Is ‘Made In New Zealand’ Clothing Dying? The Reality Of Manufacturing Locally Now

By Jessica Beresford
A bias cut midi slip dress from Penny Sage, made in New Zealand.

Jessica Beresford looks at the challenges facing the local garment industry, which has been likened to an endangered species, and the designers staunchly protecting it.

Ruby’s best-selling “Firebird” pants, a high-waisted, straight-leg style that comes in a rainbow of colours, are all made at Longdons, a garment factory in an

“Longdons is in a huge building and over time it’s just downsized and downsized,” says Emily Miller-Sharma, general manager of Ruby. It’s one of the nine main factories Ruby works with in Auckland, and its story is true across the board: the local apparel manufacturing industry has severely dwindled. At its height in the 1970s, there were an estimated 110,000 workers employed across knitted product, clothing, footwear and repair.

By 2000, this number had dropped to 19,879, according to Infometrics data provided by Hanga-Aro-Rau, and in 2023 stood at 9566. Some areas of expertise, such as textile production or suit manufacturing, have all but died out. Despite the decline in local production, the fashion, clothing and textile industry – which encompasses retail and education — added $7.8 billion to New Zealand’s economy in 2023, contributing 1.9 per cent to the country’s GDP, according to a new report from Mindful Fashion NZ.

General manager of Ruby, Emily Miller-Sharma.
General manager of Ruby, Emily Miller-Sharma.

“The removal of quotas and the reduction of tariffs in the 80s and 90s made manufacturing offshore much more accessible, and lower wage costs in these other markets made it hard for New Zealand manufacturers to compete on price,” says Mindful Fashion NZ chief executive Jacinta Fitzgerald of the reasons behind the steady decline. “Because we lost so much of the industry in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, we now have challenges with a lack of skilled workers and an ageing workforce.”

Today, local manufacturing survives mainly thanks to a handful of people and designers staunchly trying to protect it. “I look at New Zealand manufacturing like our New Zealand birds,” says fashion designer Kate Sylvester. “Our local manufacturers are an endangered species, and they will absolutely disappear unless we actively work to support them and keep them rolling.”

Sylvester last month announced the closure of her business, a portion of which was produced in New Zealand, but says she will remain involved in Mindful Fashion, which she co-founded along with Miller-Sharma in 2019, and continue to help bolster local production.

Ruby's popular Firebird trousers
Ruby's popular Firebird trousers

Around 50 per cent of Ruby and sister brand Liam’s clothing is made in New Zealand, which is the “absolute bare minimum”, says Miller-Sharma. “We wouldn’t go lower than that.” The rest is made in factories in China, where production of categories such as knitwear and denim is more cost-effective and logistically easier.

“Things like shirts, coats and blazers — anything that is more tailored — is incredibly expensive to make in New Zealand, compared to a dress with a bound neckline,” says Miller-Sharma. “So it’s a matter of working out what we can have made locally, and what we can’t.”

Rachel Mills, fashion designer and owner of The Pattern Table. Photo / Babiche Martens
Rachel Mills, fashion designer and owner of The Pattern Table. Photo / Babiche Martens

This is the balancing act for designer Rachel Mills, who only produces styles that can be made locally by her employed machinists. “We think about what items are needed in an everyday wardrobe, then we technically redesign them in a way that simplifies the manufacturing process,” says Mills. “We also utilise only the machinery we have available in our own workroom. For example, our rubberiser allows us to do the tight edges needed for swimwear and underwear, and our knit binding machine finishes necklines and straps neatly.” Similarly, Mills only uses stock fabrics with certain characteristics, and avoids anything with a huge amount of shrinkage or “give”, as this is too time consuming to work with.

Many “Made in New Zealand” clothes today are the handiwork of outworkers — machinists and sewers operating from home who make up a cottage industry. Miller-Sharma says there are benefits to this kind of set-up, in that it gives the workers flexibility if they are caring for family or can’t travel, but there are also risks: home workers can’t be audited for health and safety, because conducting visits would be an imposition, and there’s a chance for exploitation in terms of work eligibility in New Zealand.

“The other issue with home workers is that sometimes they are paid by the piece, rather than by the hour. If that’s not managed properly, the amount of time it takes for them to make that piece might mean their hourly wage is lower than minimum wage.”

Designs from Rachel Mills' latest collection.
Designs from Rachel Mills' latest collection.

One of the biggest and longest-standing factories in New Zealand is Albion Clothing in Christchurch, which dates back to the 70s and was bought by outdoor specialists Cactus Clothing in 2019. They make Cactus’ own-brand apparel as well as for some well-known local designers, and have the tender to make uniforms for many government organisations, including the Police and the Defence Force. Up until recently, they had the tender to make the uniforms for Fire and Emergency services, although production of this has now gone overseas. While these tenders keep the factory busy, it is faced with the same challenges reflected more broadly in the industry, including an ageing workforce and a low uptake of younger recruits.

One of Mindful Fashion’s main missions is to develop training programmes for these skilled roles to encourage younger workers into the profession, create a pathway to employment and to provide an alternative to university.

“We need to break down the stigmas associated with ‘machinist’ and show people what these roles are really like — that they are skilled, that you can earn good money, that you can create beautiful things as an antidote to fast disposable fashion, that it’s creative and fun,” says Fitzgerald.

Aside from job creation, Fitzgerald says there are “a lot of benefits to having the ability to manufacture locally” that include: allowing NZ businesses to be more responsive to market fluctuations, such as peaks and troughs in demand, which can help avoid overproduction; allowing emerging designers and the next generation to come through and get started; enabling made-to-order and more bespoke production; and that in general, manufacturing locally has a lower emissions profile.

Kate Megaw of Penny Sage. Photo / Greta van der Star
Kate Megaw of Penny Sage. Photo / Greta van der Star

Penny Sage designer Kate Megaw agrees: “For me personally, it’s being connected to every part of the process and the people. By being involved in the production process, we are accountable for every aspect of it, from the working conditions of the people to the amount of waste created. Seeing the effort and time that goes into making a garment serves as a constant reminder of our design ethos. Also, being a small business who makes locally, we have the flexibility for shorter production windows, the ability to adapt to certain scenarios, and are able to produce in small quantities here without pressure to meet huge production minimums.”

So how can local manufacturing be saved? To start, Fitzgerald says New Zealand needs a greater investment in technology, infrastructure and skills in areas where local businesses can compete globally, and those areas need to grow. “And we need New Zealanders to continue to support New Zealand brands and designers that make locally.”

Megaw adds: “It’s becoming more and more difficult to produce garments in New Zealand for many reasons but we — and so many other brands — try to remain hopeful that people see the value in what we do and will continue supporting locally made products if they can.

“We hope there will always be an industry here so businesses big and small can thrive.”

Jessica Beresford is a contributing fashion editor specialising in the business of fashion and luxury, and is a contributing editor for the Financial Times’ HTSI magazine.

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