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Oh, you gorgeous things!

18.08.14 | Posted in People I Love

Cristina Re has turned a love for papercraft into a multimillion-dollar stationery brand. How did she do it? Emma shares a cuppa with her to find out. 

There’s a well-known British song that goes, “At half-past three, everything stops for tea.” The ritual of sitting down with a soul-soothing cuppa can be a sanctuary in our plugged-in, chaos-filled lives, and Cristina Re knows this too well. It’s like liquid meditation: it’s partly why she created her ‘Where A Girl Goes High Tea’ in her signature concept store in Melbourne’s Collingwood.

As I step into Cristina’s French-style high-tea salon, I’m instantly enchanted by the surroundings. She says she wanted to provide a special place that would bring women together to celebrate friendship, food, fashion and femininity. Guests munch on artfully crafted petits-fours, macarons and finger sandwiches and sip on tea and bubbly. “It’s so important to take time out to relax,” Cristina says. “Tea with your girlfriends is the perfect excuse to do so.”

Where A Girl Goes is just the icing on the cake for Cristina Re. Having been in business for 20 years, she has product lines in everything from stationery and home décor to bath and body and food collections, and her range boasts more than 500 products sold to over 1,000 stores around Australia and the world. Her company has sold more than $50 million in product sales over the past two decades. As I sit back and sip on a steaming cup of rose tea in her signature 24-carat-gold porcelain teaware, Cristina shares her entrepreneurial story.

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The butterfly effect

It all started with butterflies when Cristina was six. “From a young age I’d draw little flowers and butterflies in my diary. I knew then when I wanted to grow up I’d do something creative,” she says. Born in Rome, she was influenced from childhood by the classical art and timeless romance of the culture, and it formed her love for rich, decorative and ornamental patterns.

“Luckily, I had very encouraging parents, both artistic, who were a big influence on my creativity. They sent me to art school in Trieste in northern Italy, aged 13, where my love for illustration blossomed, and I wondered how I could make that into a career. It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t. I always knew I wanted to work for myself; I wanted to choose my own hours.”

After moving to Australia with her family, she graduated with a Bachelor of Art with Honours in Design at the prestigious Swinburne University in 1994. A keen photographer, she started dabbling in wedding photography, and stumbled across an opportunity. “There weren’t any female wedding photographers back then, and weddings at that time were so traditional – I think I had more of a fashion eye than the more old-school photographers. I started tailoring unique wedding packages for clients, customising couples’ stationery from the invites to the wedding album. I quickly discovered there was a niche opportunity for customised, decorative invites.”

Redefining DIY

Cristina began to produce do-it-yourself stationery featuring her hand-illustrated patterns for the retail market, with mix-and-match themes available that could be tailored for special events and endless creative projects. The business grew quickly, and she found she couldn’t be a one-woman show for too long. As with many start-ups, she struggled financially initially. “David Jones and Myer wanted to stock my products, but I needed cash to fund the products, quickly. During the early stages of my career I was photographing weddings on the side to generate money. I would be working all weekend – sometimes shooting up to four weddings – then I would work on the business during the week. It was very hectic but it was the quickest way I could sustain growing the businesses to achieve my dream.” Her hard work paid off as business boomed, and Cristina looked to move her signature patterns beyond the stationery realm, diversifying into everything from luxury embossed wallets to couture candles – all with her signature feminine style and elegant packaging. “Creatively, I take inspiration from leading fashion designers around the world: the old greats such as Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, Pucci and Yves Saint Laurent,” she says.

About five years ago, she decided it was time to create her own concept store. “I’d been in business for 15 years, and wanted to have all my products in the one place. I was also interested in running craft workshops. Finally, I wanted to have a special café where I could bring women together (including brides) so women could take time out to pamper themselves.” Cristina felt there was a need for a beautiful place reminiscent of Europe, so she created something very vintage-looking and decadent. “I wanted to offer high tea as an experiment and decided to create my own teacup in pink exclusively for the store. I got so many requests that I stumbled across another niche; one for high-quality teaware. And so began my tea collection.” The store’s been a huge success, and her High Tea in Style collection includes an array of coloured and patterned vintage-inspired fine china, from coordinating tea cups to teapots. She also holds High Creativitea events that combine high tea with a creative craft workshop. Guests can learn to make their own stationery, scrapbook project or even make wedding stationery to help a bride prepare for her big day while indulging in pastel cupcakes and tea.

Hands-on approach

Despite now having a team of 15, Cristina’s still very connected to the business and goes in every day – except for Fridays, which is her creative brainstorming day. “I still love doing some of the papercraft work. Because it’s a self-titled brand, it’s important I’m close to it. Plus, when I stay away, I miss my team! I’m lucky to work with some amazing women.

“I’m proud that we’ve lasted 20 years and branched out into different product ranges; we haven’t just done the one thing. Boutique designers can always struggle – during the GFC I saw a lot of others suffer. When the economy changes, you have to get smarter at producing products that are desirable yet cost effective. I’ve really learnt you have to follow your intuition and your heart. It’s taken me a long time to listen to it and not be influenced by others.”

What’s next on Re’s radar? “In 2015, I want to open a consulting company to work with corporate companies and businesses to assist them in growing their brands and product ranges,” she says. “We also do a lot of styling and art direction for corporate events like Melbourne Spring Fashion Week and Top Model TV.

“In the future, I really want to help people and encourage women to chase their dreams as well as nurture their wellbeing. I love Ellen DeGeneres because of her drive to help others and make a difference in the world with her humour and charisma. My ambition is to have my own talk show in the future with a view to inspire and motivate women in business and life. When it comes to life learning, I am greatly inspired by some spiritual people such as Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Louise Hay and Stuart Wilde.”

Cristina says she doesn’t have any intention of slowing down. “My ambition always gets me out of bed in the morning – I still have so many ideas bubbling over. When I relax, I take my beautiful poodle, Honey, walking in the park, or cook and entertain at home with friends and my partner Jason. I’m also secretly addicted to vintage shopping and love to find special treasures from days gone by. My favourite thing to do every night before I go to bed is to drink a fragrant cup of tea and read a good self-help book on quantum physics or how to use the power of the mind.”

It’s clear that the Cristina Re brand will continue to brew for a long time to come. She says she’s on a mission to educate woman on the importance of nurturing our wellbeing mentally, psychically and spiritually by indulging and surrounding ourselves in beautiful things that make us happy. As I drain the last of my cup and look around, it’s clear she’s got that down to a tea.

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