Robyn Hall, Managing Director, High Society Ltd

My beginnings in the Fashion Industry were more than 51 years ago when I applied for the position of House Model with the then Society Fashion Ltd.  I was interviewed by Bill Hall and Peter Nola. After ascertaining I was the right size, they asked about my schooling and were blown away when I had UE – neither of them had an academic background and were not even sure what University Entrance was.  Then the secretary was sent in to check my underwear was clean and without holes – yes we wore “slips” in those days, along with suspenders and stockings.  I passed muster.

Not long after I joined, Bill set up his own media campaign which would certainly have been the equivalent of Facebook.  He would have me dress in the latest look – Courreges boots and Mondrian mini-dress for instance, and I paraded up Queen Street window shopping in the hope that either the Herald or Auckland Star photographer would find me.  We imported pantyhose to wear with minis. About once a month a photo would be published of me with the latest look, from Big Zipper, to crochet collars, to colourful raincoats.  The raincoats were the subject of a legal battle, Bill’s description to the fabric supplier was that the “Water pissed in, and the colour pissed out”.  Never a dull moment when Bill and Peter were around.

After ten fairly tumultuous years in the business I married the boss.  To anyone who knew Bill, not such a coup!  He promised life would never be boring, and perhaps that is the only promise he kept. However we had more than forty years of exhilarating married life before Bill passed away at the age of ninety two years ago. In the late 1980’s Bill retired to run his gamefish charter business on Te Ariki Nui and I took over High Society Ltd.

The fashion business has always been a business about change, and over such an extensive period of time I have certainly seen a few.  The proliferation of Australian, and now global chain retailers, in New Zealand has brought an unprecedented level of competition, along with the loss of trade barriers to importing clothing from Asia.  During all this time we have steadfastly remained New Zealand manufactured.   This has meant we have had to remain very focussed on our market segment, and be very aware of price-points and quality to ensure we meet that market.  Sometimes this has involved using expensive fabrics with low labour content, and at others cheaper fabrics with high design and labour content – we are always tweaking the equation to ensure we hit our demographic.

What has remained unchanged is our unwavering love of the industry, and the flexible, loyal and hardworking team of people we have been able to bring together.  My greatest pleasure is to see a great selling style doing well for our retailers – it means we have hit the mark!   I acknowledge that new NZ designers are way more savvy than me regarding social media and the global reach possible, but I am equally determined that we match this new standard and move forward in this direction.  It is the “business of fashion”, not the fashion business, that has been my passion and the reason the company has been able to survive when so many others have dropped out.

My concerns for the industry include the proliferation of designers coming out of the fashion schools – these very talented people are not being taught the business side of their chosen industry, and have no ideas regarding costing, margins, IRD requirements and even on how to lower the construction costs of their design ready for production… The independent retailer faces an ever increasing challenge to stay viable.  We see it is part of our service to support and encourage retailers to utilise social media to drag customers to their shop and away from the malls, with special events, etc.

As a company we decided back in the 80’s that our forte was wholesaling, not retailing, and we have focussed on three brands with a long history – Catalyst 27 years, Obi 15 years and Chocolat 13 years.  These brands occupy different demographic and target markets, and while this is expensive in terms of design and sampling costs with separate photoshoots etc, but it does mean that if one label has a bad season it won’t sink the whole ship.

Is the industry in crisis?  Since the GFC we have witnessed the closure of many of our peers, and those remaining in the market are generally manufactured off-shore. My concern is the for the implications on the infrastructure of the wider market – can we retain fabric suppliers, button suppliers, fabric binders, CMT’s etc. As a born optimist I believe we can, and we certainly thank you, our retailers for your ongoing loyalty and support.

2016, which marks my fifty second year at Society Fashions Ltd/High Society Ltd, is the year I stand back and Anita Lock completes taking over the reins here.  Come mid-February I am off for a skiing stint in Colorado, and then leave on 1 April to fulfil a life ambition – a year in Italy based in the hamlet of Acqualoreto in Umbria. Roll it on!

Arriverderci amicis