The humble shed has been the birthplace of many men’s projects - doing up bikes, restoring furniture and potting vegetables. But for Clare Bowden and Fiona Edwards, a garden shed was the beginning of a different kind of project - the menswear label, Mandatory.
Clare and Fiona met and became friends while studying at Wellington Polytech (now Massey Wellington) in 1988. They crossed paths again in 1995 at a fashion and hair event in Wellington called To Die For. When they met up again they found that, independently of each other, they had both set up womenswear labels - Shine and Peel. Their designs were sold through the Wellington stores, ZFA and Starfish. Clare’s studio was located in a friend’s garden shed. "With a cutting table and machines I could work long hours without disturbing flatmates. I had one outworker. Rent was cheap and businesses and friends alike were very supportive."
It was the complaints of male friends about the lack of good menswear options in Wellington that provided the impetus for the pair to join together to start a new business. "Guys at parties had been constantly decrying the lack of menswear options and we thought there was a real market for it." Mandatory started when they found a retail space in the heart of Cuba Mall, near Wellington’s iconic Bucket Fountain. The space had previously been a menswear store. They opened their doors in the afternoon of 15 June 1997, sold one thing and went for a beer. "We had been up for days and nights getting everything ready to open and were exhausted."
For the past 17 years, Mandatory have also occupied a studio, one block away in the historic Hope Gibbons building. There are two large cutting tables, finishing machines, a washing machine, industrial drying rack and creative space to design. Clare and Fiona employ three full time and four part time staff. They also have two contract sewers and two contract manufacturers. Everything is produced in small runs, in season, in Wellington.
Clare and Fiona share the design process, but with very different approaches. Fiona works from scratch and sources cloth to work her designs up. Clare designs after she has secured the cloth. "We work in support of each other's designs and get considerable support from our staff." Clare says custom fit, styling and wardrobe management are a big drawcard for Mandatory. "The feedback we commonly get about our clothes is around the understated 'classic-design-with-a-twist', the quality and the fit. Guys often come in wearing trousers they’ve owned and loved for four years and that’s a real source of satisfaction for us; that garments have been so useful; well-worn and well-loved and still look great. The other reward comes from making things to fit for guys who have difficulty finding clothes they like that fit. The ethnic diversity within the small population of New Zealand means a huge range of sizes and tastes. We made an outfit for a man who was 6"7 the other week and it was the first time he had tried something on that was made for him and fit perfectly. The ability to chase the perfect fit and 'create recipes' for those tricky shapes is what makes our clients so loyal and we love being able to offer it."
Tough times with the 2008 global financial crisis meant Clare took to the shop floor and stayed. Being on hand means she is available to help with the fit. "Guys are in pants all the time, everyone can relate the agony of the hunt for good shape in the design you like.” Suits and tailored wear will always be an important part of the business, but there has been an increasing shift to the more 'smart-casual' dress code that many workplaces now employ. "Most of our clients don’t have two separate wardrobes for work and casual as they once did so we design a lot more for the 'double-duty' smart casual wardrobe."
Mandatory has deliberately steered away from wholesale. Instead they aim to keep the physical and financial costs of production to a level that delivers to the actual market. "We are immensely proud of this approach which allows for meaningful, highly appreciated work for employees. We can use limited edition high quality fabric without exorbitant cost exacerbated by waste stock." Fiona and Clare see this way of working as the future culture of fashion. Fiona cites Tom Ford’s announcement of his See Now – Buy Immediately collection this September. "It will mean actual demand can be better married to supply, reducing waste and bring a correction in costing both at the bottom end and top of the fashion market.”
It seems that their approach is working - Mandatory has been accredited as a Conscious Consumer business, the New Zealand organisation aiming to create a global marketplace for sustainable products and services. It’s an appropriate recognition for a label with such high regard for the craft of making that began its life in a garden shed.