Zoe Walker visits Wellington and checks out its thriving fashion scene.
Written on a wall in Laurie Foon's office in brown crayon is a phrase: "Eco Antique". It sits just above the door and next to an impressive mood board, a colourful collage of vintage images, fashion shoots, quotes, fabric swatches and dangling pieces of fabric. It's here that Foon and her Starfish team come every day to work on the collections that have made the label a much-loved Wellington icon.
Sitting on the fifth floor of a building block on Victoria St, the workroom is an oasis of calm in the chaos of a fashion workroom: the team working quietly among clothing racks of patterns, boxes of fabric scraps on the cutting table and Foon's bicycle and lilac bike helmet sitting next to various rolls of fabric. The Starfish team has been busy preparing for their show at Wellington Fashion Week later that night, although all seems surprisingly serene for a show that's just hours away - the only sign is someone masking the soles of the heels over in the corner. "It's the calm before the storm," jokes Foon, as she takes me into her office to show me through the collection that will be on the runway later.
Pieces of amethyst and quartz sit on her windowsill, with a view looking out on to city buildings. Foon explains the collection is called Common Thread and examines the idea of women being individuals but also linked by common ideas. The colours are wonderful - a buttery yellow is a standout - and there's a print developed with textile artist Greta Menzies, a recent graduate of Massey University (a relationship with the university is important to Foon; many of the girls in the workroom are graduates). The range also continues Foon's use of environmentally friendly fashion practices: New Zealand-made, locally dyed colours that meet the Oeko-tek Standard 100, natural, eco-friendly fabrics, and ideas of timelessness; pieces to be passed on rather than thrown away. Foon is honest about the difficulties and costs of keeping up these practices, admitting, "it's really hard".
Across town, Rachel Easting and Anjali Stewart are chatting about their recent trip to Japan, where they mixed business with pleasure: taking in the sights of Osaka as well as meetings with their agent in Tokyo, who advised them on what stylish Japanese girls want to wear now (lots more detail and embellishment apparently).
Easting and Stewart hope Japan will be a key focus for their label Twenty-seven Names over the next wee while, and this type of advice from someone in the market is essential, although "it felt like we were being told off for two days straight," jokes Stewart.
The Twenty-seven Names workroom on Ghuznee St is a large and light space, with sewing machines and clothing patterns in one corner, production samples for their new spring/summer collection - featuring an adorable cat cameo print - sitting on a clothes rack ready to be sent out, piles of books and magazines organised neatly behind Stewart's desk, and a cherished note from one of their favourite artists David Shrigley that reads, "Dear Anjali, you are a twat. Sorry, D.Shrig" (a friend met him and asked him to write the message).
On the walls are two of Easting's illustrations, and several of the portraits that have become their signature: working with photographer Guy Coombes each season, they shoot models up close and personal, giving personality to the garments they are wearing. Though their clothes may be youthful and sweet - all cats and collar detailing - Stewart and Easting always have depth behind their collections. The pair, who have been friends since primary school, can talk as passionately about feminism as they do about art, the influence that bloggers have on their sales (surprisingly little), or hip-hop, although today much of our conversation seems to be about teeth: dental bills, root canals and having wisdom teeth pulled out. Fashion designers aren't just all fashion talk.
Taxi drivers certainly aren't this friendly in Auckland. Once the driver discovers I'm in town talking to local fashion designers, he tells me about his brush with fashion in Rome several years ago. Wandering the streets, he spotted security guards and a growing crowd, and assuming there was something scandalous going on, he went over to take a better look. He quickly realised it was a crowd outside a fashion show. He stood there, people-watching, and soon a glamorous looking woman came up to him. "Where are you from?" she demanded. "Er ... New Zealand," he mumbled. "Yes, but which store?" Thinking quickly, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind: Wellington department store Kirkcaldie and Stains. "Come with me," said the woman, and he followed and was told to sit. So he did, and soon the show - for the Italian lingerie label Intimissimi - began, giving this Wellingtonian his first brush with fashion, a long way from home in Rome.
Kenzy Cheeseman and Faye Lowe met while studying fashion design at Massey University, and together launched "luxury silk lounge and sleepwear" label For Every Minute last year. The elegant pair had worked for various local fashion houses: Cheeseman as pattern-maker for Alexandra Owen and Lowe at Scotties Boutique before travelling through Europe with her partner. Now they work from the front room of Lowe's chic home in Newtown; Cheeseman lives around the corner. Here their debut range sits on a rack, all sensual silk robes, camisoles, chemises, pyjamas, shorts and nightshirts in glamorous jewel tones.
