IS NEW ZEALAND MADE FASHION HANGING BY A THREAD?

Written by Denise L’Estrange-Corbet
Women of Influence 2017
Arts & Culture Winner

When did you last look at the label to see where it was made?

In 1999, the New Zealand Four were picked to represent the country on an international stage at London Fashion Week, in both the February and September. Prior to this, however, both WORLD and Zambesi had been selected to show at Mercedes Australian Fashion Week in 1997, the first time New Zealand designers had been selected to show internationally. The reaction was unprecedented.

Of the NZ4, Zambesi and Nom d received orders from Liberty’s and WORLD received orders from Selfridges and Liberty’s from their first showing.

We were told not to expect too much, as buyers liked to see brands a few times, to ensure they were sustainable and could meet the orders. However, the buyers wanted New Zealand made.

It was something that had not been achieved before, and it was seen as almost peculiar, that designers from this little island nation could be selling in London, and many in the UK were not even sure where New Zealand was!

At the time, the majority of New Zealand designers made in New Zealand. We used New Zealand wool, there were factories and outworkers everywhere, the New Zealand designers supported the industry, the workers and the country.

In the early 90’s WORLD found a small factory in Grey Lynn that manufactured denim. The owner, a short balding man that rarely smiled, had all the machines, and made clothes for a few local labels.

One day, the owner told us he could no longer do work for us, as a denim manufacturer, bigger than us, had told the owner he would pull all his work if he continued to make for WORLD, seeing us as a threat to his business.  I was outraged, and wrote to the bullyboy denim manufacturer and the Commerce Commission. The manufacturer got his lawyer to deny everything, but the factory owner said as the other manufacturer was larger than us, he had no choice.

I warned him it was a very stupid move to be reliant on one customer, regardless of the promises they made, but he had been assured of continual work.  After a short time, the denim manufacturer took all his production to China. The Grey Lynn factory closed, all lost their jobs, but the price of the jeans stayed the same. Even though the cost of making them was severely cut, this was not passed onto the customer.

This started to happen more regularly throughout the New Zealand fashion industry, people going offshore to get their items made. I have to say it, even though nobody else will. I am going to lose the will to live if I hear one more ‘New Zealand Designer’ say ‘designed in New Zealand’. Well, where the hell is it made?  They spout off about how much they “love NZ”, how they would “not live anywhere else,” how “well they do here,” not only with clothing, but with an assortment of tacky accessories from mugs to Christmas decorations, yet where are all of these items made? You guessed it – not here!

They may have a few stores, but they do nothing to support the country or the fashion industry. Their production and manufacture will be their largest cost, and that goes straight to factories overseas, not into our economy. The reason is not because of volume; you can get the volume made here. It is definitely not the quality; third world countries are rarely, if ever, renowned for this. It is not for their processes, as the clothing is usually the most simple in terms of design, backed up by a lot of hype via PR companies employed to send out screeds of press releases almost on a daily basis. It is for one thing and one thing only – making money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all businesses have to make money to survive, but at what cost to the impoverished workers making it? Why is this always overlooked? New Zealand designers who actually do not make here at all, they just happen to reside here.

When Francis and I started WORLD in 1989, we made a conscious effort to have our production held here, in New Zealand, for a few reasons. I was born here, our brand was started here, and we grew to become an international brand with the support of NEW ZEALANDERS! 

We all had to start somewhere, and all New Zealand based designers started here, all the same way, small, and gradually grew, due to the local consumers support of them, not by shoppers in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. We made an effort to support the people that had supported us, and kept our production here, so that our craft would help the next generation wanting to go into the fashion industry. I am not saying that by making items in third world countries you are not also helping them, but you are doing this so you do not have to pay them a decent wage, and at what cost to your own industry? At the rate it is heading, from what I know, there are only a few ‘designer’ brands that still exclusively manufacture here.  There are large manufacturers that also make here, but they are not household names in the fashion industry, they make the ‘look of the season’, with nondescript brands through larger stores.

What will happen if the very few high-end brands decide to go offshore?  What will the fashion students, who have been studying fashion in the hallowed halls of Otago and Massey, have to look forward to?  Sitting in front of a computer everyday saying, “the container of knitwear has arrived?” No, they are going to take all that amazing talent and head overseas to Europe, where the revered designers still manufacture in the country they were founded.

Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Dior, Ferragamo, Goyard, Chanel, Hermes etc. have all stayed true to their country of origin, which is what has made them the luxury brands of today. They have hundreds of years between them of excellence, and people are on waiting lists to join, to learn their skill of craftsmanship.

The day any of these brands decides to manufacture in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh is the day they sign their own death warrants and are no longer considered luxury or even desirable. I have no doubt their respective Governments would get involved if they even thought about moving. They are a precious commodity to their countries and the industry, and they need to be looked after.

