Managing a Fashion Business with Annabelle Wilson

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Wilson Trollope, but although I’ve had many wonderful chats with Annabelle over the past year or so, I’ve never interviewed her for the blog.  This year I decided I wanted to make talking to local designers a priority, and that I wanted to make sharing more information about what it’s like to be a designer an even bigger priority.  To that end, I asked Annabelle for an interview, plied her with coffee, and started pumping her for information.

I’m fascinated by how people take the leap into the creative industries (please recall my very conservative life decision to become a lawyer) and, having done that, to make another leap into owning their own business, so naturally I was keen to find out how Annabelle knew fashion design was right for her.  Turns out, all it took was a natural passion for fashion!  Once she was across the sewing skills, her Mum, Prue, introduced her to pattern making – and then the reliable stand-by of New Zealand life, a night course, helped Annabelle develop the pattern-making skills that were vital to getting Wilson Trollope started. 

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Annabelle explained “I’d always wanted to do fashion design, but I hadn’t been able to say it out loud”.  From making her own 21st birthday dress to running a fashion business, Annabelle did the hard yards and grew the business slowly to make sure it had a good solid foundation.  She’s quick to credit help from her (I’m assuming) lovely brother, who mentored her and helped her set up her business.  My brother buys me thoughtful books as presents.  Shout out to brothers for being great.

Nowadays, you might still find Prue hand sewing buttons onto some of Wilson Trollope’s dresses like the seconde d’atelier de couture in a Parisian fashion house, but the whole operation has become decidedly more sophisticated than my mental image of Annabelle standing on a table while her Mum pinned the hem up on that birthday dress (informed entirely by my own childhood of standing on tables).  These days, Annabelle sketches her ideas up and then works with a group of professionals, starting with a pattern maker, to get those collections instore.  It takes a fair bit of communication and project management, starting with getting the pattern just right, all the way through to managing the logistics of having the designs manufactured.

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Wilson Trollope is made in New Zealand, through a mix of factories (largely based in Auckland) and outworkers.  Once the pattern is agreed it’s sent off for grading, which allows the pattern to be made in all the different sizes.  Wilson Trollope started off with just four sizes, then extended into sizes 6 and 16 (interestingly, now the two best-selling sizes).  I was keen to understand whether there was interest from women for larger sizes in Wilson Trollope.  Annabelle explained “I’ve been thinking about the size range and the importance of having something to offer to women of all sizes. There are some technical changes with grading the patterns into sizes beyond a 16, which in turn mean logistical changes.  Exactly how I can make these work for Wilson Trollope is something I continue to think about and work on as we grow”.

Then the pattern is sent off to meet the fabric and all the pieces get cut into piles (imagine all right arms, all backs, all fronts, all left arms etc etc).  Did you know they use lasers and things like a jigsaw (the machine in your Dad’s workshop, not the fun puzzle game) to cut out clothes these days?  Those pieces then go on their own adventure to the factory where they will be sewed, right after someone picks all the pieces to create sets from all those piles. 

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What I learned from Annabelle is that there’s a limited number of factories, meaning that demand from designers needs to be carefully managed, but there’s also limitations on what you can have manufactured, for example, in terms of minimum run size.   That means that outworkers still have a vital role to play in the “Made in New Zealand” garments we buy from small designers.  It also means that you spend an entire manufacturing period with your fingers and toes crossed, as the whole thing needs to run seamlessly.  If finishings like zips or buttons are delayed, or if the wrong fabric is delivered (or if the fabric is faulty), then you’ll lose your place in the queue for fabrication and you will have to wait until there’s another gap for you. 

Speaking of faulty fabrics and other errors, please imagine, if you will, being Annabelle.  You are in the shop one day when you receive a delivery of coats for your new season.  Superb, you think, I am so excited.  You open the boxes to discover a pile of 100% finished coats, buttons on, the whole thing.  And every single one has a piece of blue wool sewn onto the reverse of the lapel that is the wrong damn blue.  I would have straight murdered someone; Annabelle soldiered on.  Coincidentally, I bought one of those coats, and I’m pretty sure I bought the last one of them, so even though the blue wasn’t right, it also apparently wasn’t wrong.  And nobody got murdered.  This is the equation for a successful small business.

Some of the Wilson Trollope goodies I've collected and/or worn over the years - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

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Talking to Annabelle about this whole process really helped me to get to grips with why New Zealand made fashion costs more.  Not only are you paying a proper wage to all those people – and there are a lot – involved in that process, you’re also paying New Zealand prices for things like delivery.  There’s a lot of transport involved in fashion design, and every time a man gets in a van loaded with fabric, it costs.  Fabric is another part of the fashion equation that I was keen to learn more about.  Most fabric in New Zealand is purchased from fabric wholesalers (that’s why you sometimes see double ups in fabrics used in local designers’ ranges).  There’s little, if any, fabric manufacturing still occurring in New Zealand as global competition started to put pressure on the prices local companies could charge.

Wilson Trollope is pretty much the furthest thing from fast fashion that I can imagine.  Having uttered the famous words “I don’t think Wilson Trollope is trendy”, I breathed a sigh of relief when Annabelle realised that was intended as a compliment…and agreed with me.  She explained it (delightfully) by saying she wanted the pieces she designed for Wilson Trollope to be the vintage of the future; it’s the beautiful, well made and cherished clothing that women still choose to wear in 5, 10 or 20 years.  I love that idea, and agree that the Wilson Trollope pieces I have in my wardrobe are timeless.  If I compare them to my trendy clothes (like my black and white striped top with the gathered sleeves and bow sash), they don’t scream what year they’re from – unlike that top, which should have “was cool in 2017” printed across it in red.

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While Annabelle and I agree there’s always going to be a place for cheap clothes – not everyone can spend hundreds of dollars on a single item, but everyone needs warm, clean clothes to wear – we also commiserated on the difficult task that is being a New Zealand fashion designer.  I have a list of 250 New Zealand fashion, jewellery and accessory designers – how many of them do you see on a day to day basis?  No wonder it’s tough to make it as a designer in New Zealand when we live in a time of impulse consumption, and a high street dominated by chain stores.  Annabelle loves meeting women who come back to Wilson Trollope again and again, who think about which items they’d like from each season, and who look after those things.  Perhaps there’s a challenge in there for us all to be a little more mindful, and support a local designer who is all things – starting with a creative mind, a business owner and a project manager.

Conveniently, since planning this interview Wilson Trollope has started its summer sale, with all Les Parisiennes 40% off! Scroll down for the website and store details - and if you pop in, say hi to Annabelle for me :)

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Shop hours:

Monday - Friday 10am - 6pm

Saturday 10am - 5pm

Sunday 11am - 4pm

Wilson Trollope

https://www.wilsontrollope.com/

1/115 Victoria Street

Wellington