The 40-Year-Old Brand That Sandra Harden Built

By Dan Ahwa
A wool cardigan and wool viscose skirt by Wallace Rose, 1999. Photo / Mark Smith

A Ponsonby Rd fixture, fashion label Wallace Rose has weathered recessions and changing fashions. Quietly marking 40 years in business, founder Sandra Harden talks to Dan Ahwa about the power of slow and steady.

For a fashion brand that’s quietly existed for four decades, a little grace can be afforded

Before fashion designers evolved into the slick, marketing figureheads of today, with career highlights neatly saved into a digital archive online or on social media, Sandra’s best moments remain cut out and collected in a physical box of memories now sitting in the unused shower of her studio bathroom.

Tactile, tangible evidence of photographs and tear sheets as proof of a business and brand built slowly and surely and — remarkably — made entirely in New Zealand.

“It’s hard to think of it chronologically. Forty years is a long time,” she says.

Sitting in the adjacent studio space situated above her 186 Ponsonby Rd boutique, one of the few remaining stores along the fashionable strip that has been a fixture there since it opened officially in May 1990, Sandra dips from one memory to the next when we meet for coffee surrounded by the creative chaos of garments hanging on racks and patterns splayed across a large cutting table.

Michelle Blanchard wears an outfit from Wallace Rose for Viva, 1999. Photo / Mark Smith
Michelle Blanchard wears an outfit from Wallace Rose for Viva, 1999. Photo / Mark Smith

Sandra left school with a passion for a career in graphic design and trained as a photo lithographer (a profession that no longer exists), before moving to London in 1980 to work and travel for a year.

She returned home in 1981 at a time of high unemployment, dabbling in odd jobs, the most memorable counting unregistered dogs to combat hydatids as part of a council youth work scheme.

Later, she moved on to a role as assistant illustrator at an advertising agency, with nights spent at a pattern-making course. Around this time, a Saturday retail position at a menswear shop called Monsoon became available and unlocked an opportunity to learn tailoring with the potential to simultaneously develop womenswear.

“I was taught to cut, construct and sew men’s suits, jackets and French seamed shirts ... it was an excruciating but invaluable experience,” Sandra says, laughing.

“Looking back, a lot of my early designs were definitely influenced by this time. I had access to beautiful traditional fabrics, many sourced from the US and UK, Oxford cottons, corduroy and silks, viscose prints and Italian and Irish tweeds.”

Evolving from this in 1983, the Wallace Rose label was born.

“I had my first show of eight garments alongside Monsoon and a few other local labels. For those who wonder where the name Wallace Rose comes from — it is a combination. The Rose came from Estelle Rose — an eveningwear company from the 60s and 70s. I remember my mother owned several beautiful cocktail gowns from its Auckland store. Wallace comes from the American socialite Wallis Simpson, a style icon. The combination seemed to optimise my vision of the brand at the time and very much to this day.”

Wallace Rose designs backstage at Australian Fashion Week 1997. Photo / Supplied
Wallace Rose designs backstage at Australian Fashion Week 1997. Photo / Supplied

By 1986, Sandra decided to sell her share of a house purchased with a friend and use the funds to invest in her own label, initially starting with wholesaling to other boutiques with the long-term dream of opening her own store, which she eventually did on Ponsonby Rd in 1990.

Three years after, she opened a second (now closed) store in Wellington, collaborating with her husband of 33 years, celebrated architect Andrew Bull, on both store fitouts.

During its early years, the Ponsonby store was part of a thriving scene in the early 90s where cafe culture was brewing, and Polynesian pride and an androgynous spirit were already permeating the visual identity of a contemporary, urban Aotearoa.

“Ponsonby Rd was an amazing street back then, constantly changing with new emerging designers alongside second-hand clothing stores, antiques and bric a brac… all side by side. I used to think it was Auckland’s version of Portobello Rd.”

The boutique quickly established a following purely from word of mouth and the shop’s prime visibility on the fashionable strip.

“It was an extremely busy and exciting time. My sisters were employed during the week and the weekends, offering tremendous support in those crucial early days.”

Sandra Harden, founder of Wallace Rose, at home. Photo / Babiche Martens
Sandra Harden, founder of Wallace Rose, at home. Photo / Babiche Martens

It was in 1996 that Sandra was nominated by the late television personality Charlotte Dawson to participate in Australian Fashion Week. Sandra was one of five New Zealand designers (Moontide, World, Zambesi and Icebreaker) asked to showcase their labels in Australia, which Sandra followed up with a solo show in 1997.

“It was a huge opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. The challenge was an enormous undertaking at the time.”

The collection was well received with orders from Liberty and Browns in London, and a number of Australian department stores and boutiques. “There were almost too many orders to fulfil for my small production team,” says Sandra. “The ultimate challenge was producing and supplying with incredibly tight delivery times. These were garments made from silks and velvets — all tricky hand-cut designs to produce commercially. It was definitely a huge learning curve.”

Although opening up Wallace Rose to the Australian market was a pivotal moment for the brand, it also proved an unsustainable balancing act, with Sandra closing her Australian accounts to return to the brand’s roots of what we now refer to as “slow fashion” — a considered approach to delivering clothes, which was incongruous to the mass growth the Australian market demanded.

“I was extremely proud of my achievements over those years but, long term, it was not what I imagined my business to be. At 39, I had my second child, Lydia. It was a lifestyle choice rather than a go big or go home moment,” she says.

Wallace Rose's Ponsonby Rd boutique. Photo / Babiche Martens
Wallace Rose's Ponsonby Rd boutique. Photo / Babiche Martens

More recently, Sandra and Andrew have developed the land to the rear of the Wallace Rose store, which was Sandra’s workroom and is now a three-level commercial building.

The couple extend their creative passions into their personal lives too, transforming the ivy-covered Arts and Crafts-style home where they’ve lived for the past 20 years in Herne Bay into its own kind of masterpiece that holds some of Sandra’s favourite things, including a collection of vintage mirrors and a chinoiserie-inspired corner.

The designer is an avid collector of vintage treasures, knick-knacks and curios that have found a home in her store — a collection of Victorian jugs and porcelain figurines are supporting acts to her thoughtful curation of designs.

Keeping things small and manageable is part of the brand’s key to longevity, employing long-time store manager Anne Bulog-Newman who has been with the business for 27 years, and a part-time assistant who joined seven years ago. The small scale allows her to meet the needs of her loyal clientele. “There’s a second generation of customers who come in with their daughters.”

As for any extravagant displays of celebrating this milestone, the elusive designer appreciates the importance of honouring the achievement for her customers.

“I feel incredibly nostalgic seeing Wallace Rose garments still being worn 20, 30 years later,” she says. “They’ve obviously been treasured — and that makes me smile. I love that my daughter and nieces wear my designs. It makes me feel appreciated and encouraged to continue to keep adding memories to that archival box.”

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