IS NZ-MADE DEAD?

Remember the Buy NZ Made logo - with the little red kiwi on a blue background and its implicit promise of quality, ethics and patriotism? That helpful little Kiwi is not seen often on clothing labels nowadays, especially amidst the inflow of overseas fashion brands penetrating our markets and the almost instinctual option of outsourcing to China. But it seems our Buy NZ-Made buddy has been shuffling stealthily through the undergrowth to have a resurgence with ethically minded consumers and designers.

Apparel spoke to Stephen Blase at The Pattern Table, in Mount Eden. Working with at least 30 major, established brands, The Pattern Table is a ‘one-stop shop’ which is one of the only CMT specialists in New Zealand who can bring to life an entire garment from just a design. Blase said his biggest difficulty is awareness in the market, especially regarding the price differences between manufacturing here and overseas. 

While a plain t-shirt may cost $4 a piece from a manufacturer in China, the fabric alone here might cost $15 a metre, so for half a metre of fabric to make the shirt that is already double the price. Add on the time of cutting and sewing, at the wage in Auckland which is much higher than in China, and you’re looking at around $15 each which is three times that of China. An upside of manufacturing with a small boutique CMT specialist like The Pattern Table is the smaller order amounts - according to Blase “the bulk of the business is the larger local brands, working on mid to high priced garments. Then a smaller part of our business is customised pieces.” The Pattern Table can make one-off garments, as well as doing finishings and trims for Whitecliffe and AUT students. When asked if he has seen a resurgence in New Zealand manufacturing Blase replied “one hundred percent.” He has observed a definite upturn with ultimate consumers being more interested in the origins of their garments and designers more interested in the ethics of their supply chain. 

Even in the last year, The Pattern Table has seen a distinct increase in work. Sustainability is an important part of the business, and The Pattern Table work assiduously to ensure all garments are cut to minimise off-cut wastage. Whatever leftover fabric they have is made into other garments, given to clients who utilise it for upcycled clothing, or to the Salvation Army shop below them which makes it into rags. 

All in all, Blase’s outlook was that of optimism; Kiwi-made is alive and kicking in Mount Eden, and young designers are empowered to bring their ideas to life in the most sustainable, local way possible. Petra Tyler-Brown at CMT Services Ltd has been an NZ manufacturing leader for over 16 years, and her expertise reflects this. With a permanent staff of five ladies who have been working together for 30 years (give or take), they have a wealth of experience with which to help their clients. Sadly, this experience is dying out. 

Despite the ‘upswing in interest’ Tyler-Brown has observed occurring in New Zealand manufacturing, she struggles to find trained staff who can sew at the speed and quality needed for a professional machinist. Given that CMT Services Ltd works with around twenty leading New Zealand designers, the demand for highly skilled machinists is ample and unfulfilled. Tyler-Brown suspects this is due to “a lack of interest in sewing, as many people don’t see the worth of the skill. To work for a manufacturer, you have to be a tradesperson, an artisan and highly skilled in many areas. Now people are more interested in being designers than working in a manufacturing career.” As a result, there isn’t a new generation of machinists coming through which is a challenge for CMT businesses like Tyler-Brown. And it’s a catch-22; as the amount of local skilled manufacturers dwindle our homegrown designers are forced to look overseas for more complicated garments which can’t be made in New Zealand. 

This exodus diminishes the amount of work for local manufacturers who struggle to stay afloat. Consequently, when our designers want to return their manufacturing to New Zealand, ‘there’s nothing to come home to’. Tyler-Brown is confident that a growing number of consumers are actively seeking NZ-made products, and many designers are focusing on producing within our borders. 

However, there is the irrefutable fact that producing in New Zealand inevitably costs more than overseas, even though machinists, unfortunately, aren’t paid a wage which reflects their worth and expertise. Tyler-Brown splits much of her profits between her staff but feels it still is less than what she would like to pay them. As for the future of domestic manufacturing, “New Zealand-made has to stand alone on its own merits, which isn’t always possible,” said Tyler-Brown. All difficulties aside, Tyler-Brown and her small, expert team are flexible, happy to work on small quantities overseas manufacturers won’t accept, and well-versed in the practical sewing and garment production knowledge which is hard to find in our little corner of the world.

Apparel’s investigations took us to a veritable authority right at the heart of NZ-made products. Trina Snow is the Marketing Manager for the Buy NZ Made campaign, the home of that iconic Kiwi logo. Buy NZ Made is primarily a licensing agent which grants companies permission to use their logo based on compliance with their fair trading agreements. Apparel goods only make up 5 percent of all the products licensed by Buy NZ Made, and within those apparel products, fashion garments are a smaller percentage. 

“There has been an increase in the amount of young, up-and-coming designers wanting to be licensed NZ made,” according to Snow. This growth is a good sign, considering the myriad of advantages designers can enjoy by working with local manufacturers. “It keeps skills in New Zealand and keeps the industry alive. Clothes manufactured in New Zealand often fit New Zealand body shapes better than overseas made garments, and garments made here are always really excellent quality,” explained Snow. 

For designers looking to be licensed “make sure products are made here - importing pre-cut clothing then sewing them here is not enough. Fabric can be imported, but it must be cut and sewn here.” The Buy NZ Made campaign has been around since 1988, and its prestigious logo is backed up by an ethical approach and the weight of its long-term focus. 

Don’t call the coroner just yet, NZ-made is still a thriving part of our industry. It is being kept alive by passionate, intelligent manufacturers who are just as happy to make a slew of designer garments as they are to help a recent graduate start a small line. 

Also responsible for its continued vitality are the Kiwi designers who are staying true to their roots and producing as much as possible onshore, supporting their fellow New Zealanders and ensuring ethical supply chains. And lastly, credit must go to the consumer who cares; who informs themselves and chooses NZ made where possible.