Clothing sold through the Warehouse, Kmart, and now H & M and Zara are entering our tiny little market and trying to flex their muscle in our miniscule bolthole. This won’t affect the luxury end of the market, but how sustainable is it? What about the New Zealand brands that are in this market? We just have to sit back and watch the big boys slug it out, and slug it out they will, as they have only one thing to bring in the punter: being cheaper than their competitor.  

None of those brands offer anything unique. If you took their labels out and laid the garments out on a table and asked people to identify which item is from which shop, they would be hard pressed. The clothes have no ‘signature’. They all look the same, unlike the New Zealand made designer brands.

Topshop in Australia went into voluntary liquidation owing creditors $35m. The franchisee Hilton Seskin has said that clothing sent to Australia was “made up of outdated clothing items left over from its British operation”. So this part of the world gets the leftovers.

The clothing went from China, or wherever it was made, to England was unloaded, checked, loaded and then sent to Australia. How was this ever going to work? How was it going to work here, with a population of 4.6million, when it could not work in Australia, a population of 24.64million?

Was it the hype? Just because it works in the UK does not mean it will work here, but the excitement of some just made me think the world had actually gone bonkers. The media went into a frenzy. It was all they could talk about for days. It is a shame they would never do that if a local designer opened a new store, with locally made items.

Now H&M and Zara are here, all share the same manufacturing bases, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and whilst some of the factories may pay above their countries legal minimum wage, anyone with a single brain cell can work out, that this is slave labour. Someone is making a lot of money somewhere along the line, when I cannot even purchase fabric for the price of one of their finished products, and they have to pay all of things we have to pay; wages, rent, lighting, heating, security, deliveries, tax. They still come out with a profit, so who is not getting paid?

Beyonce, who is all about ‘empowerment to women’, designed a range for Topshop, where the workers in Sri Lanka who actually sewed her garments, earned the empowerment to say they made NZ$8.60 per day. Wow, thanks Beyonce! You are a star, how much did you make from it? More than NZ$8.60 per day, I’m guessing.

Don’t give me your ‘empowerment’ bullshit, or helping people in third world countries. The bottom line is, you use them because they are cheap, and you can make an enormous profit from their hardship.

From December 1999 until 2008, New Zealand was under a Labour Government. The Prime Minister at the time, the Rt. Hon. Helen Clark, was also the Minister for Arts & Culture and not just in name. She put her money where her mouth is, as she genuinely loved and supported the arts.

There were grants available for not only fashion designers to show their wares internationally, be it a Trade Fair or door knocking, but also most of the arts.

Today, there is nothing, and I really feel for the young students coming out of architecture, fashion, furniture design schools, who would love to show at Trade Fairs, but if you do, it is all at your own cost.

I looked into grants available, to see what there is from NZTE to Creative New Zealand and everything in between. There is minimum funding to show here, but get on a plane, and you are on your own. It has all changed.

Something has to give. The high end designer brands that do still make here, the likes of WORLD, Zambesi, Nom d, Carlson, Crane Brothers and RJB, are held in the highest regard due to their quality and length of business, collectively well over 100 years of knowledge and expertise.

WORLD does not buy into sending freebies to New Zealand media. My philosophy has always been that if they like it enough, they will buy it. We have a minimum wage to adhere to - all of my staff are paid well above this, and work in great environments.

I remember having this very conversation with Philip Treacy, OBE, the UK milliner, when we had dinner one night. He told me he has never, and would never, give media or any celebrity any free anything, as all his workers are known to him, are artisans in their field, and he feels it undersells their worth. Giving away their pieces for the sake of a few lines in a magazine or being able to send out another press release to say someone wore your clothing was not something any luxury brand does. The product speaks for itself. It does not need endorsements. The ‘celebrities’ may be wearing your items, but only because they were given it for free. If they had the option of buying it, they probably wouldn’t.

Yet here, the fashion consumer media thrive on their freebies. You see them out wearing them, one even told me the handbag she had been given was ‘loaned’ to her, what, for 3 years? That’s when I saw her with it again! They do not like talking about what they get, as people would be shocked at the amount of clothes, sunglasses, homeware etc, that are heaped upon them, all made in countries that do not care about their workers conditions.

That is how it works here: send me a load of free shit, and I will give you column inches, really not that interested in the people who keep the local industry afloat. And what about if we did decide to go offshore, adopted a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em attitdue’, what would happen to the new and local brands then? The brands that perhaps have one store and a few wholesale accounts, and do not do the volume to make overseas?  When all the New Zealand factories have closed up shop, where will they go?

And then 20 years later, some smart thinker will come up with the idea of “let’s manufacture clothes in New Zealand!” and it will all start again.

• We have done this.  

• We have done the hard slog.

• We have pushed the boundaries.  

• We have stood up for what we believe is the right thing to do. 

• We have put New Zealand fashion on an international stage. 

• We have opened the door for others to pass through. Don’t slam it in our faces. 

I am going to keep on about this until someone listens. We need to get back to fundamentals and supporting local industries, not just in fashion, but everywhere. Not doing so is at our peril.

Support your local industry if you can, because if one day it is not there, it will be too late.

Lead Image: SKW Photography