It is my pleasure to introduce you to Jess, the great lady behind Aida Maeby, in the first of a short series of blog posts featuring her beautiful winter 2017 collection (and a few more fabulous women).
To get to Jess’s studio, you descend a beautiful wooden spiral staircase, a feature added to the house in the 1970s. No doubt at the time it seemed bang up to date, carefully considered and perfect for the house and the family that lived there then, but time has made it truly special (which, let’s be honest, is not something you can say about everything designed in that decade!).
That timeless quality – cool now, still practical and beautiful later – comes across in the clothes that Jess produces for Aida Maeby. She explains that while she makes things that she would want to wear (the ultimate designer’s prerogative), she wants women who buy her clothes to be able to wear them for a long time. I think it must be tricky to create things that are timeless but are exciting enough to buy now, but the pieces Jess has on the rack achieve it by skirting around the edge of classic cuts without being dull “I work at a large retail bank” uniform styles, and through interesting flourishes in buttons, draped fabric and seams.
When Jess first left design school and started interviewing for jobs with New Zealand labels, starting her own business was far from her mind. After a stint working in the industry, Jess took a break to work in the 9-5 world, before realising that a job where your workmates encourage you to waste time on the internet was not for her. She tells me “Wellington has a spirit of possibility about it, and when we moved here it seemed like the right time to try this, while I could still remember what I’d learned!”. In the three years since, Aida Maeby has been growing season on season, and Jess credits her group of repeat customers with giving her a wonderful sounding board as she develops new ideas from her studio.
There is one over-riding impression you take away from talking to Jess about her label, Aida Maeby, and that is that Jess really cares about what she is doing and about the ramifications of production and design. Of the 300 items in the Winter 2017 collection, about 75% will be made by Jess herself, and the other 25% is made by her talented Wellington outworkers. Jess explains “it’s important to me that I can say Aida Maeby is made here, and it gives me peace of mind to know exactly what the production process looks like”. She is completely a creator and producer, explaining that when she’s not making the collection, she’s knitting, cooking, gardening – creating tangible, beautiful things.
I confess to Jess that my sewing skills extend to sewing on a button or putting up a simple hem, and she points out that by modern standards I’m doing pretty well (quietly chuffed, you guys). That leads to a chat about the ills of fast fashion, with us both observing that in addition to encouraging us all to buy a staggering amount of decidedly average clothing, it also discourages some women from bothering to learn how to mend clothes, as they’re so easily replaced. What I didn’t realise is that skills are being lost at a much more significant level within New Zealand, as craftsmen retire, taking their skills with them. With nobody to pass it down to, the real risk is that we’ll end up having to rely on buying clothes made offshore in order to get those details that we didn’t retain.
Our chat reveals an unsurprising, but important, truth about New Zealand’s home-grown fashion industry – you’re not going to get rich making clothes in New Zealand. Independent brands like Aida Maeby are charging you more for a coat than you would pay in Glassons, but here’s the thing that strikes me as we chat – if you’re wearing a coat from Aida Maeby, then Jess either made it for you herself, or paid another Wellington woman to make it for you (and in fact, if you buy the Marama blouse in the same print that Jess is wearing, she might have even printed the fabric for you!). She thought about how that coat would be cut, she chose the fabric, she made sure the wooden buttons were set in resin so they wouldn’t snap – she knows that coat inside and out. That feels like an endeavour that’s worth supporting.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing starting her own business, and Jess notes ruefully that there have been a few lessons learned. In a feeling that might be familiar to many readers regardless of their careers or endeavours, it’s often the case that an item that looks like a hot seller ends up falling flat (but there’s been a fair few surprise winners along the way too – phew!). I’m curious to know what the goal is for Jess with Aida Maeby. Jess explains that it’s not about mass production for her, but instead that a real thrill will come on the day she sees something she made “in the wild” – Aida Maeby on a woman she doesn’t know. If that happens to be you, don’t be surprised when Jess comes racing up to you in excitement!
Next week, in addition to my usual outfit of the week I'll be posting the next post in this series - so come back to check that out or sign up to the newsletter at the link below so that you can read the posts at your leisure!