Effervescent, energetic and outspoken, Dame Trelise Cooper has a love for the fun side of fashion that’s contagious.
Even when she’s exhausted from a week of showing new collections across four labels, Dame Trelise Cooper is up for a good chat. In an interview punctuated by team members arriving to deliver coffee (in gold-handled dusty-rose leopard-print cups, natch) and models doing go-sees, she talked to Melinda Williams about how she’s seen fashion retailing change over the last two decades, why designers need to walk the talk of size diversity, and a whisper about her next grand plan. Oh and also: online retail is only making bricks and mortar retail stronger. "I feel like too many people think it has to be one or the other, online or bricks and mortar," she says. "And it's not. If you can have both — man, it's powerful".
Melinda Williams: It’s 2020. You’ve been in the fashion business for 35 years, since opening your first boutique in 1985. How did you get from there to here?
Trelise Cooper: I guess it started out with a big dream and desire. I did those early ‘80s American “you can have your dream” guru courses, and I sit here today because of them. It’s actually true! It’s all about what you think about. I did a really short pattern-making course and very quickly realised it wasn’t for me. I’m an ideas person, not a technical person.
What drew you to fashion?
I was always on the periphery of fashion through my husband Jack, who was in the jeans industry back then. I did a lot of research… well, I did a lot of shopping. I had three businesses before I went into business in clothing, all lucrative businesses, so I could shop a lot, and I travelled a lot because my husband did. So I did a lot of international shopping ‘research’. I feel like that taught me what women want and how they want to be treated in-store.
Where did you first open up?
My first store was in High St. I was there probably five years. I also opened a store in Wellington. We did a lot of made-to-measure, a lot of private clients. I did the Gloss TV series, I dressed the first Lotto presenter, who was the late Kerry Smith. After we had our child, Jasper in 1988, I tried a year of him coming to work with me with a nanny which was good, but I missed his smaller moments and the things that make being a mother special, so I stopped, and we went camper-vanning around Europe for a year.
That was a brave move!
It was! [laughs] It was really the best thing we did. It was a great year. We were actually going to settle overseas, but we decided we missed family and home, so we came back. I went to work for other clothing companies under my brand but I missed being with my son, so I stopped altogether until he was about nine, and then I started the company I have now, in 1996.
And now you have 10 stores?
Yes, 10, including Britomart! And we have over 300 independent retailers that we sell our wholesale collections to.
And four labels.
I have Trelise Cooper, Cooper, Coop and Curate, which isn’t in our own stores or online. That’s only for our independent retailers. We also buy in a brand called Holy Chic, six times a year. That one’s at Britomart. I’ve learned over the years that the New Zealand market is too small to do one point of view. I’ve had to cover all options. People who like elegance with not much detail. People who like a lot of detail. People who want masculine-feminine. People who want all-pink and fluff. We can do all of that.
How has the online revolution changed your business?
New Zealand has a limited population and it’s hard in retailing. But now we have access to the rest of the world online. My husband insisted that we had to have an online store. Really, just to shut him up I told him to start it in 2011. He’s an online shopper, I’m still not. Since 2011 until now, it’s been amazing. It’s changed the whole fabric of retailing. It’s meant we’ve had to change a lot of systems in the back end so that we have exact control of our stock. We used to be a bit sloppy if we were missing a couple of 10s in a style, or the brown 12 was in the window. Now you can’t be sloppy at all, because someone might have bought that brown 12 that’s hanging in the window. Everything has to mesh together, from the moment you step through the door of the store to having that experience in the online store.
Between online and your international retailers, how do you manage supplying to clients who are buying opposing seasons?
Most local designers do two seasons – Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, and that’s what we used to do. We find in retailing now, especially with online being so prevalent, customers come into our stores wanting something new each time. So now, not just for our stores but for our retailers, we produce our garments, four labels, four times a year. So that’s 16 collections a year. Up until last night I was presenting four collections. That’s why I sound tired! It’s really full-on, a lot of styles, ideas, fabrications, in four brands that have very different personalities.
Do bricks and mortar stores still work well for you?
I’m a really big believer in that you can’t do one without the other. Our Holy Chic brand is a great example. We were going to do it as an online brand only. We put a lot of marketing and money behind putting it out there and it just didn’t get traction. As soon as we put it into bricks and mortar at Britomart, then online started to work. Our business has grown hugely online, and our biggest store is online. Last month New Zealand Post told us our invoice was the biggest one they’ve ever seen in terms of goods sent out. But it’s hugely important to us to have bricks and mortar. Our retail stores are also doing the most they’ve ever done. I feel like too many people think it has to be one or the other, online or bricks and mortar. And it’s not. If you can have both – man, it’s powerful.
Do you treat online and retail differently in terms of the stock you make available?
We used to put things online a few days before we put them into our stores, but we realised we have to do it all at the same time. We’d put something online and then our customers would see it and come into the stores expecting it to be there. That proved to us that online was a fantastic marketing tool for retail.
What makes people want to come into your stores when online shopping is so easy now?
