Ahead of their shows at New Zealand Fashion Week this month, we sat down with clothing and accessories designer Kate Sylvester and footwear designer Kathryn Wilson – two of this country’s most successful fashion industry figures – to find out how business has been post lockdown and what their plans are for the future.

How has the past year been for you professionally?

Kate: It's been a roller coaster. When covid hit, it just felt like the end of the world, it was so scary and awful. And yet, fantastically, it's turned out there are silver linings. One has been that because people haven't been able to travel, they've got more money to spend. There’s also been such a seismic shift to supporting local as well.

Kathryn: I think for us, initially, we were told to “bunker down and quickly cap your costs where you can”. I was reaching out to peers within the industry and saying, “What are you going to do?” Dealing with landlords, accountants, lawyers, all that felt like, “Oh my goodness, I'm out of my depth.” I had a six-month-old baby at that time and we went to our tiny 1970s bach in the Coromandel for two weeks (or so we thought) to ride the lockdown out. But obviously it didn’t work out that way. Trying to make business decisions and having those big, scary business conversations with that physical separation and full-time parenting – months later, that caught up on me. 

What steps did you take to safeguard your businesses?

Kathryn: All our decisions had to be made quickly and for the right reasons for the business. We were looking at things like our cost structure and the things we had been doing the same way for 17 years. The changes that we did put in place were done because we were preparing for the worst – really conservative sales. But as it turned out, we had fantastic sales. A lovely camaraderie has come of this; it's a very small business and every one of the team felt like part of the recovery. In March, we started using an agency for digital marketing. We’ve invested more than I've ever thought. It’s a horrible amount of money when you see it going out, but I don't mind spending the money on advertising – it’s right there on paper how much we have earned from it.

Kate: Literally we stopped trading. So there was a very definite reset moment when we got to start again. We looked at all our systems and how we do everything. I think that has been incredibly valuable as well – the way we work now is quite different. In hindsight, that's not a bad thing. I mean, going through it was terrible. I've always said the most important thing, for me, to be successful in business is that every time something unbelievably devastating happens, you've just got to take it on the chin, take a deep breath, figure out how to move forward. One thing we did was to start dispatching our online orders direct from our retail stores during the quiet times of the day. That’s worked well, so we’ve kept it going.

New Zealand footwear designer Kathryn Wilson. Photo: Supplied.  

Has covid changed the competitive nature of the New Zealand fashion industry?

Kate: There's always been this idea that we're seen as being very brittle. Back when we started, I think, brands didn't talk so much, but especially in the past few years it’s changed and it’s such a different environment now – we talk all the time. I feel the industry is more supportive than competitive. During the lockdowns, everybody just got on their phones and was checking in on each other, comparing notes. So it didn't feel like we were trying to figure it out on our own, we were doing it collectively.

Kathryn: Maybe it's less hierarchical than it used to be. I think Kate, in particular, and the designers who are at that top level want to nurture the next generation.

Are consumers buying differently post lockdown?

Kathryn: There were all those stories about how it was going to be trainers and trackpants forever after lockdown. But what we found was as soon as people could, they wanted to dress up. Also, people are buying and supporting local brands, although that’s not just a covid thing. It's a bigger picture and that's the strongest trend that we've seen in the past few years.

Kate: As a consumer, buying mindfully drives every purchase decision I make, even right down to what dental floss I buy. You can't just blindly buy any more.

What are your ambitions for the next 12 months?

Kate: That’s hard, because everything's really unknown. We do a lot of business in Australia and that’s been really tough for us. I'm just desperate for us all to get vaccinated so that we can get back to business as usual with Australia and really focus on that side of our business again.  

Kathryn: Based on the results that we've seen with e-commerce, that's where a lot of our focus is. We’re also opening a new Wellington store this month. A big part of that decision was that we feel it will support our e-commerce customers by them being able to come and experience our brand and a physical showroom. 

Kate: I really defend bricks and mortar and no matter what happens with e-commerce, there's always going to be a place for physical shopping. It's such a social thing. I don't think it'll ever stop. The relationship that our retail staff have with regular customers is invaluable. I think the two will always complement each other. 

Why is it important to show at New Zealand Fashion Week this year?

Kate: Because Fashion Week didn’t happen last year, this year feels like a really great chance to celebrate. Fashion Week has been incredibly positive for our local industry – we do really good business off the back of it. It’s a great event and really worth supporting. 

Kathryn: It would feel like a real shame if there wasn't a Fashion Week. It’s still an honour to be invited out to a show. It also helps grow the industry. I want the young design talent to think that there's opportunity out there. It also brings everyone in the industry together in one room, which doesn’t happen that often.

New Zealand Fashion Week runs August 23-29 in Auckland.