Let’s make New Zealand a safe space for design

Let’s make New Zealand a safe space for design

Finally, it’s time for another Recording. Did I pronounce “Adrienne Winklemann” or “Denise L’Estrange Corbet” correctly? Almost definitely not. I definitely do say “hashtag” instead of “hangtag” at one point, which is grim BUT the message is there. Listen below or, if you prefer to read than to listen to my dulcet tones, my speaking notes are below.

As you know, I work in capital markets and so it’s part of my job to read the nation’s business news courtesy of our workplace NBR subscription.  That’s mostly articles on deals, financial results, that kind of thing – generally a far departure from fashion and personal style.  However, it does occasionally overlap with my non-work interests.

I’ve read two sets of articles lately on the Adrienne Winkelmann issue – for those who are just catching up, it started with claims that Ms Winkelmann had labelled jeans as “Made in New Zealand” when they were in fact made in Italy.  That then evolved into claims that the label had copied designs from European designers (and the comparative photographs do seem to suggest a degree of copying that goes well beyond accident or coincidence).  Since designers in Europe can claim copyright, this doesn’t look good.  It’s not new news in New Zealand.  We’ve been making other designers’ clothes under licence for some time, and copying designs (IF that’s what has happened here) has been part of the landscape for both home sewers and commercial dressmakers for generations.  However, in a world connected by the internet it is, obviously, far more dicey.

As I read it, it rang some bells.  Undoubtedly, many of you will remember the furore when it was discovered that WORLD was labelling tshirts with Made in New Zealand when they were, in fact, made nowhere near New Zealand.  You might also remember Denise L’Estrange-Corbet saying that only the hangtags were labelled “Made in New Zealand” and they were made in New Zealand.  (It didn’t get much traction, and I note Adrienne Winkelmann has not made the same claim).

At the time of the WORLD furore, I could not understand why they were handling it as they were.  I could not understand why WORLD didn’t just immediately say – shit, we missed that, we have made a mistake and now we’ll put it right.  At the time I assumed that the people in charge at WORLD just could not admit the error, due to ego perhaps. 

But then! An opportunity to reflect presented itself in the guise of this latest media coverage of Adrienne Winklemann.  Two things occurred to me.  First up, the lawyer in my brain was screaming “admit nothing!” at Adrienne Winklemann – keep quiet, and I’m pretty sure her sister the Chief Justice of New Zealand’s Supreme Court is giving her the same advice right now.  Actually I have no idea if that’s good advice.  I’m not that kind of lawyer. 

Second of all, my brain finally pieced together the bit of information it had overlooked when WORLD was in the media.  We live in New Zealand. Issues like this have the power to take down a brand.

I think of both WORLD and Adrienne Winklemann as big labels in their own ways, but all big things must start off small.  I’m reading a book called Undressed at the moment, which sets out interviews and information about a group of key New Zealand fashion designers from 2003.  WORLD is featured, and this quote leapt off the page at me as I read:

The fashion business, L’Estrange Corbet points out, ‘is a fragile thing, no matter how big you get.  The only thing that kept me going originally was the thought of failure.  I couldn’t stand the thought of failure.  And that still worries me today because it could all fall down quite easily.  Probably it worries me more now, because there is so much more at stake.’

That was 14 years after WORLD started trading, and perhaps the finances have now cranked on to a place where that fragility is no longer an issue for them.  Regardless, that mind set – that it could all disappear, that you could lose every fruit of your effort – has to influence you long after you leave that time where you struggle.  My coach has talked to me about what happens when humans feel threatened and, if you’ll excuse me while I paraphrase several hours of work into a line or two, basically your higher functions shut down and you go straight into fight or flight.  The most primitive part of your brain is in charge, and so you struggle to think straight.  We’ve all felt that feeling, when someone attacks something that you value highly.  Your heart rate goes right up, your hands sweat, you immediately move into a “push away” and deny space.  When I think about Denise L’Estrange Corbet feeling that anxiety, fear, call it what you will, I can easily understand that line about hangtags being made in New Zealand.  Christ knows I’ve said things that are more ridiculous than that in my times of feeling threatened.  And hey, maybe it wasn’t this, maybe it was unbridled ego, but that’s not the point.  The point is to try to be generous in your own understanding.

To know me is to know I’m here to overthink things, so this queued me straight into a deep and meaningful with myself about the state of the fashion industry in New Zealand.  No doubt, things are tough out there.  It’s never promising when fabric wholesalers are leaving, or when high profile businesses like Andrea Moore are being taken down.  However, it’s important to remember two things. 

First up, fashion is an industry.  It’s part of a wider economic machine, and that means it will experience the turn of the wheel just like any other industry.  Businesses have come and gone throughout New Zealand’s fashion history, and they’ll continue to survive – and fail – for the rest of our fashion history.  I believe we are at a critical point in the evolution of fashion which, if it goes the way I hope it will, will create massive opportunity for local creators.  I cannot see how the next generation will be able to participate in fast fashion in the way that my generation did.  I cannot see those kids, who are so young now, traipsing off to Glassons on a Saturday afternoon to buy an outfit, just because.  I can see their consumer power, at least here in our tiny petri dish of a country, shifting the goal posts towards local, sustainable fashion. 

That’s the benefit of being small and isolated – things can happen here that would be impossible elsewhere.  If we really want to protect and enhance our local fashion industry, then raise kids who understand the power of buying local.  Raise kids who understand it’s better to own three great shirts than a mountain of synthetic shit that polluted another child’s river.  Change the way you participate in our local economy by buying local or second hand clothes – and in doing so, change the landscape for fashion.   It’s entirely doable here, and it would raise up local effort to a place where the threat of failure was diminished.

The second thing is to keep in mind that there are, right now, hundreds of creative New Zealanders making and selling clothes, jewellery, accessories.  I know, because I’m building a list.  Out there is a thriving culture of creativity and skill.  We’ve lost some skills, we have fewer manufacturers and skilled workers in fashion, sure.  But we haven’t lost everything.  Every year I see new brands, like Hej Hej, rise to the top of public consciousness but in the meantime, others are quietly succeeding in their dozens.  You don’t need to be front and centre to succeed.  You do need to be bloody hardworking, dedicated and passionate.   I am proud and pleased to tell you that there are lots of New Zealanders who work hard, show true dedication, and are passionate about creating beautiful things right here at home.

It’s easy to judge when you see someone behave in a way that seems, frankly, counterintuitive. But standing back and trying to understand the entire experience (even if, and this is a real possibility, you get that totally wrong too) will at least give you new ways of seeing the same old things.  If we accept that deep down, many of our local designers are under threat all the time, if we can be empathetic to that state of being, if they can be vulnerable and tell us – hey, I worked really hard for this and I am afraid of what might happen to it – then I think we’re all on a better footing.  Because the truth is that hundreds of designers in New Zealand are at our whim.  They exist only because we buy just enough stuff from them to keep them going.  It must be nightmarish for them to walk down our high streets and into our department stores and see so little New Zealand representation – from hundreds of makers, maybe half a dozen are represented in the entirety of Lambton Quay and Willis Street, here in Wellington, and do not get me started on what I witnessed at Queensgate last weekend.

I guess I’m saying, wouldn’t it be cool to make a safe space for New Zealand design.  It’s so easy to do – just choose carefully.  And next time we read about a New Zealand designer in the media, let’s remember they’re a threatened breed.