This year Auckland label Ingrid Starnes ran a series on their blog that interviewed and photographed local fashion craftspeople, showing the work that goes into New Zealand-made clothing. Along the way they found a story of an industry facing big challenges. Simon Pound, partner in the label, explains why they started the series and introduces five local lynchpins of the fashion industry.
Ingrid in the workroom
Since starting the label we've been constantly impressed by the skill and dedication of the craftspeople and specialists in the local fashion industry who make our garments. However, it seems that local production is in a shaky state due to the move by many labels to cheap offshore production. And it's not over yet; designers are still going overseas - check the labels of prominent New Zealand designers and you might be surprised. We kept hearing how tough things are, and how mad/brave we were to be starting a label. As a strong story emerged we started an interview and photo series on our blog to get a record of what it means to be Handmade in New Zealand. At times it felt like it might be a last record, if so, it would be terribly sad. Each garment is special thanks to the experience of these people; as clothes become more disposable, with fast fashion and cheap imports, this is often forgotten.
The series we ran showed us an industry that has changed remarkably, but that also holds hope. Nearly everyone we spoke to said they thought the future lay in niche products with ecological or ethical underpinning. If, as a country, we can make things with integrity and tell the stories behind our products, there might just be a future to local manufacturing. And this is important: losing this industry isn't just about the jobs and knowledge that will go. It is also about keeping the conditions that allow businesses to grow. All of our local suppliers have helped us - they've shared experience, passed on contacts, lent us equipment, given favourable payment terms to help us grow and taken a punt on a little New Zealand operator. Try getting that from a factory on the other side of the world. We're only here because they were here to help us.
To us, and the customers that support made in New Zealand labels, clothes aren't just another commodity. They're special things made by skilled people. So we thought we'd introduce a few of our stars to you. To read the full stories and see the photo essays by Duncan Innes showing how each of these producers ply their trade, head to our blog.
Des, Nick, Kate and Roger
Roger Wall and the team at Wall Fabrics are a big part of the reason many labels are in business. Fashion is a funny industry. You design roughly a year ahead. To start the process you visit fabric suppliers to get an idea of what might be available and what you can have made up specially.
You then make a sample range. After showing this to potential buyers and getting orders you take delivery of those fabrics. However, you still need to make the garments and deliver them to stores around the country and the world. You then wait to get paid. It can be many months between ordering cloth and seeing a return on a sale, and that's where the fabric suppliers come in. They support all labels, big and small, by providing terms that reflect the quirks of the industry.
Because of this they get to know a lot about the business as people come to them for help. Roger has helped us along the way, sharing his knowledge and guiding us through some big decisions, and he's done the same for many others.
What does the move to offshore production mean for the industry here?
It's a damned thing for skills and experience within a country. What happens is that there's no jobs for people in sewing factories, no jobs for cutters, and it's a sad thing for the garment industry.
What's the future of the industry?
I think there is a very definite future for the industry here. I think the whole world is seeking a better way to do things. The people who stay in New Zealand and make a New Zealand product have a distinctive edge.
Tell us about your role supporting fashion labels?
We only support people of calibre. Good businesses are made by good people who have the right idea and ethics, and also can design.
One of the best things about the local industry is how people help others. One example is the way Madeleine Richards, the buyer at Britomart boutique Made, reached out to make sure we got to know Noelene Slaughter at Avenue Clothing. She said Noelene was the best, and perfect for Ingrid's attention to traditional details. Noelene and her team are now one of the main makers of our clothes, providing the quality that is so important to the label. Noelene has been in the industry for 35 years, most of those working for Marilyn Sainty. She loves the job and the industry, but now with so much production going overseas, wonders if a career path will be there in the future.
What does the move to overseas production mean for skills?
It's hard to find a good machinist and no young people are coming through wanting to sew. It means more designers will need to go offshore eventually, even the ones who have tried to stay.
What do you think is the future for the industry?
It's a bit sad really. I have students come in and I'm happy to teach anybody but no one wants to sew, so I don't know what is going to happen to the industry.
