Growing up, Ashleigh Vallis would hop from plane to plane, joining her flight attendant parents on their travels.
Her passion was travelling and, from the moment she left school, she wanted to follow in her mum and dad’s footsteps.
WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: Behind the scene at Ashleigh Vallis’ successful brand Summi Summi.
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She had only flying in mind, but her parents were keen on her going to university first.
“I went for a year and I hated it and I just dropped out,” the mother-of-two, now 31, tells 7Life.
“I think I changed my degree three times in three semesters – I never went back.”
In 2012, aged 20, Vallis applied for her first flight attendant job, with a Chinese airline.
“I went along to the interview, and I was an hour late,” she recalls.
“I turned up crying. It was a whole disaster.
“Anyway, they still selected me.”
She packed up her life and moved to China for two years, before returning home to Sydney and joining Virgin Australia.
But Vallis found being a flight attendant wasn’t as glamorous as it appeared to be.
“It was actually really draining and exhausting,” she says.
“And I knew in the back of my head I didn’t want to do it forever.
“Both my parents did, and it just looked like it takes a toll on your body.”
So, four years after entering the field she had long dreamt about, Vallis quit – as did her flight attendant partner, Kaan, who is now 50.
She had no idea what else she was going to do.
Then she fell pregnant with her first daughter, Tippi.
“We moved up to Yamba and left flying behind,” she recalls, adding that the relocation to northern NSW was to be close to Kaan’s sons.
“I didn’t have a plan at all.”
Following the move, the mum found herself “basically poor”, so she took a position in a bank to make ends meet.
She found the job “depressing” so, to cheer herself up, she started to make kid’s clothes.
Fashion was something that also ran in the family.
Before becoming a flight attendant, her mum had modelled and worked as a seamstress, making wedding dresses.
“She basically designed and made all her own clothes, and I grew up with her saying, ‘Why would I buy that, I could make that at home’,” Vallis recalls.
“I think it was subconscious – it wasn’t forefront in my mind that I wanted to be in fashion – it was born in me.”
Vallis would spend three years designing and making children’s clothes as a hobby, and selling them at local stalls.
“I’d gone to markets for a few years and never made a profit,” she says.
“I just thought it (making kids’ clothes) was really cute.”
That’s until adults started to take an interest in her work – and asked Vallis if she would consider making her designs in adult sizes.
The mum, who by now had welcomed her second daughter, Luka, was stunned.
So in 2019, she began granting their wishes and rebranded her collection.
“I said to my partner Kaan, ‘I’m going to have a crack at this’,” she says.
“He knows I’m a very stubborn person, and it doesn’t really matter if I asked for his opinion – I’m just going to do what I want to.
“I was too scared for a while, but I think I did one bodysuit, and it sold out.
“So I just kept going with it.”
That first bodysuit was based on a “stripy ribbed cotton” baby onesie.
“I made one just to see, and it was really flattering and everyone ordered them,” she says.
Vallis called her brand “Summi Summi”, a name inspired by her older daughter.
“When my first daughter was learning how to talk, and she wanted something, she would say ‘give me summi summi’,” Vallis says.
“My partner said, ‘If you ever do anything, it has to be called ‘Summi Summi’.”
Her first collection of bodysuits, which were shared by influencers Ruby Matthews and Elle Ferguson, sold out.
“I actually made my first bit of profit, so I was like, ‘Woah, ok, maybe I should keep going’,” she says.
Vallis threw everything she had into building her business.
But when the mum released her second adult collection, she made little profit and wasn’t “paying myself anything”.
That all changed when COVID hit – and her brand “boomed”.
Not giving up
“I was one of the really lucky small brands that had basically no overheads, I did everything on a pre-order basis,” she explains.
“So I wasn’t out of pocket, and it took off.”
The mum says her inspiration for her clothing collections, which includes swim wear and ribbed cotton clothing, came when she moved to Yamba.
“I kind of had that sort of ‘city fashion’ vibe in my head,” she tells 7Life.
“I was like, ‘I can’t wear any of this here’.
“But then I was also really disappointed with the beach wear that I found around here, so I kind of created a fusion.”
As her business continued to grow, Vallis began to feel so-called imposter syndrome.
“I realised I had no idea what I was doing,” she says.
“I never studied fashion, I didn’t study business. I was really winging it, and that’s when it kind of went down.”
Although popular, Vallis’ brand had plateaued, and the mum says she came close to giving up.
“I was pretty much about to give up on it, and then I hired a few people with more knowledge than me,” she says.
Summi Summi now comprises herself, two direct employees, and a wholesale agent and designer who are on contract.
Vallis says her “amazing” team helped get the business back on track, doubling sales from the previous year.
And today, the brand is turning over more than seven figures.
The former flight attendant is still passionate about travel – and one day hopes to merge it with her love of fashion.
“(I’d like to) just go and experience different cultures. I need to get out and be inspired,” she says, adding she hopes the inspiration will help her with future designs.
“I’d love to go to Europe and sit in a café and just watch everyone – it’s so fascinating, I could do it all day.”
Breast cancer funds
But her European dreams are on hold for now, with Vallis about to hit pause on her involvement in Summi Summi as she awaits life-altering surgery.
The fashion designer has been told she has an 80 per cent chance of developing breast cancer because she has the BRCA2 gene mutation.
So in May, she will undergo a preventative double mastectomy.
To acknowledge the procedure, which aims to reduce her chances of developing breast cancer, Vallis wants to give back.
Summi Summi will be launching a special T-shirt, with all profits going to a breast cancer charity.
“As something that is close to my own heart (and boobs) I hope to make as much impact as possible,” she said.
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