The pair behind Clothing for Correspondence - Australians Jane Dickenson and Penny Chai – have received an eclectic range of commissions, including a business proposal to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos from the owner of a floating bookstore, letters of complaint to airlines, a drycleaner and the tax office, as well as a Valentine’s letter from a woman to her husband's Audi. We asked Jane and Penny for more details...
How did you come up with the idea for Clothing for Correspondence?
Penny: We met while studying creative writing at university. Jane lamented the fact that she wasn’t given as many hand-me-down clothes as I, so we devised a plan to try and get more. We had to think of something we could offer in return and we both like writing letters so we thought, ‘Bingo!’.
There seems to be a lot of people with the intention of writing letters, but not the time, desire or know-how. Also, we both hate shopping and love recycling, so this was a good way of never having to buy clothes ever again. We roped in a friend to help us build the website and then launched in mid 2009. We’ve been busy ever since!
Have you always been keen letter-writers?
Jane: Yes, we love writing letters. Penny’s parents met as penpals so maybe it’s in her genes... Of course now we’re pretty busy writing letters for Clothing for Correspondence, we don’t have a lot of spare time to write letters for ourselves, except when our local Members of Parliament do things that are particularly idiotic.
Do you find that people prefer to receive traditional hand-written mail to emails?
Penny: People email us with their correspondence request and we type up the letter and email it back to them, but a lot of people then print out the letter to send it on. We don’t tend to handwrite the letters – we leave that to person who has requested the letter.
Jane: We do however receive most of the clothing via post. We’ve had parcels from all around the world – Fiji, Budapest, Texas, the UK – and many people include a little ‘thank you’ card or note. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a parcel in the letterbox!
What’s the best piece of clothing you’ve received?
Penny: Some people are incredibly generous. We got a beautiful vintage cocktail dress from a guy in Texas. And recently we received a pair of high-waisted red shorts that are gorgeous. We’ve been lucky – people send nice clothes and we’ve liked almost everything we’ve received. There have only been one or two things neither of us have wanted and we passed them on to friends or a charity shop. But nothing has been too atrocious, thankfully!
What kinds of people use Clothing for Correspondence?
Jane: All kinds of people. Definitely more women than men, but men do make requests. We get a lot of requests for love letters, particularly around Valentine’s Day, and quite a few requests for love ‘confessions’ – ‘I need to tell my best friend I’m in love with him’ and that sort of thing. It’s nice to be trusted with delivering such important messages!
We also get quite a few requests for letters of complaint, which can be fun. Richard Branson has come up a few times – one guy kept getting threatening letters from Virgin Mobile telling him to pay up AUS$0.00 or else. That was pretty funny.
I’m guessing you both have a day job...
Jane: I recently returned to Melbourne after a year in remote Western Australia working in Aboriginal health, and Penny freelances in the film industry doing research and production coordinating. We both also do copywriting to pay the bills. We always have a bunch of writing projects on the go, at various stages of development. Jane’s got a manuscript for a novel that some publishers are interested in and Penny’s written a short film that’ll go into production in 2012.
Penny: We both love writing short stories and have been published in various magazines and journals. And we’re working on a feature film screenplay together – who knows, maybe Clothing for Correspondence will make an appearance in that. At the very least, we could use some of the funny stories that come in people’s letter requests!
Do you write letters independently or as a team?
Penny: Normally the way it works is that one of us does a first pass at a letter, then kicks it back to the other one who finesses it. So we both work on every letter but separately. Sometimes the first pass is really polished so there’s not much more to do; other times it needs a bit of loving.
Are you thinking of expanding the concept of Clothing for Correspondence in the future?
Penny: We just launched a new website and there’s been a great response to that. It’s constantly growing with more and more people signing up for our monthly newsletter and liking our Facebook page.
Jane: We’d love to put a collection of the best letters into a book with illustrations of the crazy scenarios that people tell us about – because a lot of the letter requests come out of very crazy scenarios.
What’s the most unusual letter you’ve had to write?
Jane: We’ve written a Valentine’s letter to an Audi (from a wife who felt her husband loved the car more than her) and a love letter to a house (from a couple who were trying to sway an estate agent to choose them as renters). The more creative people are with their request, the more creative we can be with the letters, so unusual ones are our favourites.
Feeling inspired? Download Patrick Collister's letter-writing masterclass for direct marketers, get advice on creating a powerful fundraising letter or read Mel Henson's advice on writing copy that sells.