The New Zealand Order of Merit-awarded fashion designer walks us through her iconic, 41-year-old fashion house, Zambesi.
Interviewed by Adam Bryce
Photographed by Marissa Findlay
Tell us what you do and why you do it.
Quite simply, we just make clothes. Why? Because I love the process and the journey. I have always been drawn to fabrics and to dreaming up ideas for them. I was fortunate to have a very inspirational mother who was always making us something out of her archive of remnants. I really love this industry and the creative team which includes my partner Neville, who was instrumental in taking the opportunity to start our own business. My daughters Marissa and Sophie are why I continue to do what I do.
You founded Zambesi in 1979. What was the original idea behind the brand?
The brand was initially born out of necessity, as we were retailers always looking to offer something unique and exclusive. Creating our own label guaranteed this. It was a very organic process and developed slowly and carefully. We did not have a strategy in place. We just took opportunities as they came along and, before long, we were opening stores in Wellington and then, of course, Sydney and Melbourne.
Not only has Zambesi evolved a lot in 41 years, it’s been through numerous changes as the industry and world did too. What have been some of the most challenging moments?
Surviving various economic crisis, the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), 9/11 fallout and the emergence of online purchasing globally. Most recently, dealing with the Covid-19 situation.
Many of my friends and I were first exposed to fashion, international in particular, via Zambesi. Importing brands like Margiela in the early days must have been a very different process to now?
We were introducing brands that we identified with and presenting them alongside our own brand. Being a buyer was always one of my desires, so I found it very rewarding and, I believe, it was a great learning curve as I wanted to create a collection that was always striving for quality with a strong individual identity. In the early days, we used to delay the deliveries so that they arrived in store in the same season as we were in. Now, of course, because of on line we have to accept the deliveries at the same time as Europe.
While it’s over 40 years old, the vibe and aesthetic of Zambesi has always stayed true to you. From where did the aesthetic originate and what inspires you?
Fabrics have always inspired me. We grew up surrounded by fabric and making clothes, so it would be true to say my mother was a great inspiration. I am continually inspired by our incredibly creative team at the workroom and in our retail stores. We are fortunate and grateful for the support of our customers and clientele who have embraced the brand over the years and continue to be an inspiration. I believe that they validate our existence.
What are your thoughts on sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry?
Our most important contribution to sustainability is the endurance and long wardrobe life of our clothes. Zambesi lovers don’t generally dispose of their acquisitions. I can only speak for ourselves and, we are, and have always been, resourceful and careful in the way we make decisions around how we do things and why. I believe that the consumer is now taking more responsibility for the way they purchase and consume.
There is a lot of talk around the need for the fashion calendar to change. Agree?
I agree that the fashion calendar needs to change. I remember back to the early days when we did not go into sale for winter until October. It is time for us to write our own calendar, rather than slavishly follow seasonal timing dictated by the industry. We need to navigate carefully to survive and collectively re-imagine how we move forward.
What are your thoughts of the New Zealand fashion industry at the moment? How has it changed and where do you think it sits in comparison to past generations of the industry?
I believe the New Zealand Fashion industry has a great future. For us, being made in New Zealand has been our backbone and we understand the importance of cultivating production skills in the industry. There are so many skills creative and technical required to sustain New Zealand-made, which could be fostered and lead to satisfying and fulfilling careers. Yes, there are some challenges, however we must focus on the future, not the past and stay positive. We need to encourage the new breed of creatives to enter the industry to share and realise their dreams.