She was the darling of last year’s Fashion Week, with her debut show a hit. But with twins and a newborn baby, how can fashion designer Ingrid Starnes follow up with another successful showing? By keeping calm and carrying on, writes Rebecca Barry Hill. She talks to Starnes and partner Simon Pound, ‘the marketing brains behind the business’, about frocks, family and getting on with things.
This was one occasion when Ingrid Starnes didn't have total control. With less than 24 hours to go before her first show at New Zealand Fashion Week, Xanthe White, the award-winning landscape designer, was busy hanging hundreds of orchids from the ceiling but they wouldn't all be ready until on the day. Starnes' show was the first of the week and the buzz had started. What would Kate Sylvester's former workroom junior come up with?
"I didn't really know what I was doing," says Starnes, who was three months pregnant with her third child at the time. "I was confident with the clothes but dressing the models, it was all just such a big challenge."
Her unflappable approach was rewarded when the plaudits flooded in and fashion writers heaped praise on her romantic, 1940s-inspired pieces and original prints.
At the Pt Chevalier villa where the designer lives and works with partner Simon Pound, you'd never guess this mammoth event was again just three weeks away. Starnes answers the door in the Eliska: a fawn-coloured, floral silk dress with metallic ribbon detail, paired with black ankle boots. Pound, looking dapper in Crane Brothers jumper, pants and blazer, cradles 5-month-old Gertie at the wooden table. The only chaos here is on the walls, in the vibrant paintings by local artist Kristin Carlin. At least until the couple's Slovenian au pair arrives home with their 4-year-old twins, Ned and Olya.
"I'm feeling reasonably organised," says Starnes, sipping a black tea. "Last time I kept thinking, 'am I doing enough?' It was scary not knowing all sorts of things. But this time we feel a bit more in control."
Called Hunt's End, this year's collection is based on the idea of a group of eccentrics celebrating a weekend of hunting, playing on the idea of prim British etiquette dissolving in the heat of the party. It sums up the Ingrid Starnes aesthetic: feminine and beautiful, with a nod to nostalgia. As well as the floaty dresses she's best known for, this collection includes a cashmere coat with leather pockets, 1960s-style lantern sleeves and a swinging back. A signature print on chambray blue silk chiffon also features.
"Our friend [fashion designer] Juliette Hogan gave us some really good advice early on about Fashion Week," says Pound, the marketing brains behind the label. "She said, 'in the end you've got to remember it's just a show, it's over in 10 minutes, you can't let it ruin your life'. It was such good advice, because family is more important. The biggest thing is that everything's rolling along okay and we're not going crazy."
You couldn't blame them if they did, occasionally, go mad. The twins were just a year old when the couple launched the business in 2009. Things took off quickly. Fashion media were keen to feature the clothes, Showroom 22's Murray Bevan, who also represents the likes of Karen Walker Eyewear, Kathryn Wilson and Twenty-seven Names, offered to do their public relations. Retail collaborations with Ponsonby Rd's Miss Crabb and luxury homewares brand Tessuti on Jervois Rd have helped them get a foothold in the market. Tessuti's test-run pop-up store in Newmarket has proved successful and plans are underway for another store to open permanently on Teed St, alongside Zambesi, Kate Sylvester and World, at the end of the month. Starnes' womenswear is now stocked in 10 stores around the country.
When Gertie came along, they hired an au pair to look after the twins.
"Gertie literally goes everywhere with me," says Starnes. "The designing often happens at night. After I've fed Gertie and put her down, I'll stay awake for an hour. No one's talking to me, I'm undisturbed, and that's when it all comes together. Today I've been looking at buttons and then I can go into looking at models then switch on to doing my costings or hanging the garments. I'm lucky it's quite social. I can literally stay home all day but I'm talking to girls in the workroom."
As we chat, Starnes discreetly changes Gertie's nappy; later she breastfeeds her. It all happens so seamlessly you'd barely notice.
