From staffing shortages to supply chain issues, the challenges of Covid on local businesses have been many. The NZ fashion industry has had its own unique issues to contend with, and this year has proven the most difficult for some. But a recent trade trip led by the Prime Minister shows signs of positivity, writes Zoe Walker Ahwa
It’s sale season across the motu, with New Zealand fashion designers preparing to transform from winter collections into spring - a sartorial symbol of hope and renewal for an industry that needs it. It has been a strange winter season.
“Day to day trying to do business this year has been unprecedentedly hard,” says designer Kate Sylvester, who has been in the business of fashion and retail for more than 25 years. “I feel like it's been the most challenging conditions that we've ever experienced, just to make the product.”
For many designers, the adrenaline of doing business in 2020 and 2021 has run out, and the reality of our new pandemic situation has set in. A perfect storm of challenges have also reached their apex this year, from China’s lockdowns and manufacturing to staff shortages, reopened borders and rising inflation and interest rates; impacting business across the board but with their own unique ramifications for fashion.
“Lockdowns were actually very simple for us. It was black and white: you were in lockdown, so nothing happened,” says Sylvester. “Now that we are learning to live with Covid and these ongoing side effects of the disruption… this is the real challenge.”
Designers say that people are still shopping, despite the economic uncertainty. Anecdotally, many I’ve spoken to over the past year or so have said that while the first lockdown in 2020 was hugely challenging for retail, once people could shop again they were seeing bumper sales, usually through their online stores. If anything, the past few years have made online shopping a forced necessity, and normal.
But retail this year has been volatile, says fashion designer Juliette Hogan, who has six of her own stores and stocks in boutiques across the country.
“There's no rhyme or reason to the trends that we're seeing out there. I know that our product appeals to a market that has high disposable income, so we’ve been impacted in different ways to other businesses,” she says.
“There's probably a little bit more of a reserved or a considerate consideration to the spend as opposed to that frivolous spending.”
That uncertainty at a retail level makes it more difficult to plan for the future.
Last week emerging Wellington brand Havilah put out a call for financial support to keep the doors of its Cuba Street store open, setting up a Give a Little page to “help save our little ray of happiness”.
“We've come to the point where asking for help from our community is the only way we'll stay open and continue to share our beautiful store with locals,” it explains. “We are reaching a point where we might have to close our doors if our situation doesn’t improve soon.”
Designer and founder Havilah Arendse says she wants to be as transparent as possible with her customers about the challenges she is facing. They reflect much of what other designers speak about too: shipping delays, increasing costs, staff shortages and reduced foot traffic in city centres.
It’s something as simple as the price of couriers to send online orders, which Arendse says have increased four times this year. An unsympathetic landlord and rent increases have made things especially challenging, she says.
“Asking for help isn’t exactly a strong point for us but we really love what we've built here and would love to keep it going! We know that times are tough for a lot of people out there, so we wanted to delay doing this for as long as possible, ideally avoiding it entirely. Unfortunately, the time has now come and we really need the community's help and support.”
Staffing shortages are an issue across the board, not just in fashion, with the effects of illnesses as Covid cases rise again and the number of young people going overseas as borders reopen. This has unique consequences for the fashion industry, which generally runs on seasonal schedules across manufacturing and retail.
Hogan and her team have had to push out projects this year because they haven’t had the workforce to execute and complete them in time. But she is typically pragmatic about it: “We are happy to make those decisions - they're not life or death.”
Full employment also means that staffing and recruitment is tough. “We've had to work incredibly hard to fill vacancies, and the Covid absences. That's unbelievably disruptive,” says Sylvester.
“And of course, it’s not just us - with all our local makers, it impacts them as well. It has been really tough for our local manufacturers; especially knowing that these are tiny little businesses.”
China’s lockdowns continue to impact brands who manufacture there, with a backlog of production, and even those who make their garments locally, whether it be sourcing fabric or fabric development and the rising costs of freight due to petrol prices.
Despite the challenges, there are flickers of positivity. The spring collections that are set to arrive into stores in the coming weeks are full of optimistic colour. And there is an exciting wave of creative talent that seems to be staying put, for now.
There is also, crucially, visible government support for an industry that has not typically been taken seriously business wise. Earlier this month the industry was abuzz with excitement about a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise trade mission led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to Sydney and Melbourne as part of the Government’s ‘reconnection strategy’ to support export growth and the return of tourists post Covid.
Three local fashion brands - Kowtow, Yu Mei and Nature Baby - were chosen to be part of a delegation of 31 businesses across food, beverage, consumer goods, fashion, technology, manufacturing, investment, technology and tourism industries.
The trip also included the launch of a ‘Discover New’ showcase with David Jones, featuring 25 New Zealand brands in the luxury department store’s flagship store in Sydney including Kate Sylvester, Deadly Ponies, Icebreaker, Nisa, Paris Georgia, Wynn Hamlyn and Marle.
Australia - New Zealand’s second largest trading partner - has typically been an attractive and relatively simple wholesale and retail market for New Zealand fashion designers, though the presence has waned in recent years.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that she has undertaken several trade missions with business delegations in the past few months to share the message that New Zealand is open for business. It was important to the Prime Minister to support New Zealand businesses in their face to face reconnection with the global marketplace, and to promote New Zealand businesses as both the best in the world, and the best for the world.
Speaking at the David Jones launch, Arden said: “New Zealand has a rich design culture, and we would like to think that it’s the best in the world. There is a unique perspective that New Zealanders bring that’s fresh and constantly challenging convention.”
Bella Katz, the NZTE trade commissioner for Melbourne who helped organise the trip, says that in Australia there is a “real appreciation and admiration” for New Zealand’s environmental approach to business, as well as the country’s empathetic response to the pandemic. “It's not the little cousin anymore.”
“[The David Jones showcase] reinforced that there's a real audience for New Zealand fashion, and for products made in New Zealand and that real New Zealand story - natural, sustainable, ethically sourced goods,” she says.
“Over here in Australia, New Zealand has always been known for food, beverage, agribusiness and tourism, but we thought that fashion is a category that represents New Zealand really well - that real, premium, design led New Zealand.”
That enthusiasm for New Zealand design is another ray of hope for the industry, both here and as it looks outward to export markets.
“The message to buy local has been such a strong message over the last few years - certainly I've been shouting it from the rooftops,” says Kate Sylvester. “That's a message that's been heard loud and clear by the community and that consumers have really taken up.
"It’s the best thing that has come out of Covid - and I hope that's a permanent reset.”