The New Zealand fashion industry relies on an ecosystem of specialists to keep clothing locally made. Without the cutters, pattern makers, manufacturers and specialist dry cleaners, local fashion wouldn’t exist. It’s a fragile industry that’s impacted by global competition, market size, production scale and, increasingly, a skill shortage.
Mindful Fashion is a collective of more than 20 New Zealand designers, fabric suppliers and manufacturers collaborating to ensure the future of the domestic fashion industry. They’re taking an ethical approach to promote sustainable growth and investment, and raising funds on Boosted to train a new generation of specialists into the industry.
We spoke to a few industry stalwarts who work behind the scenes for some of our top designers, and who rely on local fashion for their livelihood.
Cutter, Fernandez Cutting Services
I left school at 16 and went into cutting in 1966 or 1967. I worked at Rainster, which made all types of coats and jackets. I did my apprenticeship there, which was five years, or 10,000 hours, and went to technical night school once a week. If you did a bit of overtime you could cut down your five-year apprenticeship to about four and a half years. Rainstar had a big factory in Queen Street – they were all big factories back then - with about 250 people, including designers, pattern makers, cutters, machinists, pressers. It was all done in the one factory.
When I first started we’d do bulk runs – 400 to 500 garments at a time – of ladies’ slacks, singlets – but the styles were plain, it was all pretty basic.
But the fashion industry has completely changed. And it changed when we couldn’t compete with the prices overseas – work went to Fiji, Asia. We’d cut the work, then it would be packed up and sent to Fiji to be made – then it became even cheaper in Asia.
A year after I finished my apprenticeship, I went into contract cutting. I was one of the first to do that and I set up under my house. That’s how I started off 55 years ago. At the time, a lot of the mills were here in New Zealand and they produced fabric until prices overseas became too competitive. When that happened, we went into local fashion.
One of the first fashion houses was High Society, which just closed down after 56 years. I worked for them for 40-odd years. The owner had been there since day one. They had about 30-40 people working for them and I don’t know where those people will go.
I work for labels such as Ruby and Carolyn Sills and we’ve worked with the likes of Paris Georgia, Trelise Cooper, Georgia Alice and Maggie Marilyn. The fashion trade has kept us going – I’m 71 and I could go for another five or 10 years. As long as I can stand up I can keep on working. You do a lot of heavy lifting but if you are healthy you can keep on going.
With time, patterns and designs have changed. In the old days it was a front, back and two sleeves, but nowadays a front could be made up of four to five parts.
There are three of us – one is my wife and I’ve had a lady here for 25 or 30 years. She started when she was 21. You see a lot of young people wanting to be designers but I’m worried about the contract cutters as there are no young guys coming through. There are probably about 10 cutters at the most and no apprenticeships.
This job looks quite easy but when you start cutting different fabrics there’s a lot to pay attention to. Some people have laser cutters, but not many because they are expensive.
Cutting machines can cut up to 200-deep garments, depending on the material. With sweatshirting, which is quite thick, you would only go about 70 or 80 deep. The machine is a very sharp knife on a stand with the motor at the top. You cut out pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.
I’m a bit of a workaholic. I got a loan and bought my own factory 30 or 40 years ago. It’s 186 square metres and one of my benches is 18 metres long. The trade has set me up for life. I’m not rich but I’m not poor. Personally, I’d like to see more work come back to NZ.
People don’t really sew their own clothes any more but Ruby started off a sewing course – they provided the patterns and it’s been a novelty. Some young people don’t even know how to sew on a button.
Business manager of fabric specialists Henderson Dry Cleaners
We are a boutique-style laundry and drycleaning business; the main part of our business is working with the fashion industry. When the designers need fabrics treated, we wash and dry them for shrinkage and colour run.
We work with whole lengths of fabric – 500 to 600 metres long – which we cut, wash, dry, press and roll for the cutters so they have an easy job of handling the fabric. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive and the fabrics are all managed by hand. They have to be washed and dried thoroughly so they are stain-free and line-free, and they are then pressed properly.
That’s the first part of our job; the second is pressing. After the cutters and sewers have done their jobs, we get the garments and press them – the seams and pleats ready for the shop.
There are not too many companies that wash fabric – we might be the only one in Auckland at the moment. I’ve been in the industry for four years and the business has been going for about 20 years. We also do eco-friendly drycleaning. There are a few others in the business but they don’t operate on the scale that we do. The fashion industry keeps us going – as long as the industry is there we are here.
I managed a temple in Henderson for a few years and I came here for a new challenge. I’m loving it. It’s an early start – we open at 6am and get the pressings done when it’s cool and get out at 3pm before it gets too hot.
The staff know how to treat the fabric and, as you can imagine, each fabric is different in terms of texture, dye, composition, thickness and weight. It all needs to be handled differently and not too many people know how to work with it, so it requires specialist knowledge. You have to know what you are doing.