I believe the retail experience needs to be like stepping onboard an aeroplane and turning left. You want to have the champagne or a coffee. We try really hard to give that beautiful experience in-house. From the very beginning, because I had shopped a lot, I knew that shopping was intimidating for a lot of women, and a lot of shopping was set up to make women feel uncomfortable and bad about themselves. So I set off with a philosophy that it was kindness that was needed, and a welcome and authentic acknowledgement. I’m really, really fussy about who works in our stores, because they hold our turnover in their hands and I never forget that. We don’t want anyone to stand in front of our mirror and be told ‘That looks fabulous on you’, when it doesn’t. The thing is, we have a lot of options in our stores. If one thing doesn’t work on you, something else will.
Your aesthetic is pretty different to the traditional ‘New Zealand aesthetic’ of dark layers.
Yeah, it is. It’s kind of been a discomfort for me at times, feeling like I don’t fit that. I love black, and I love the New Zealand aesthetic, but there are enough designers already doing it well. And when I started my label, I’d been wearing a lot of black when travelling – because black travels well – and I often felt like a member of staff on the department store floor because nobody else was wearing all black. Colour and texture was the direction I chose to go in, and that’s worked for me.
Over the years in your Fashion Week shows, you’ve also taken a slightly different approach with models. Your models have been a bit more diverse in terms of age and curviness. And they always smile.
Thank you for recognising that! I have always had diversity in our shows, all ages and sizes. I feel like the fashion industry mocked me for that. But I’ve kind of gone to the beat of my own drum, because it felt like the right thing to do. I don’t just sell to white, middle-class females, although I know people think I do. I sell to a very diverse range of women of all sizes and ages and ethnicities.
Well, you’ve been ahead of the game then. Diversity is the biggest word in fashion now.
I think people should live what they’re preaching. If a designer wants to say there should be more diversity in fashion, then they should do a size 18. I feel like a lot of designers say that they support diversity, and only go up to a size 12. That annoys me. In some of our labels, we go from a 4 to an 18. That’s a very wide size range and it’s expensive to do. But a size 18 is just as relevant as a size 4. Our Curate label goes up 22. Women don’t want to buy a ‘plus size’ label because they don’t see themselves as ‘plus size’. They’re just themselves. To me, the true politics of it is not creating a separate category for some women.
Has the move towards casualisation in fashion affected what customers want from your label? You’ve said in the past that you don’t consider jeans to be fashion, so we can only imagine how you feel about leggings.
My take is that clothing transforms how you feel about yourself. It can make you feel confident or make you feel drab. I’m all for clothing that I feel empowers me. There is something really empowering about something that’s a celebration of life and colour. There’s a place for jeans and a place for athletic wear. Fashion is a deeply personal thing so I don’t want to make people who go out in athletic wear ‘wrong’ but if I do it, I don’t feel good. But there has been a mass conversion to very ‘undone’ dressing. I’m not that person. I love clothes, new ideas, new looks and reconnecting back to earlier styles and textures. You don’t get that in a pair of leggings. And for people who buy my clothes, it’s the same.
No Trelise Cooper Athletic line coming then?
We have done some things in the past! And this season we have a walking jacket. But for me there always has to be something in a piece of clothing that’s uplifting and elevating – that amplifies the best of me. I have short legs that don’t look good in jeans. If I looked hot in jeans I might have different ideas about it!
Sustainability is another big conversation in fashion. How are you making changes to your business?
I’ve been on a sustainability journey for a long time. We’ve done tree-plantings as a company. We have worm farms. We’ve always visited our factories and met all the workers from the very beginning. We use fabric that’s made from plastic bottles. We’ve used fabric that’s made from seaweed. We’ve looked into the coffee ground fabric. We belong to Trees That Count and bought trees, and have tried to educate our customers that they can buy trees to offset their purchases. In 2008, I created the Trelise Cooper Eco Bag, and in 12 years, we’ve sold millions of them. I think everyone needs to be doing something small every day to make change.
What I don’t like is the making people guilty, making people feel wrong, because that’s not how you make change. You make people feel good for making little changes every day and then they feel encouraged to make more changes. There’s a lot of shaming and blaming that goes on in this industry and it drives me nuts. We’re all in this journey together, and it’s a constant learning and growing.
A couple of quick questions to wrap up. Where do you like to eat and drink at Britomart?
I love them all! I love Ortolana for lunch, and Amano for dinner. It’s a fabulous place. And Ostro. Those are the places that – I can’t say I frequent because I eat out so much when I’m travelling that I like to eat in when I’m at home – but on the occasions I do go out, those are places I like to go.
And lastly, now that you’ve ticked so many boxes in your career – business success, Fashion Week shows, celebrity clients, Vogue, being made a Dame – what are you aiming for next?
Well… I do have a project but perhaps I shouldn’t talk exactly about what it is. It’s for the next 10 years. I need to go back to school first, to train myself how to do it before I launch. This was the first year I haven’t had a New Year’s resolution, and when this idea came to me, I realised, yes, this is what I need to do. So I’m reading up, I’m taking courses, I’m writing about it in my journal. It’s completely different to fashion, but it’s a creative endeavour. I’m excited about it. I didn’t think I could have a new creative idea but it’s kind of a culmination of the journey I’ve been on at this point. I’ll launch it in about two or three years.
Sounds interesting! We’ll stay tuned.