In a retail world dominated by fast fashion, Starnes is a rare champion of craft and exquisite detailing. Her style is flattering enough to attract those who might be scared off by the conceptual side of fashion but edgy enough to appeal to the fashionistas. Starnes still knocks around in a pleated silk kimono-style dress from that first collection, which also featured a popular square-necked pleated dress with silk squares sewn in different coloured layers.
But the label's success is as much down to Pound's involvement. A freelance copywriter and reporter who bounces between media and advertising jobs (he hosted a show on 95bFM, reported for Media 7 on TVNZ7 and is currently doing a four-month copywriting contract at an ad agency), he's a style boffin himself. He worked for Murray Crane at his Crane Brothers and Little Brother labels, and menswear store Working Style. And he wrote about fashion for FQ Men, Pavement and Remix magazines. Crane has been a mentor to Pound, advising him on the business side of the label. Starnes and Pound's fashion designer/creative director partnership has been proved time and again: think Kate Sylvester and husband Wayne Conway, Karen Walker and Mikhail Gherman, Trelise and Jack Cooper, Helen Cherry and Workshop's Chris Cherry, Lonely Hearts' Steve Ferguson and Helene Morris.
"Ingrid and Simon work really well together. They really complement each other's skills so they can focus on what they do well," says Kristine Crabb, the designer behind Miss Crabb and a fellow mum of three, who has known the couple for over 10 years.
"It can be stressful but if you can remain calm and problem-solve, you're really well prepared. You can't sweat the small stuff. Ingrid's really staunch and strong, nothing fazes her. When she did Fashion Week last year, she put on this amazing show in such a short time, at the hardest time of her pregnancy. It's an example of how awesome her and Simon's working partnership is. And they're lovely people so they get that support."
Starnes and Pound, both 30, met through mutual friends while at university. Between his politics and media studies lectures, Pound worked behind the bar at Crow, which Starnes, who had moved to Auckland from Gisborne, would frequent with her friends. She was at AUT studying fashion design and working part-time at Global Fabrics.
"Ingrid always had amazing style and presence," says Pound, who is used to walking down the street and hearing strangers ask where she gets her clothes. "She seems very shy and is very shy when you don't know her but when you do know her she has this extraordinary sense of humour and vivacious kind of enjoyment of life."
"I'm a lot better now than I was," says Starnes, who has always focused on the creative side, rather than courting publicity. "I was always fascinated with Simon. He was so interesting, he was on bFM and always curious." She laughs heartily.
After graduating, Starnes got her first job as a pattern-maker for Kate Sylvester, after submitting a book of designs. During her three years there she also designed for Sylvester's little sister label.
"She was fantastic, we loved her," says Sylvester. "She is such a great person. Her laugh is so infectious and she's an amazingly positive energy to have around."
At the time, Pound was a reporter on TVNZ7's media commentary show, Media 7. Then they discovered they were pregnant with twins.
Sylvester, also a mum of three, including twins, knew exactly what her protege was in for.
"When she told me, we laughed and cried. Yes, absolutely, twins is like nothing you can imagine."
That didn't put off the determined couple, however, from realising their long-term goal to launch their own line.
"[Kate and Wayne] really inspired us," says Pound. "They had decided that success didn't mean having a million stores, it meant having a business that allowed one of the partners pick up the kids and the other to drop them off to school and that kind of thing. They were doing things for reasons that we really admired."
They leaned on family and friends to kick-start the business, plus cashflow from a fortuitous investment in an accounting firm.
"We were used to being poor after having the twins and were used to doing it ourselves and not having much cash or security," says Pound. "So we thought 'we'll give it a crack'."
They started working out of the spare room in their Mt Albert flat, eventually spreading to a bigger room and then the lounge. By the time the kids were walking, and they'd employed part-time staff to help meet growing demand for the clothes, it was time to find a house with a workroom out the back. The family have now been in Pt Chevalier for 18 months.
Sylvester never doubted that Starnes would be a success.
"It's such an enormous commitment to do both [raising a family and running a business]. You do have to have an incredible strength of resolve," she says.
