Fashion designer Ingrid Starnes and her partner Simon Pound make a stylish team.
How to make it in New Zealand fashion? Talent, sure, and a nose for hard work, yes. A knack for branding and marketing goes a long way, and business nous is a given. But behind many of the industry's most successful and long-lasting labels is something of a love story: a creative couple, with each half contributing their own unique talents. Think of Karen Walker and her husband and branding guru Mikhail Gherman; Steve Ferguson and Helene Morris, the two former lonely hearts behind Lonely Hearts; Trelise and Jack Cooper; Helen Cherry and Workshop's Chris Cherry.
Kate Sylvester considers her partner Wayne Conway to be as important to the Kate Sylvester brand as she is (he works on everything from show set design to seasonal campaigns to T-shirt prints), and Zambesi's Elisabeth Findlay has said that having a great man - in her case Neville Findlay - by her side is a huge plus too.
By the side of young designer Ingrid Starnes as she makes her NZ Fashion Week début next week will be her partner, Simon Pound, the business and marketing brains behind the fledgling brand. The pair, who met through a mutual friend and have 3-year-old twins together, has worked together on building the label to where it is today: one of the most interesting and credible young labels in the local market.
Like many creative couples, Starnes focuses on the creative while Pound looks after the marketing and brand side of the business, but he believes it's not a creative partnership as such, explaining modestly that, "Ingrid does all the stuff that requires the talent, and I do the admin, basically". But the label would not be where it is today without Pound, says Starnes. "That business side, nurturing relationships with people - I don't have the confidence to do that. You really need someone who understands the business aspects of it."
Pound's background is eclectic, but let's describe him as something of a media guru: he runs a production company with two others, works as a freelance copywriter and advertising consultant, has worked at FQ Men, presented for various television shows including Media7 and hosted a show on 95bfm. It's only natural that he would look after the media, marketing and brand side of the business - the stuff that has taken the relatively shy Starnes a while to come around to.
Starnes quietly established her label in 2009, a year after having her twins. She stood out for being one of the few new designers around at the time, and also for her pedigree - Starnes is from the Kate Sylvester school of fashion, working as a pattern-maker in the designer's workroom for three years. But it was Starnes' feminine, vintage-tinged design sensibility that has seen her label become so popular, so fast. Hers is a thoughtful approach to fashion that appeals to smart, busy women who are tiring of trends and the over-hyped nature of fashion in general.
They are made-to-last pieces that are relatively modest, sexy in that demure, buttoned-up way - they also hark back to a time of tradition and dressmaking, like discovering a vintage treasure that has held up very well against time. She prefers to use natural fabrics, and wants to keep production local. She has a strong appreciation for traditional dressmaking essentials, a love passed down to her from her mother - embroidery, patchwork and lacework feature throughout her collections, and Starnes continues to sew many of her own samples.
"Before we started [the label], every time Ingrid walked down the street someone would say, 'wow, where did you get your dress?"' says a proud Pound. "Total strangers would come up to her and say 'you look so great, where did you get it?' - and it was all stuff that she had made for herself."
There's something else about Ingrid too: in an age where fashion designers are expected to say yes to every media opportunity, be experts at giving hungry journalists snappy sound-bytes and become celebrities, she is somewhat of an anomaly. Interestingly for someone with such a media-savvy partner and for a designer in such demand, Starnes is very media shy. She does few interviews - she turned down the chance to be followed by two film crews in the lead-up to Fashion Week - and she doesn't tweet or blog or have a gossip columnist on speed dial. The Ingrid Starnes label does have Twitter and Facebook accounts, both run by Pound - Starnes didn't even know they existed until someone told her that they had "liked" her on Facebook. "I said to Simon, 'what does it mean when someone says that?"'
It is an old school approach that is rather charming and refreshing, and also, according to her PR agent Murray Bevan, rare. He likens to her a group of quiet achievers, young designers like Beth Ellery and Camille Howie, who produce well-made garments but prefer to shun the limelight - rather, letting their clothes speak for themselves. It's an apt comparison: Ellery and Howie are proteges of Marilyn Sainty, a designer who's approach to business Starnes and Pound admire - keeping it small, keeping it good, and developing a loyal customer base. It's an attitude that hasn't gone unnoticed by some in the industry who use Ingrid Starnes clothing in their fashion pages but don't know too much about Starnes the designer. "There's a saturation of media savvy designers at the moment which can get a bit tiresome, but every now and then there comes a designer like Ingrid, who quietly and confidently releases collections that don't require a long-winded press release explaining what it is about," says Canvas fashion editor Dan Ahwa. He believes women appreciate Starnes' nostalgia-tinged aesthetic, and the fact that her clothes are very well made. "The clothes speak for themselves, and I think that's part of her appeal and success," he explains. "Having a PR agent such as Showroom 22 is a bonus, however it all comes down to Ingrid's old school approach to that idea of being a fashion designer - being somewhat elusive and having faith in what she produces."
Her elusiveness may not last forever. Starnes is in demand, and the label's Fashion Week show next Tuesday morning is one of the most anticipated of the week. It is the label's fashion week debut, and Starnes will present a collection called Arcadia - "a place in your imagination that's almost too perfect, that it doesn't exist. It's slightly haunting". Starnes doesn't design her collections around an idea or theme - she tends to be inspired by a beautiful fabric or vintage trim rather than a specific theme - but this range is based very loosely on playful childhood memories. "We had a haunted house next door, and a babysitter who was in her 60s who had mountains of old furs and 1940s dresses that we would dress up and play in." There's a subtle botanical theme throughout the collection, with an exclusive vintage inspired floral print and a backdrop visual for the show by landscape designer Xanthe White.
The show is another in a series of big steps that Starnes and Pound have taken for a new brand. Late last year they collaborated with Miss Crabb designer Kristine Crabb to open a store within her store, and they recently moved into a permanent space on Jervois Rd, another retail collaboration with homeware store Tessuti. But despite these relatively big steps, they hope to continue to keep it small and perfectly formed. Starnes still works from home, having taken over the lounge with her fashion week prep, and both Starnes and Pound agree that they don't want "the brand" to become much bigger than it is now (they do hope to push into Australia, however). "We just feel very lucky to be able to be in the spotlight after such a short amount of time," explains Pound. "It's exciting to be growing something together, and having shared goals. It's a fun adventure to be on together."