One of New Zealand’s favourite fashion designers shares her passion for reviving New Zealand’s garment manufacturing industry to create a more sustainable future for local fashion. 

Kate Sylvester is a household name in New Zealand, but she reckons if she were starting out today in fashion, she might struggle to get her label off the ground. That desire to keep the local fashion industry alive for the next generation of designers is what drove her to co-create Mindful Fashion, an industry organisation that aims to support local manufacturing and greater industry sustainability. Kate spoke to Britomart’s Melinda Williams about why losing skilled garment-makers could cripple the ability of aspiring young fashion designers to follow their dreams.   

Melinda Williams: So. What a year these six months have been!

Kate Sylvester: It’s been a crazy rollercoaster. Covid lockdown was… when it exploded, it was devastating. But I’m just so thrilled that there is a positive that has come out of it for New Zealand brands. Prior to Covid and the lockdown, I think there was a real momentum growing around supporting your local businesses and manufacturing. This has really reinforced that, and that’s an amazing upside. From a retail point of view, that’s saving our bacon.

Tell us about what you’re doing with Mindful Fashion. 

For years, the fashion industry has not had an industry body, so we haven’t had a voice with government. On one hand there has been this great support for the local industry, but at the same time we are becoming very aware of just how fragile local manufacturing is. Our manufacturing base is almost an endangered species. We have to look after it or we’ll lose it. That’s why we’ve launched our Boosted campaign, Love Local, to raise funds for a bunch of projects around building and strengthening our local makers – sewers, cutters, embroiderers, knitters, everyone who actually makes clothes here in New Zealand.

I’m seeing a parallel with what’s happening in the media. There was the massive lockdown crash as Bauer shut and a number of other magazines closed down and big media companies cut staff numbers. But already we’re starting to see new magazines popping up or being revived, and this time they’re New Zealand-owned.

Yes! That’s so great too. It’s feeling exciting. If we can get these local magazines working, that would be incredible.

It feels like in both industries, the revival has to start from the ground up. The new magazines aren’t being made in huge offices with advertising departments, they’re tiny little teams of a handful of people in someone’s spare room. 

Oh yes! And in the fashion industry, most of the makers are one-person companies. You know, it’s devastating to think that we produce so much merino wool in this country, and mountains of wood chips – which are the basis for viscose fabric – and once upon a time we used to have fabric mills here, but they all got shuttered in the 70s and 80s. Ideally we’d love to see that happen again, and we feel like there’s a will for that to happen. In the long-term, we’d like to see our whole supply chain here. Circular supply chains as well. That’s the dream. 

So what’s the key project you’re aiming to get off the ground with the Boosted campaign?

The funds that we’re raising will go to a project manager to drive the formation of the apprenticeship programme. It’s crazy that we don’t have a certified garment apprenticeship programme in New Zealand and we need it. The project manager will work with industry and educators and government to create the programme. But to me, two areas are really obvious straightaway are we need machinists and we need cutters, which are great jobs to be apprenticeship-based. To be a pattern-maker you need to do a full course of study at a fashion school, but machining and cutting are areas where you could do apprenticeships. Knitting could be another area where there’s good potential for apprenticeships.

So the fundraising is growing

It’s creeping up! We’re conscious that this is a tricky time because we really need the support but people are struggling. But we’re chipping away at it… it’s steadily going up.

Are there many people still working in these areas in New Zealand? 

Yes, there are some. Downstairs here, we still have traditional pattern-makers actually working on craft paper making patterns. I am passionate about that. We still have our own sampling department with machinists and a cutter. And of course for all the product made in New Zealand, we work with contract cutters – there are about three or four independent ones in Auckland, and when we work with CMTs [Cut Make and Trim] they will have machinists in-house or they’ll contract out to machinists who work from home. There are a couple of screen printers here, a couple of embroiderers. We do have the craftspeople, we’re just very conscious that they’re maturing and we desperately need to get young people on board. It’s incredibly challenging if you’re a young business to bring someone in and train them up without the support of an apprenticeship programme. The government is offering amazing support for apprenticeship programmes right now. 

If – god forbid – the industry did die out here, what would that mean for New Zealand fashion labels? 

For a business like us, we’d survive. We’d move everything offshore. We’re big enough and tough enough to be able to do that. But for young designers starting out, it would be incredibly hard. If you’re dealing with China, you’ve got to order minimums, you’ve got to produce hundreds of units, you’re not dealing one-on-one with them to solve problems when you’re still learning how to do stuff. I can’t imagine how young designers would start out. If you were going to launch a new brand, you’d need a whole lot of investment money behind you. It would be a whole different thing to the way we started. We were able to start slowly and gently. 

Is that already a problem? It seems like fewer labels are launching than there were, say, 15 years ago. 

It absolutely is harder now. There used to be a lot more independent boutiques that you could wholesale to, and there are now very few, so there’s more competition there, global competition too. And as an industry we used to have more government support. That was how we first got to go to Sydney and do the shows over there. That’s where we see that Mindful Fashion can really help as an industry body to lobby government to get those funds directed back to our industry. 

Has sustainability always been a passion for you, or something that’s grown over the years?

The issues around sustainability and ethical manufacturing – back when we started, an understanding of these things didn’t exist. It’s been a slow-growing awareness across the industry. For me, the absolute bee in my bonnet is fast fashion. When I first started, 20 or so years ago, there was no fast fashion. What it has done, because of the horrific scale of clothing that is produced, an awareness of the sustainability of fashion has come out of it. When we first started to look at it, it was like sustainability was seen as an optional extra. But only in the last few years it has gone from optional to being a core part of every part of your business going forward. For all businesses, not just the fashion industry. For start-ups, it has to be part of your initial business plan. For a business like us, the challenge is to shift and adjust the existing business model on new terms. 

What’s going to make the biggest difference here?

I feel like the buy-in form the public has real momentum, and that’s only going to grow. So the big challenge is getting government involvement.

Finally, your new collection launches this week – can you tell us about what’s in it?

Exploding Women! That’s the collection. I read this wonderful quote from Simone de Beauvoir – “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.” I just loved the quote in itself, because it’s so great to read about a woman being greedy, because as women, it’s something we’re not meant to be. And I loved the photo of her that went with it, because she’s this very buttoned-up, very understated woman but she had all this exploding crazy stuff in her head. And that’s very much the case with a lot of my style icons – that’s the Kate Sylvester woman. So there’s a combination of very buttoned-up pieces and then pieces of exploding colour and prints. It’s been a really fun collection to work on. 


A few sneak-peek preview pieces from Exploding Women are available in-store at Kate Sylvester Britomart now. The full collection goes on sale Friday 14 August.