Kiwi designers fight for future of industry

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

In the wake of Wellington fashion label Starfish going into liquidation, many may wonder why our labels are struggling. You can almost hear the collective thought process: Designing and making clothes can't be that expensive. Why can't designers who produce their clothes here just lower their prices to match online retailers? Then we'd all buy New Zealand-made.

As many in the industry will tell you, it's not as simple as that. Managing director of Ruby, Christine Sharma, says competing in a global market is proving difficult.

"We cannot compete with what the large international companies who, through their sheer volume, are able to achieve at very cheap price points. There are a lot of compliance costs in New Zealand and these need to be spread across the number of units manufactured - so it's obvious the smaller the market, the less spread available to place the costs."

The economies of scale at play are felt even more by up-and-coming labels. One half of the duo behind Maaike, Emilie Pullar, finds the high production costs here inhibit business, yet she and Abby van Schreven are determined to keep their production in New Zealand.

"Because the local industry is shrinking, our factories are forced to put their prices up, which obviously hits our margins really hard. And because we're still a growing business and our quantities are quite small, we often get put at the end of the queue."

On top of that, some factories add surcharges for orders under a certain level. And while everyone knows you have to spend money to make money, Pullar points out that the outlay for designers is quite high, with a long period before they see any income in return.

"We design, pattern-make, sample, sell, buy fabric, cut and produce orders, all before seeing any of the money for it - it's super-tough getting through those months. I think a lot of people have this perception of fashion as a glamorous job where we sit around matching colours and sharpening pencils; in reality Abby and I work seven days a week to keep this business going - it's hard work."

This story is not unique to Maaike. All designers experience this, so choosing to keep production here in New Zealand is neither a cheap nor an easy choice. Most designers who make that decision are passionate advocates for New Zealand-made goods, such as Hawke's Bay-based Kilt designer Melissa Williams-Lamb.

"Buying New Zealand-made has such an immense social, economic and environmental impact on our beautiful country. More jobs, less shipping waste and more money kept in New Zealand," she says.

But there's more to it than just keeping money in little old Godzone. If we don't support our local labels, says Sharma, we risk losing production skills and our unique design view.

"The biggest loser will be the longer-term loss of a New Zealand design aesthetic, which is quite unique on the world stage. The stronger we make our New Zealand base, the more robust we are to the large brands coming and trading here," she says.

For New Zealand fashion labels to continue to survive, and thrive, consumers need to make an effort to buy New Zealand-made. But while every purchase makes a difference, there are bigger changes that could be made.

Unlike other industries, there's very little government support for fashion designers. The industry itself has FINZ, a non-profit supporting body, but designers are largely left to their own devices. Creative New Zealand doesn't fund fashion projects and there isn't anything like the NZ On Air funding available to musicians.

Pullar believes there just isn't enough government support for start-up fashion businesses.

"The local industry needs to be encouraged to stay in New Zealand - why is the Government not putting incentives in place?

"Not getting any support stunts our growth - to expand overseas or even pick up new stockists you have to produce more orders and if you can't afford to do that you can't grow. This is where a lot of businesses have failed before us - growing too quickly and not being able to pay their bills.

"It's frustrating as there is demand for our product - in our first season in Asia we picked up four stockists in Tokyo and by our second season we had two more in Seoul and one in Hong Kong. If we had support we could travel over there, research the market and make our collections better for them, as well as look for more stores, which would in turn bring more production to our factories and money into the local industry."

While throwing cash at the industry is one option, Sharma suggests that a support structure to assist in marketing our brands overseas could also help. She points out that international brands aren't going to stop coming to our shores, so we need to put our brands out there as a consolidated offer.

"With the distance New Zealand faces to the largest markets, the cost for small companies is large to not only make good business connections but to maintain them.

"The other aspect I think we need to address as a country is an equal tax for internet shopping which retailers have to comply with here. It could be set up internationally with purchases made and taxed at source, so that the retailer in this market who's having to bear all the costs of rent, wages etc has an equal footing," Sharma says.

"I think internet shopping is our new normal and we just need to make it equitable for all parties concerned."

- Hamilton News

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