Virginia Bailey’s story about her beginnings in fashion is very different from most Australian fashion designers.
Armed with an engineering degree, the 29 year-old headed over to Mali in West Africa to work in the mines, living on site with other employees and locals.
By day, she’d spend up to 10 hours beneath the ground, and by the evening she’d frequent the small village nearby, eating and exploring the hinterlands with the locals. After two years of working in the small, impoverished West African nation, Virginia came home for a short stint and decided to stay.
“It was an incredible experience; I do miss it badly but when I came back to Brisbane I realized how much I had missed out. It’s funny – you’re so busy out there that you don’t realize you’re homesick and what you’re missing out on until you return. My sister had a baby in the time I was gone, and he was almost one by the time I met him. I felt like it was time to come home.”
Since returning home in January this year, Virginia has kept West Africa close to her heart. There were two aspects of her life in Mali that had the deepest impact on Virginia; the lack of opportunities for women, and the gorgeous, brightly coloured fabrics worn by them.
“When I’d travel around Africa, I’d see all these amazing fabrics,” Virginia says.
“I was getting local tailors to make me up little dresses and skirts, and then when I was wearing them back home, friends were telling me how cool it was. My sister was actually the one that said, ‘dude, you should make this," she laughs.
And so Mango Rains was born. A hobby sewer since childhood, Virginia set about getting her friends and former colleagues to bring back fabric with them, sewing and selling the garments through her website and at markets and festivals across Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
And while her collection of structured shorts, skirts and cropped tops in vivid prints have been lapped up by savvy fashionistas in Brisbane and beyond - with celeb followers including the likes of Amy and Emma from the Brisbane band Shepherd - it’s the social conscience behind the label that has commanded the most attention.
Every single cent of profits Virginia earns goes back to Africa, injected into educational and training programs for women, as well as initiatives supporting the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). She also plans to extend the donations to other developing nations.
“I was shocked by how much this (female circumcision) occurs,” Virginia says.
“It’s not a religious thing; it’s just part of their culture and it’s so normal there. Even the girls that I met said they would get the daughters circumcised, because their grandmothers do it and it’s just what happens. But there are so many birthing complications and hygiene problems as well, which often ultimately leads to poor self-esteem in the girl.”
The name Mango Rains takes its inspiration from the single set of rains in the West African dry season, ripening mangoes on all the trees and providing colour against an otherwise arid and grey background.
“The name reminded me of the colourful fabric within a city background,” she says.
And she says it’s a name that ultimately reflects progress and renewal.
“It represents prosperity, hope and growth which is everything that I envisage for the people working within the projects that the charity sponsors - as well as the business itself.”