"At times you think, 'oh my God, it's so hard, why do I do it? I'm going to quit and go up north and grow potatoes and be a hippie' but then you end up making clothes and your friends like them and want to buy them and before you know it, you've opened a market stall again. That's just what I do and I think that's so in Ingrid as well. She's just driven to make clothes. She was doing these huge, long hours working for us but she'd still go home and, the next day, appear in a new dress she'd whipped up."
Starnes has whipped up her own clothes since she was in primary school. Her mother, who got married in a vintage wedding dress, loved to sew and would make everything in her daughters' wardrobes. When Starnes and her three sisters were old enough, they went to sewing lessons with a woman named Mrs Proudfoot.
"My mum used to be like, 'Ingrid, you need to have more patience', and I was like, 'I'll show you, I'm going to be the best sewer'."
All four Starnes sisters - Erica, Petra and Heidi (Ingrid was the third child) - were "obsessed" by clothes. Erica worked at designer vintage boutique Ziggarat in Wellington and would often unearth pieces that she'd pass on to her sister. Erica recently sent her sister some "amazing" baby clothes embellished with cross-stitching. Occasionally Olya will pick out fabric she likes and Starnes will make her a dress.
She has always drawn inspiration from the fabric scraps, buttons and embellishments she's collected since she was young. Nothing is too old or ugly to be salvaged or transformed.
In her new collection she has recycled a coiling detail from a 1940s houndstooth design and reworked a curved leather pocket from a "rotting" dress with no other redeeming features. Five years ago a friend's aunt found an old 1950s frock with a strange print in an op shop and gave it to Starnes. After hanging on to it all this time she has finally used it to inform her new range.
"I often keep all my old treasures and draw back on them. If I have a beautiful old vintage print, I'll find a little piece to cut off and send it to the dyer so I can match the colour of the flower."
Inspiration also comes from characters and images of people she likes and pins to her noticeboard. This year she was drawn to Judy Garland.
"In her prime," she hoots, "not in her later years."
Hanging in the workroom behind the main house is a row of dresses known as the Dorothy, a navy dress in viscose crepe with white collar and buttons that calls to mind Chanel in the 1930s.
"I'm not majorly on-trend," says Starnes. "I don't focus on what's happening and I'm not influenced by fashion - well, not really. I hope my stuff doesn't really feel old."
"The aim is to be able to pull it out in three years' time and still be able to wear it," adds Pound. "I guess that's something that not a lot of people are able to go for."
Her process is just as old-fashioned. She's a fan of tea-dying - literally staining fabric with tea to give it a muted, antique look. And like many designers on a budget, Starnes has not gone offshore for fabric or labours - all her fabric suppliers, as well as those who do their cutting, grading and the machinists are local. They've all helped with generous payment terms to help them grow and meet orders, not to mention giving advice and passing on their knowledge.
"Without their help we couldn't be in business," says Pound. "As these people lose customers overseas, skills are lost and so are the conditions that allow local businesses to grow. It is a real worry. Pretty much all the big guys are now overseas, so it is not looking good."
As for growing the business, there's only so much more they want to take on. Ingrid Starnes is now stocked in Verve, a cafe and fashion boutique in Melbourne, and negotiations are underway to sell into more Australian stores. But having kids means travelling to support business offshore is difficult.
And despite employing a team of part-time seamstresses, Starnes still does some of the sample sewing herself. When one stockist requested a larger number of garments they turned them down, preferring to focus on quality rather than quantity. That's important when you're juggling business with family life, says Pound.
"Having Gertie and not going crazy is our biggest achievement."
Every weekend they're up early and taking the kids to the markets. "We go to Waiheke, Manukau Rd, the Hare Krishnas, everywhere," says Starnes. "When we travel to Sydney I'll look up all the cool places in the phone book and that's what we'll do all day."
One day they want to get married but the cost growing the business has put that on the backburner. For now, they just try to keep calm and carry on.
"We're just really busy people," says Starnes. "I've always got on with things. If I didn't have a label I'd probably be a mother of five, bottling and sewing and gardening. When Mum found out I was having twins, she said 'it would have to be you. One's not enough'."