You could say it all started with a dance at age 14. We’ve all been there - you want a new outfit, but you don’t have the finances to buy something. Desiree had decided it was time to for a new skirt, and as I’ve learned with Desiree, where there’s a will there’s a way. Next thing you know, she was rocking a pencil skirt with an asymmetric frill for the dance (and can I just say - very impressive first sew!).
In fact, if we’re being honest it started long before then, drawing girls wearing full outfits as a way to channel a love of fashion. However, little Desiree was a pragmatist, and didn’t fancy her chances of scoring a job in the high-stakes world of fashion - so all of those girls and cool outfits were set aside.
Despite that early despair over her career prospects, sewing stayed in Desiree’s life after that first triumph of a skirt. A particularly great teacher at high school, who helped Desiree create a strong portfolio, saw her enrolled at Massey at the end of her six form year (at 16 years old!) doing her diploma.
Obviously, I was astounded at the idea of a 16-year-old at university, having been a 17 year old at University - what a time. Desiree told me with a laugh that nobody knew she was 16 and it wasn’t until a friend on the course with her brought in a birthday cake that her secret was revealed.
After university came a job at Rembrandt suits. Desiree spent several years at Rembrandt, learning all the important lessons that come with made to measure. The client at Rembrandt is expecting to receive an impeccable piece of clothing exactly on time. Working in that environment really reinforces the importance of quality construction and an attention to customers. She tells me about standing in the factory begging for items to be finished so that she could personally race to airport and deliver them to be flown overseas. Who knew suits could be so stressful?
Eventually though, life changes, and Desiree wanted to find a way to work from home. Made to measure womenswear seemed perfect! Desiree still remembers her boss telling her that it would be really hard - and now laughs at that advice, telling me instead that he should have said it would be “nearly impossible”. However, like so many of the women I know, the combination of not knowing just how hard it would be and being, frankly, pretty stubborn need, meant that Desiree just got on with it.
And so Clothing by Desiree was born. The focus is on high quality fabric, made into low waste clothes that will last you a long time and feel great to wear. Desiree has grown the business organically, moving into new areas as they become available. However, what has always been a part of her brand is her sustainable and ethical approach – and that’s what attracted me to her.
Recently, Desiree has moved into her first retail store in Petone. That idea started with a conversation in a car park with a loyal customer, and then the stars started aligning (also: huge amounts of hard work). The store is a real win:win for Desiree and her customers. She gets an opportunity to see people trying on her designs in real life, and you get the ability to have your items altered so that the fit is perfection. For example, the sleeves on this top were too long for my wee tiny arms (a standard problem for me). No problem, Desiree whipped them up for me and delivered it back to me in the city. That is fantastic service, and I love that Desiree recognises that not everything off the rack fits every body, and is just keen to make sure you get the best fit.
Part of the move to her own store was also a reaction to one of the more challenging (shall we say) elements of the New Zealand fashion industry. When I asked Desiree what the lows were, in her experience of being a designer, she told me about stores closing owing her thousands of dollars. One season, three stores closed down, one of which closed only a week after receiving stock from Desiree. This is a common refrain from the designers I talk to, and is massively impactful on small businesses like the designers I feature on this site.
However, there are highs as well, like showing at NZ Fashion Week, and meeting her customers. She describes the experience of a customer getting something that fits just right as a total joy, and I love that she’s okay with making changes to her designs to create a good match for the client. She is a real spokesperson for the importance of a good fit, which makes sense considering her passion for sustainability – well fitting clothes are clothes you wear for a long time.
I think Desiree’s story is a great one – from that little girl drawing and dreaming, through to a passion for the technical skills, on to building a business that has strong values at its core. If you want to check out her designs, jump online at https://clothingbydesiree.com/, or (better still) have a wee drive to Petone, grab a coffee from one of the many great cafes, and pop in to see Desiree at 43 Tory Street.
Desiree kindly lent me some items for this post, and I also bought some (stay tuned for another of her designs in an upcoming post on another topic).