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Talking with Michael Fitzsimons after 30 years of Instyle

In 2017, Instyle is celebrating 30 years of trend setting fabric design. We were lucky enough to sit down with founder Michael Fitzsimons to talk about the past and future of the great brand.



BY Andrew McDonald

March 16th, 2017


Why did you start Instyle and what were you doing beforehand?

I was introduced to the A+D industry by a former girlfriend who was studying interior design while I was studying business and marketing at university. I became interested in working in the design industry and, upon graduating, applied for a trainee product manager role at Wilson Fabrics and Wallcoverings.

I worked at Wilson for four years before starting Instyle. The grounding I received at Wilson gave me the opportunity to create my own business in an industry I had grown to love and saw a great future working within.

When I established Instyle in 1987, I particularly wanted to support and promote local design and manufacturing. This is still a key motivation for us as the majority of our textiles, acoustic panels and tiles are made locally.

 

Everyone asks how companies have morphed and changed over the years but how have your customers/the consumer market changed over the years?

Instyle has evolved over the last 30 years largely by adapting to the needs of the market and addressing our clients’ ever-changing needs. This has been in direct response to the way interior spaces constantly change, demanding new materials with added functionality and a fresh contemporary aesthetic.

For instance, workplaces have opened up by adopting open-plan, collaborative working spaces, while bars and restaurants have incorporated hard, sound-reverberating surfaces. Both of these trends have resulted in increased noise and disruption, driving the demand for sound absorbing materials.

Interior trends have resulted in a shift in our product offering, broadening from textiles to additional interior finishes including leathers, wallcoverings, acoustic panels and modular tile systems.

 

What sparked your interest in sustainability and how were you able to incorporate an ethical approach into a viable business model? Were there any sacrifices or compromises you had to make?

In the early 2000’s, the architecture and interior design industry began to question the environmental impact of building materials. To address the demand for environmental products, I employed an environmental manager to integrate sustainability through the entire company including product design.

Some resistance to change is inevitable, however most staff and our partners were fully supportive of our holistic approach.

Only 2-3 of our local manufacturers were committed and capable of implementing the long-lasting benchmark protocols required for producing LIFE Sustainable Textiles. This involved sourcing sustainable wool such as eco wool and then EthEco wool as well as using biodegradable detergents and heavy-metal free dyes. Traceability throughout the supply chain was also important.

 

Can you tell us how LIFE Textiles changed your business’ practise?

Our environmental approach has changed the business in multiple ways.

As well as LIFE Textiles being our most successful textile collection, our work in this area has attracted the attention of overseas markets. Many of our export partners particularly in the USA, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore, were keen to represent Instyle because of the environmental benefits of LIFE Textiles.

Our approach has projected us as a small player to become a leader in sustainability alongside major corporations. I am so proud of the numerous environmental awards we have won such as the United Nations World Environment Day Awards and the NSW Green Globe Awards.

 

Have there been any serious adversities in your journey that you’ve come out on top of?

A major challenge that comes to mind is the creation of environmental standards driven with self-interest.

Unfortunately the GBCA (Green Building Council of Australia) originally recognised only recycled content and did not recognise other environmentally preferable materials such as those with rapidly-renewable content or products with minimal impact over the entire lifecycle. This meant that imported recycled polyester textiles were specified for Green Star projects over our benchmark locally-made and life-cycle designed sustainable textile collection.

After challenging this position, the GBCA changed to preference GECA-certified (Good Environmental Choice Australia) products. This led many furniture companies to apply for GECA certification. Soon after GECA (Good Environmental Choice Australia) started forcing these furniture companies to use GECA-certified textiles even though this was not a requirement in the standard.

The GECA textile standard had quite a low benchmark as synthetic textiles derived from oil and with no recycled content could achieve certification.

We commenced Federal Court proceedings against GECA and while there was considerable time and cost involved, it was the catalyst to GECA changing its management structure and operation as well as the GBCA opening up its certification providers to others to end the monopoly GECA had.

 

What are the lessons you’ve learnt – and will never forget?

Some lessons I’ve learnt are that it takes great persistence, hard work and luck to create a successful business. I only employ positive individuals and work with people I like and trust.

In such a challenging and competitive industry with a lot of manufacturing moving offshore, I learnt it is possible to run a successful business founded on locally made, high quality, design-driven products that are embraced around the world.

 

What is on the cards for the next 30 years?

Our plans for the future are to continuously improve what we do, in particular our product designs and remaining relevant to our clients.

It is our objective to continue to grow our international business reach while maintaining the vast majority of our design and manufacturing here in Australia.

We have already developed a sizable export business and it is a real buzz seeing our products being sold into major companies around the world such as Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Qantas.

 

Being the founder and head of such a successful company how do you manage a work/life balance?

Having my partner Carolyn, who was an interior designer, certainly helped as she understood the industry and the challenges it throws up. I have two beautiful girls aged 16 and 12 and I think I have been able, with Carolyn’s help, to juggle the work life balance reasonably well.

 

Do you see this as being a family company that you will pass on to future generations?

It is a nice thought but I don’t know. I certainly won’t place any pressure on my girls to take over the business but time will tell.

 

Is there a philosophy that you live by?

I always believe that in business as well as life that you should treat people the way you’d like to be treated yourself.


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