This month we're shining the spotlight onto Jess McDonald, the artist and founder of High Tees.
THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND
"My name is Jess McDonald and I am the artist and founder of High Tees. I have two kids (Adelaide who is 3.5 and Rory who is 1.5) and I am married to a fabulous Irishman who I met when living in Dublin. We also have two cats - Liam and Conor. I love drawing, cooking, watching the footy, swimming, hiking and going to live music and galleries. We currently live in the West suburbs of Melbourne which we love."
HOW DID YOU GET INTO DESIGN?
"I studied Creative Arts at VCA many moons ago and my majors were Painting and Photography. I initially worked as an events photographer straight out of uni, but my design life took a backseat as my retail career took off. I only came back to drawing as something to do in the evenings when my first child was sleeping. My husband is currently studying so he had his thing to work on. I didn’t want to veg away watching telly, so I started drawing again."
WHY DID YOU START HIGH TEES?
"I had started my business consultancy, Agents of Innovation 10 months before I had my first child. So coming back from maternity leave, I was feeling a little out of practice. To get back into the swing of things, I created a faux company to plug in all my consultancy tools. I decided to do a t-shirt business - created the business plan, did all the research and the more I looked into it the more it looked like a great idea.
I have always loved quirky and original t-shirts. I started drawing again. I saw that there was a gap in the market for celebrating Australians. I thought this was a bit of a unique point. Ita Buttrose was my first portrait. I think I might have drawn her 180 times to finally settle on a style I could replicate with other portraits and yet be striking and graphic. So High Tees was born.
I only choose people I admire and I feel have significantly contributed to the fabric of Australia - whether that be culturally, artistically, socially, politically, medically, or whichever industry they are in. I didn’t just want to focus on celebrities as such - but really look at Icons and Heroes."
"So you see Elle MacPherson sitting alongside Victor Chang, Gough Whitlam sitting with Hannah Gadsby. The premise of the brand is to Wear your Hero. I was getting sick of slogan t-shirts and love the concept of wearable art. I do feel that when you wear a High Tees, you are saying to the world that you stand with Cate, or Michael, or Lee Lin.
The brand has become much more political than I had first imagined. I have always had a mandate that the business had very high ethical and sustainability standards. Including supporting local asylum seeker charities. I had partnered with the ASRC in the business’ first year and created the KIDS OFF NAURU t-shirt for them to run alongside their campaign (Kon actually got kicked out of parliament for wearing it)!
I have aligned with West Welcome Wagon for the past 14 months and have been able to raised over $7000 for them through the sale of the West Welcome Wagon range and donating portion of the sale of every t-shirt."
THE BEST PARTS
"Using my creativity and business skills together. High Tees feels like a fabulous marriage of my strong retail and marketing skills with my artistic skills. I love the freedom and autonomy of working for myself as well."
The ethical backbone of High Tees is extremely important to Jess, and being the founder of the brand means that our designer has a lot of say in where her garments are made, how they're made, and bringing the philanthropic aspects to the forefront of what the brand does. With 'Wear Your Heroes' being the main focus, it really does bring it full circle.
"All t-shirts are 100% organic cotton (GOTS certified) and certified child labour free. The dyes used to prints are all water based and highest environmental standard. Products are printed to order in Melbourne to ensure we do not over produce and therefore have unnecessary waste. I donated over 50% of profits last financial year to West Welcome Wagon, WIRES Animal Rescue, St Kilda Mums and Go Foundation."
And featuring so many icons on her designs, Jess is also blessed to have received great support from huge names - such as Cate Blanchett assisting with the WELCOME t-shirt campaign and sending a photo of herself wearing it, and Valerie Taylor wearing her t-shirt for her 84th birthday.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES
"I love working for myself but I find getting the time to truly invest in High Tees very tricky.
Having two young children, High Tees and Agents of Innovation is a lot to manage. But as the children are getting older, I am finding I can start implementing some of the grand plans I have for the business.
Also during these challenges time with COVID and a recession, there is a lot of uncertainty with being self-employed."
"I am planning to extend the current ranges, organising them into capsules - such as Australian Music Icons, etc. I plan also expanding into other iconic aspects of Australian life."
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