FASHION ON THE FARM

With a quarter of New Zealand’s population in Auckland, it can be easy to slip into a city-centric mindset. Many of our large businesses operate from Auckland, with many of the remainder based in Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin - meaning many of New Zealand’s smaller towns are out of sight, and firmly out of mind. But sadly for the residents of these small towns, it means our most popular creatives may not extend their reach far enough off the beaten track to have a physical presence. Many rural retailers report facing an uphill battle when trying to convince designers to allow them to stock products. 

Michelle Marie Baynes owns Money For Wine, a retail store with attached coffee shop in Mandeville, near Gore. Baynes is quick, zesty and very passionate about fashion - she’s a store owner in touch with customers, overseas trends and the wider retail market. But Baynes’ vision of opening a retail store with popular brands and exciting customer events came up short when she ran into a slew of high-profile New Zealand brands who refused to supply her. Baynes was told it was the location. “So many people simply don’t get back to you, which is sad when we have such a good pitch. Or they just strike us down - it’s a nightmare. 

“I spend so much time networking and trying to approach different people, and it’s such a waste,” said Baynes. “We are in the middle of nowhere, but there are towns not too far from us, and if we had some of those bigger brands, it would draw out the people from those towns, and we would sell all the stock easily. Fashion moves so fast, and we want to be able to stay with the customers and trends while putting our mark on it. Money For Wine is constantly changing, we’re on top of the trends, and staying with customers. We’re always different, we’re doing our homework well.” 

Baynes isn’t expecting her potential suppliers to come to her. “I fly to Auckland to meet with people, I’m putting everything on the line, and if they like it, they’ll come on board. But some people choose not to; they don’t want to take the risk of supplying us, it’s easy to be disheartened. When you’re out as far as we are, you have to work even harder to get the customers and sales. The good thing is that if you can make it in the middle of nowhere, you can make it anywhere.” 

Baynes is constantly evolving the store merchandising and product selection. “We have managed to get Augustine, which is so popular with the local customers and it’s such a help even to have one key brand. We are very excited at the moment because we just found out Coop is going to supply us, which is amazing! It makes the store much more of a destination because people will get excited to come out and see the new collections.” While Baynes has had recent success with a few brands, she is still being realistic and not resting on a few big names. “You win some, you lose some. I’m going to keep on pushing.”

Kelly Coe, the designer of Augustine, has over 60 stockists across New Zealand and four of her own stores. “It surprises me that anyone is being told they won’t be stocked based on their location,” Coe said. “It may be that designers can’t supply stores due to exclusive arrangements with other retailers in the area, which retailers who are new to the industry may not understand. If it was a cool store, I doubt there would be a designer anywhere who would say ‘no’.” 

Coe has new retailers contacting her weekly, who she has to turn down due to already having retailers in the area. “We can’t have retailers who are a ten-minute drive away from each other. We find a retailer in each town who has the best fit and feel for our brand, and who stocks other brands which appeal to our customer base. We have a group of core customers who have grown with us over the years and are typically very brand loyal, so it is important we are in a store which will appeal to them.” 

Coe added that geographic location alone has no bearing on whether she would choose to supply a retailer or not. “The only reason someone would refuse to stock a retailer would be that it was not the right fit, or if they did not have good credit references.” Despite her own wide outlook, Coe does acknowledge that many labels are decidedly Auckland-centric. Preferring Fashion Weekend over Fashion Week, Coe said she focuses on the customers and not just media. This customer centric focus is also the driving factor behind Augustine’s wide range of stockists from all over the country, many of whom live rurally. “There is no reason for brands similar to Augustine not to be available in small towns - some of our best customers are residents in small towns.” Coe advises retailers struggling to find suppliers to find which customers they are attracting, then target labels those customers want. “A common mistake made by many new retailers is trying to stock every brand they can find, which leads to overstocking and overwhelms customers.” 

Consumers want a to see a range of items from the same designer, not just one or two pieces from lots of different designers. Coe added that another crucial element is the interior of the store. “It doesn’t cost much to have a cool fit-out.”

While e-commerce is certainly going from strength to strength, bricks and mortar still has a vibrant place in the fashion industry. Brands who refuse to supply people run the risk of cutting off the nose to spite the face and also gaining a bad reputation. However, the onus is also on retailers to do their homework, find their niche in the local retail landscape and identify their target customers. This will set them up to have the best possible pitch when approaching brands. There is more to rural New Zealand than Swandris and gumboots.