Janine Zafra isn't afraid of change, which is just one of the reasons we wanted to spotlight her for International Women's Day. As the dynamic founder and creative director of Australian accessory brand Brie Leon, she has continued to evove her brand since she founded it in 2016, while staying true to her values centred around sustainability and eithical production. “I feel like it is important to embrace change, approaching it with an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow,” she says. Indeed, as an entrepreneur, you need to not only embrace change, but go with your gut instinct. Initially, the brand began as an onlinen store selling second-hand clothing. She then started stocking emerging brands from Australia and New Zealand. It was the arrival of her son which sparked a new direction. She moved into jewellery, followed by handbags.
It’s not just her product offering that continues to evolve – it’s her approach to sustainability. Recently, the brand launched its very first handbag collection made entirely of recycled outer materials and linings. “Shopping sustainably allows me to align my business practices with my values and beliefs. I feel all brands need to be responsible for what they create, which in hope has minimal impact on the environment and prioritise the wellbeing of those involved in the production process,” she says.
As a woman, her greatest role has been becoming a mother – and like all great things in life, it hasn’t been without its challenges. “As my child's needs expanded, the demands of the business increased, making it mentally and emotionally draining for me to juggle both roles. Despite ongoing challenges, I learned the significance of self-reflection and delegating responsibilities to ensure a healthy work-life balance,” she says.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, we spoke to Janine about her incredible career journey – and what keeps her inspired.
Brie Leon has been through, in your own words, many different phases. Has each phase felt very organic?
Brie Leon has undergone various transformations since its inception. Initially, it served as a webstore for second-hand clothing, and later developed into an online shop featuring emerging brands from Australia and New Zealand. Following the birth of my son, there was a desire to streamline and simplify the store’s offerings, which led to a focus on jewellery. My passion for vintage accessories and basic skills in jewellery-making inspired me to create unique pieces using old beads and recycled findings. As I continued to source and recreate jewellery that evoked nostalgia for my mother's jewellery box, the brand evolved into what it is today, with a deeper connection to its roots and a strong sense of sentimentality. In each stage of the business, I have followed my instincts and adapted to changes as they arose.
A lot of us fear change – do you embrace it?
Change is an inevitable part of life, and it can bring both positive and negative outcomes. While it is natural to feel hesitant or anxious about change, it is also important to acknowledge that change can bring opportunities for growth and new experiences. Some people may find it easier to adapt to change than others, but ultimately, I feel like it is important to embrace change, approaching it with an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow.
From jewellery, how did you evolve into handbags?
Our handbag category originated from an appreciation for vintage bags, particularly those from the 90s era. Drawing inspiration from my personal favourites, we aimed to reimagine these styles for the more contemporary individual while still aligning with our values of ethical and cruelty-free production.
Jewellery is so personal – what have you learnt about how people shop for jewellery?
Our primary focus is on providing essential everyday pieces that are classic and timeless which are go-to staples for anyone’s personal collection. However, we understand that people also crave something new or difference from time to time, so we try to offer a diverse range to keep things fresh and exciting for not only our customers but also our team. Whether a customer is purchasing an item for a special occasion or as a sentimental piece, we recognise the significance of quality and long-lasting design.
Everything you create is with “intention to be worn as an “everyday” piece and withstand time as long as possible” – why is shopping sustainably so important to you?
Shopping sustainably allows me to align my business practices with my values and beliefs. I feel all brands need to be responsible for what they create, which in hope has minimal impact on the environment and prioritise the wellbeing of those involved in the production process. By using sustainable materials and production methods, it ensures that our creations are not only of high quality but also ethical and eco-friendly. I believe that shopping sustainably allows consumers to make informed choices that support the values they care about. It’s no secret fast fashion and mass production dominate the market, but sustainable fashion is an important step towards a more conscious and responsible industry. By supporting sustainable practices, we can contribute to a better planet and promote a more fair future for all.
How has the brand evolved over the last two years?
In the last couple of years, we have transformed into a more sustainable brand by introducing a wider range of eco-friendly materials beyond just recycled PU and cotton, this includes bio-based Apple leather, rVPB (which can be found in safety glasses from automobiles and architectural industry), and rPET (material made from recycled items such as food packaging and plastic bottles). Our recent achievement is the launch of our first handbag collection made entirely of recycled outer materials and linings, which took us a year to develop. Additionally, we have taken steps in our jewellery category to work mainly with RJC-certified suppliers. We are proud of the progress we have made, and we continue to set more specific goals to ensure our brand's sustainable growth. Nonetheless, we recognise that there is still a long way to go.
How has becoming a mother changed the way you approach your career?
As soon as I found out I was becoming a mother, I knew it was time for change and the way I approached work. My initial priority was to streamline the online business by reducing the inventory of bulky items, so I shifted my focus from clothing to jewellery, which I could conveniently store in a wardrobe at home. As my child's needs expanded, the demands of the business increased, making it mentally and emotionally draining for me to juggle both roles. Despite ongoing challenges, I learned the significance of self-reflection and delegating responsibilities to ensure a healthy work-life balance. Presently, finding staff who share my vision and respect the demands of motherhood is imperative.
To new mothers, what is your advice on navigating work and motherhood?
When it comes to balancing work and motherhood, my recommendation for new mothers would be to avoid feeling guilty about asking for help. Remember that when there’s a will there’s a way. Even seeking advice can assist in thinking about how to navigate around specific obstacles.
What are your time hacks that help you day-to-day?
To be honest, I believe that I have a lot of room for improvement in this area! Despite my efforts to plan my day ahead of time, it rarely goes according to plan, particularly with the demands of motherhood. Nevertheless, I can share a couple useful time-hacks that I usually do on a daily basis - having breakfast on the go, preferably a smoothie made with oats, oat milk, fruit and nuts. Also not getting consumed by emails, I’ll either reply with a quick phone call or prioritise anything important for the next morning to be answered before I start my day.
You meditate – what does meditation bring to your life?
For me, meditation has been a significant tool to help me feel grounded, centred, and more present in the moment. Through regular practice (Vipassana), I am able to quiet my mind and let go of any distractions, worries, or stresses that may be occupying my thoughts. Even taking a few minutes to pause and check in during busy periods can be extremely beneficial. It has helped me to develop greater self-awareness, recognise and manage negative thought patterns or emotions that can impact my well-being. By staying attuned to my inner state and emotions, I am better equipped to manage any challenges that come my way and approach them with a greater sense of calm and clarity.
What three pieces from Brie Leon do you have in your cart?
I personally love no-fuss daily pieces that serve a look, my current top 3 go-to Brie Leon items would be: Camille Crossbody bag for my essentials, Check straw bag for my groceries and beach items, and Balance Sleepers in silver.