Lounge and sleepwear is an interesting and relatively new concept for the local market, and one the pair is clearly passionate and ambitious about: they bounce off one another talking about the craft and thought behind each detail (tabs on the arms so they can be folded up out of the way; the tie that doesn't fall off and go missing) and their plans for the label.
For them it's about making a woman feel beautiful, whether she's a bride or a new mum, and Lowe's house certainly fits the brand, with its white walls, huge pieces of art and fresh flowers. It's a timely idea too, with fashion's current focus on pyjama style dressing - stylish woman could certainly pull off wearing one of their nightshirts during the day.
Gosia Piatek is feeling exhausted. After a busy few weeks of trade, a revamped website for her label Kowtow has seen the online side of things explode, and dispatch has seen her stock levels in the workroom fall. She shows me where it usually all sits, neatly folded in a row of wooden shelves behind a curtain in her upstairs workroom in Thorndon. "Usually that's crammed full," she explains; now it's looking a bit thin on the ground. But she shouldn't complain really: when many retailers are struggling, being low on stock is surely a good sign.
Piatek launched Kowtow - a Chinese word meaning the act of respect by kneeling and bowing with your head on the ground - in 2007, and she has quietly grown it to that level. She's quietly ambitious too: the label's Facebook mission reads "Style-conscious, sustainable and global clothing empire", and you get the impression that Piatek will certainly get there. She seems very business savvy, with a clear brand philosophy ("certified fairtrade organic clothing that is ethically and sustainably made from seed to garment"), an open production process (her cotton is grown and product made in India; she visits frequently but confesses, "I don't know if I love it there ..."), and strong business mentors (the week after we meet she will see one of them, Peter Travers who is on the board of directors for Icebreaker).
Behind Piatek's desk on a blackboard wall are two immaculately written to-do lists, which, among the chaos of her desk, kind of sum up her straight-talking, organised ways. Then there's the name of her next collection: Obsessive Minimalist, described as being for "an overanxious overachiever, a recovering consumer, exhausted striver, wannabe idler".
Alexandra Owen is standing in her big, wide, white store wearing a sharp black jacket. The designer always looks chic, with her blonde bob and signature tailored jackets that have proven a hit with her customer base - lawyers are a big market. "We opened on the first day of the recession," jokes Owen as she shows me around the store and encourages me to try on a few pieces. The recently refurbished store is double the size it used to be, with a beautiful white counter in the centre of the room designed by Owen's furniture designer husband James Whitta. It sits below the Museum Hotel for which Owen designed the uniforms; the pair used to live there, and Owen's workroom was at the back of the store. She laughs that she "never saw light" and often wouldn't leave the surrounding area for days. They recently moved to a new house overlooking Evans Bay where Owen also works, now looking out on to bush and sea "which is nice and different". It's also a change from the yearly visits to New York to show collections, a market she's decided to put on hold for now. "You need to focus on it properly to really make a dent on it," she explains. There's a NYC memory Owen likes to tell about her brush with US fashion royalty: waiting in the intimidating lobby of the Vogue offices to show an assistant the collection, the magazine's formidable fashion director Grace Coddington burst out of the lift and hurried past them without acknowledgement. "It was terrifying."
Deborah Sweeney the label turned 10 earlier this year, but much like Deborah Sweeney the woman, it passed by without a fuss. Sweeney and her husband and business partner Niels Meyer-Westfeld celebrated with "a little drink", but there was nothing official: no self-indulgent party, no breathless press release. Perhaps it's being based out in Seaview, away from the city and even further removed from Auckland, but it's a low-key approach in sync with the way Sweeney has operated her business over the past 10 years. Over lunch at the cafe Floriditas on Cuba St, the designer is talking about her recent travels: she has just returned from a visit to Queenstown, and is about to head to Sydney to sell her new spring/summer collection, of which she has a few pieces here to show me - pieces that help sum up the inherently wearable Deborah Sweeney aesthetic (she knows what she's doing, she's been in this business for 10 years, after all). We talk about the Vogue New Zealand exhibition that's on at Te Papa at the moment, with Sweeney, like most local designers, expressing surprise and delight that we once had our own Vogue. A vintage sensibility has become a Deborah Sweeney signature, and old magazines inspire: she mentions her friend from London who has an amazing vintage fashion magazine archive of more than 10,000 magazines. It seems somehow fitting to then move on to chatting about the internet and how it's affecting the pace of fashion, especially for someone as low-key as Sweeney, who isn't on Facebook and certainly not on Twitter. "I mean, how far will it go?"