMIT school of design in Melbourne and sojourned home to fulfil my arty-farty desires. Melbourne was a great design breeding and training ground. There is a plethora of talent and new small ventures constantly popping up there. I developed a discerning eye and how to layer effectively there (in photoshoot and fashion)
On moving to Sydney, there was another creative surge when I found myself thrown in the deep end of working for a massive Australia fashion label and sourcing props for their photo shoots and interiors for their stores. It was during this time, I really honed the ability to “tap in” into another person’s creative vision and translate it into a 3D space.
Another “spark” occured when I was dressing windows on george street for a fashion behemoth (my last job) and I found myself talking to the mannequins and making up stories about their past and present to keep myself creatively amused, that it surely was time for me to get out of the window. It was during this time, Kawaiian Lion was born.
How did your situation change when you had kids?
There are the usual suspects – less sleep, less time, less hair, more mess, more planning but with it, comes a ridiculous amount of love and self motivation to achieve creative goals and form amazing relationships with good folk who help enrich the label and the livelihood of me and my family.
No one can really explain to you, just how ridiculously tired you will be and just how much love you are brimming with when you have a child. I am literally smothered with wet kisses everyday and cuddles are endless.
Aside from that, its pretty much the same. I am still a homebody. We go to the beach. We cook. We hang. It’s just that there is this happy little monkey hanging off me.
What’s a day/week in your family like? What kind of care arrangements do you have & do you have any tips that help things run smoothly for you?
Mondays. Kawa and I hang or visit friends. I attempt to pack orders and answer crucial emails while she naps.
Tuesdays. We visit Nannie (Kawa’s grandmother) and Kawa spends the arvo at their house while I go home to do work.
Wednesdays & Thursdays – Kawa goes to family daycare which is local and an awesome community service which I highly recommend to any parents.
Fridays & Saturdays – my partner Des and I split our day so we both work a half day each and care for Kawa in the other half. We have been doing this split shift for over a year and we find it is the most effective for work time and maximising time with Kawa. We both get to spend quality time with her minus the guilt factor and then have time to work on our brands.
Sundays are family day, as much as possible! We do have the freedom of being about to have a “Sunday” any day together. So we just make sure there is one full day where we do not do any work. Sometimes, Des is busy painting a mural or installing a wallpaper over the weekend, or I have urgent design deadlines to meet, so we jiggle our days around. We are both pretty flexible people, so it works for us to have a loose schedule.
This is not going to work for every mama, but I do work whenever Kawa is sleeping. Which means early early mornings, nap time or post bed-time. I have found over the last year and a half, there is no point having a whingy monkey at your leg while you attempt to write a coherent email, so lets just go to the park!
We have been working towards being work-at-home-parents and maximising family time ever since I fell pregnant. As our businesses have both grown, Des has been able to cut down from his work for the Opera and spend more time at home. The change has been real apparent for Kawa as she wakes up now assuming her father will be there and is confused of his whereabouts when he’s at work.
Kawa is the most beautiful name – how did you decide on it?
Kawa translates as ‘River’ in Japanese. In Chinese, the “Ka” means family and “Wa” is good health. We decided to choose a name which belied her Asian heritage to run alongside her surname “Sweeney” of Scottish heritage. Leaf is her middle name, and she could not be any more like a little River Leaf.
What’s Kawaiian Lion about? Tell me a little about the business and what I’ll find in your store that I can’t get anywhere else.
Kawaiian Lion is about homewares that you, your dude and little ones can all enjoy. Its about hardy cushions & blankets that you can throw around, sit on the floor or take out to the beach with you. Its about being inspired by vintage from the 60’s, 70’s and using fashion techniques such as stone washing, embroidery & patchwork and creating products which embody the look and feel of of a bygone era.
Its about creating a home that is non-gender specific and does not scream “GUUURL” or “MAN CAVE”. its about finding that balance and about evoking a laidback island-luxe kinda feel. Its about not taking ourselves too seriously and embracing a jumble of prints, textures & old surf lingo.
What do you find most challenging about being a creative mum? (Any fails that you’ve learned from?) What do you find most rewarding?
Book-keeping. Taxes. Excel spreadsheets. Receipts. Invoicing. Dealing with numbers and money. My eyes kinda glaze over and my head starts whirling when any of the above are mentioned. It is extremely unnatural for me to know how to deal with these things and causes rashes to appear all over my body. It has been a HUGE learning curve and I have had to force myself to confront these matters. It actually took me about a year to confront that I was running a business, because all I wanted to do was design some cushions! I’ve learn its best to get others to help out, but I’m yet to find this amazing person to help me sort out receipts.
However, it was surprisingly rewarding when I figured out how to do my first formula on a excel spreadsheet. Perhaps, the most rewarding experience is when I receive emails, insty messages and/or have randomn peeps I encounter in my daily life telling me how much they adore Kawaiian Lion and glad of its existence in the world. It totally gives me the warm fuzzies and confirms I am on the the right path.
Best piece of advice you’ve received about parenting?
When I was 8 months pregnant I thought it would be a great idea to go to a Buddhist retreat and not talk for a few days, and learn how to walk, eat & do everything extremely slowly. Right at the end of the three eye-opening and arduous days, the female monk walked up to me, patted my belly and said, “Happy mum, means happy baby. Always remember that the baby feels that you feel. You happy. Baby happy”.
What inspires you? Where do you find inspiration and motivation? Are there any specific apps, websites, people or tools that you adore?
Etsy. I adore etsy. You know how some people like to kick back with a beer and watch a little bit of trash TV? Well, my version of that evening is to set myself up with a cup of tea and trawl through etsy searching for my usual suspects including antique patchwork quilts, embroidered moccasins, folk dresses and vintage patchwork pieces. I like to “favourite” things and then curate my “favourites” that I would love to purchase but hardly ever do.
I also love poking around in Op shops, people’s garages (if they let me), the tip & second-hand markets – Manly market and Kirribilli are faves. I really treasure old things. I like things which carry a story, that somebody has owned before and I enjoy interpreting vintage for a modern audience.
I have a awesome bunch of creative mates who offer inspiration and are a sounding board for design ideas & creative vision. I’ve been so fortunate in my time here on the northern beaches that i have been led to such super duper people.
My husband Desmond is a incredibly talented artist and I am forever inspired & bewildered by his talent & technique in direct contrast to my haphazard random style. He has nudged me into working for myself ever since we met, and I am so grateful for the support & encouragement all along the way.