Johnston Press is a great outfit. We first went there because so many friends in fashion recommended them. They're a family-owned print company that specialise in tactile and crafty work. We'd been going through an agent trying to do swing-tags. Nothing was right and there were long lead times for us to see samples as they were being made in China. We were getting depressed at how hard and wrong it all was. The difference, as soon as we went to Johnston Press, was unbelievable. Our contact, Jan Eastwick immediately realised what we were after. She set up the letterpress and we got to see how it worked, and after making up our block we were able to come back and see the first swing tag printed by hand. We could give it the go-ahead right on the spot.
This experience helped us think about the benefits of being local as more than financial. Doing things locally is not as cheap as it could be by going overseas. But in the end, who wants to be the cheapest? That is a race to the bottom. We are really proud to work with Johnston Press as they make us beautiful business-cards, swing-tags and postcards that are special. All of them are letterpress and offset-printed, debossed, using traditional skills and machines.
What does offshoring mean?
The only advantage is that things are cheaper: clothing, whiteware cars, are all down in price. The man in the street can buy more stuff [for less], but soon he won't have a job because there is nothing he is producing. The end of it ... I don't know what it will be. For manufacturing anyway, it is hard to know where it is going to end.
NORTH SHORE DYERS
Stephen Roy Whitby
Stephen is an amazing dyer. Many of our fabrics we dye to our own colourways as having exclusive colours is so important to us. Often Ingrid will go to Stephen with a scrap of vintage fabric and say something like, "Do you think you can get a peach like this but a bit stronger?", and he gets it so perfect that it makes you wonder if he can read minds!
We're a small operation and find his work invaluable to standing out. It is cheaper overseas, but, as Stephen tells us, the cost then is environmental: "Dyeing involves using chemicals and water. I follow eco-standards. I can't discharge water without that water being tested. In other countries it just goes straight into the waterways. My biggest expenses are water-based: wastewater and water in. In other countries there is no eco concern."
Talking to Stephen really hammers home the threat the local industry is under. He's now the last commission dyer operating, where once 20 dyehouses competed. And he has gone from 12 staff to just him. Once he's gone so are all those skills and possibilities, all that craft and art.
Do cheap clothes have other costs?
Yes, I don't understand how it is so cheap. I wonder if there are government subsidies in places like China that are giving them dominance. You can buy made T-shirts for less than raw cotton costs on the world market. It is madness and you only have to look at all the businesses closing here to see the result.
How do you work, how do you get the colours just right?
A lot is intuitive, I always go off previous jobs - and I have thousands of those to call on over 30 years - so I vary the formula. If I don't have one to work from I have to make a decision off my own head. You never know what will wash out as you adjust levels, so you learn what is going to change by experience. Dyeing is an art form, not a science. The reason I'm lucky to still be here is that I am a good dyer. It's still, for me, very difficult. It's not like plugging in a knitting machine and then out it comes.
And what will happen to your skills and knowledge?
Unless I can pay for an apprentice I'll be shutting down. I can't afford it. The inevitable conclusion is that I will shut down in 5-10 years. And there will be no-one to replace what I do. I can't afford to get a labourer. Survival for me is working alone until I'm too tired to carry on.
DESIGN AND PRINT
Paul and Upula
Every season we make exclusive prints. This is very important to us so that we can have something entirely of our own and because it is pretty much the most fun thing in the world to design, make and have your own print, perfect, just as you wanted. We make runs of a few hundred metres. The process of making a print involves Ingrid drafting up a design, then getting a test screen made. The day the fabric arrives on the courier is keenly anticipated. It's a bit like waiting for Christmas. Every morning we open the front door hoping that our present has arrived. A great result is always met with a squeal of delight. The guys at Design and Print are gurus. They have the knack for getting the mix just right, and making sure that we can make special, exclusive styles quickly, easily and locally. Over the years their business has experienced change, like the rest of the industry, from offshoring of work. But they, like many other businesses have found a new niche - being small, responsive and special.
What makes what you do special here?
We make sure that everything we use is water-based and eco-friendly, right from the start.
How has your business changed?
A few years ago now we had 10 staff excluding owners; we're now down to two staff. Off and on, as the work demands, we sometimes do four-day weeks.
What does Made in New Zealand mean to you?
Made in New Zealand means supporting the locals.