World provoked outrage when it was caught selling foreign-produced T-shirts as New Zealand made. But has it become too hard to manufacture in this country? By Katie Ruscoe of The Wireless.
The Auckland warehouse of fashion fabric supplier Hawes and Freer is buzzing with activity: The company's small team chat as they cut yardage, press buttons and log orders for a roll-call of some of New Zealand's top designers. Ask owner and industry veteran Trevor Hookway about the state of our wider rag trade, though, and he paints an altogether less active and cheerful scene: "In terms of investment and government support, it really is our forgotten industry."
If the country's garment sector had indeed been forgotten, recent T-shirt-shaped events brought it back to public attention. Earlier this month, leading fashion brand World was caught selling foreign-manufactured T-shirts as New Zealand made. Designer Dame Denise L'Estrange-Corbet, known as a staunch advocate for manufacturing locally, defended her company's move, saying it had no choice but to use foreign-produced materials as Kiwi factory after Kiwi factory closed down. Was her gloomy take on the local scene accurate, and if so, is New Zealand-made fashion soon to be nothing but a memory?
It's a subject Hookway is eager to talk about, and the way he eagerly offloads suggests it's one that weighs heavily, too. He's spent most of his life in the fashion trade – working his way up from warehouse floor ("I needed to make a bit of extra money during uni") to buying Hawes and Freer with his wife, Merran, in 1985.
During his career, he's witnessed large-scale closures and the death of arts forms and is now increasingly worried about the industry's future. On the day that we meet he's processing the news that two of his fellow fabric suppliers - Cooper Watkinson Textiles, and the fashion division of Charles Parsons Fabrics - are closing.
"It really keeps coming back to the fact that if you're a local manufacturer paying a fair wage to have garments made, there's no way you can compete with an offshore manufacturer who's paying $1.50 an hour," he says.
The removal of import licences in 1992 (allowing anyone to import clothing), and subsequent lowering of tariffs over the following decade have had a particularly devastating and lasting effect on what was once a booming local industry, he says.
"You once had big factories from Morrinsville to Levin to Rangiora that could produce a garment from start to finish. There was labour available, and there was significant investment. That's just completely gone now."
Now the local market is flooded with imported clothing. In 1989, clothing imports were worth $129 million per year, by 1999 that figure had jumped to $600m, and today the total value of clothing imports [not including footwear or textiles] is over $1.5 billion.
Cheap imports have wiped out the majority of New Zealand's mass-market manufacturers. Most had disappeared by the early 2000s and in 2009 the two largest remaining players, Pacific Brands and Lane Walker Rudkin, ceased production. All that's left now, says Hookway, is a small handful of larger manufacturers and suppliers, and a country-wide "almost unofficial" network of piece-work pattern-makers, contract machinists and finishers – each one jealously guarded by local designers who, as Hookway points out, have good reason to be possessive:
"On the garment manufacturing side of things you've got about 3000-4000 people working through the country – and that workforce is hardly being regenerated – but on the fashion design side you've got 600-700 fashion students from Whangarei down to Invercargill graduating every year."
The scarcity of practical knowledge and skill is putting an increased squeeze on local designers already struggling with wafer-thin profit margins, and intense competition from cheap, fast fashion, he says.
"You just don't realise how hard a lot of these designers work, especially the up-and-comers," he sighs. "They've got high rents, high overheads, and the only way they can increase their margins is by buying for less and selling for more – you can see why they're being forced into going overseas."
"I guess I was just sick of being cynical about how shitty the world was," laughs Marina Davis, as she explains what led her on to the particularly obstacle-laden path of creating an ethical, sustainable New Zealand fashion brand.
The Auckland-based designer launched Ovna Ovich in 2013, and from the get-go has given as much consideration to the environmental and social impact of her fabric choices as the shape, cut and style of the garments they become.
"I wouldn't have started if I wasn't able to do it as responsibly as possible," she says.
The virtues of each garment that leaves her small K'Rd studio are listed on their swing tag – a blouse of gossamer, inky-blue silk, for example, ticks the boxes for found, renewable, and biodegradable fabric, while a close-fitting T-shirt has been hand-dyed custardy yellow using eucalyptus leaves foraged after a recent Auckland storm. All her pieces are made locally, and it's this that's proving most challenging for the up-and-coming label.
"Production is always difficult. I think everyone finds it hard whether it's offshore or local; every place has got its own tricky things. But manufacturing in New Zealand is definitely very expensive and very, very time consuming because it's near impossible to find a factory that does everything under one roof."
Davis currently works with manufacturers scattered across Auckland, as well as one in Wellington, meaning garments often have to pass through many hands – and postcodes – before they're finished.
She pulls out a pair of organic cotton, Seventies-style jeans as an example: "There are only a few places left that have a bartack machine [used to sew reinforced stitching], so you find a good place to sew your jeans – which is really hard because a lot of places refuse to work with denim – you then you have to ferry them across town for finishing."
The added time and cost of production bites especially hard for the designer, coming on top of the premium she pays for her all-important fabrics – those high quality, transparent-supply-chain linens, silks and organic cottons don't come cheap.
"Working with these sort of materials is expensive, manufacturing locally is expensive – doing both at the same time is really expensive! At the moment I don't have much of a profit margin."
Davis can't rule out taking production offshore in the future, likely to a boutique, Social Accountability Accredited factory in India. It will be a difficult call for a label that values its local story, but ultimately, for Davis, sustainability comes first.
"I personally believe that in order to make things better [in the wider fashion industry] we need to look at the kind of fibres we're using and at the processes we're using to take that fibre and turn it into a finished fabric – that to me is possibly more important and more urgent than keeping manufacture local."
Less than a kilometer from the Ovna Ovich studio is the Ponsonby Rd flagship store of Ingrid Starnes. Managing Director Simon Pound leads me through to the back storeroom. "It's bit cramped," he apologises, gesturing to the huge work table. "As you can see this doubles as our HQ".
While there's mention of plans to move the sample workroom to a separate, larger location, there's also a quiet sense of honour in the current, almost cottagey set-up "It is quite cool to be able to bring customers back here – to say 'yup, this what New Zealand made looks like; this is where everything out [on the shop floor] starts'".
Pound's partner, Ingrid Starnes, is the label's co-owner and designer. The pair launched their first collection in 2010, specialising in beautifully tailored, impeccably finished womenswear. They are now stocked in 20 locations in New Zealand, including their two Auckland stores (a third store was partially destoryed by fire earlier this year). They also have small stockists in Hong Kong and Japan and sell into Australia via their website.
Their plan, from the beginning, was to be Kiwi-made. "Manufacturing in New Zealand means we're able to know the lives and conditions of our workers, and that everyone who makes the clothes enjoys the same protections as the people buying them," Pound says.
"With our manufacturers being close by we're able to check in on production and iterate to make the clothes better as we go through the fitting process."
Like Ovna Ovich, Ingrid Starnes works with numerous suppliers and manufacturers. "Every single garment can be touched by the cutters, graders, buttonholers, sewers, pressers, printers. Then there's our trim suppliers, the people we get our labels off – they're all different little NZ businesses," says Pound.
While he's proud Ingrid Starnes supports the local manufacturing industry, Pound is keenly aware of the business argument for going offshore and also why consumers like foreign-made fashion.
"Customers are quite price sensitive, and we have no judgement on that – being able to afford a beautiful, New Zealand made piece is a privilege. You have to embrace the fact that a customer might just buy one thing from you that they really treasure, and mix it up with those lower-priced, offshore pieces."
When it comes to Ingrid Starnes' own production future, he's pragmatic. "Eventually, we likely will have to take at least some of our production overseas – that's just the nature of things," he says. "Take lingerie and swimwear for example – Ingrid designs some really lovely stuff, but there's nowhere here that does underwire, and few places that work with lycra anymore."
"We're never going to say 'we're made in NZ so we're better than everyone else', because you don't know how things might change."
Back at the Hawes and Freer warehouse, Hookway is taking me through the finer points of cashmere suiting when he turns his head toward a familiar voice floating through the foyer. "That must be the lovely Olivia," he says. The lovely Olivia is the production manager for new hit Kiwi fashion label Maggie Marilyn. She's come to talk fabric fusings, and bounds over to greet Hookway with the smiles and ease of someone visiting a favourite uncle.
Hookway prides himself on forming close relationships with the designers he works with. "The industry here is all about relationships," he says.
Ingrid Starne's Simon Pound agrees. "The only reason that we're a healthy, profitable business now is that over the years of building up, all of our local suppliers took a punt on us and gave us things like extended payment terms – they essentially lent us money without lending us money"
"With more and more of them shutting down it's a real concern for the designers coming up behind us. If those local businesses aren't there to help them out at the beginning it'll be a lot harder for them to become established."
But if they are established, will they survive and will any of them manufacture in New Zealand? Hookway wants the government to support the industry through export grants, investment in the regions and even the addition of sewers and pattern makers to the Immigration Skills Shortage list.
Ultimately though, he says, the industry needs to take the lead in "reinventing itself," adding that the creation of some sort of industry council could be beneficial in better connecting – and protecting – all corners of the fashion sector.
"We're living in the age of communication – yet there's a complete lack of networking within the fashion industry. People are just so busy trying to get by that they don't have the time to put their head up and look around for ways to sharpen the saw."
As we're finishing up, three third year fashion design students from AUT arrive to pick up fabrics for their mid-year presentations. Hookway calls them over and cheerfully grills them on their course, curious about the extent of practical training offered.
He shakes his head on hearing that hands-on skills like pattern making begin and end with the basics in first year. "You see, back in the old days you'd spend at least three years mastering those fundamentals before you could even think of moving onto design."
I say my goodbyes and leave him chatting with the students – a stalwart of a 'forgotten industry' building relationships with a generation facing a new world of challenges.