The first four years of Maggie Hewitt’s eponymous fashion label have been a dream run. Picked up by global retailers straight out of fashion design school and lauded by international fashion media, her sustainable label Maggie Marilyn has shot to stardom. But with success came stress – and the sense that she was moving away from her roots. So the opening of her first bricks-and-mortar store marks a complete change of business model, bringing all her sales back in-house and switching the inventory focus from glamorous seasonal collections to year-round production of timeless sustainable essentials. Britomart’s Melinda Williams talked to her about what inspired this radical change.

So, the opening of your Britomart store is the start of a new era for Maggie Marilyn.

It’s a time of massive change. It almost feels like Maggie Marilyn 2.0. It’s kind of been a long time coming…

Oh, come on! Nothing has been a long time coming in your business!

[laughs] Okay, yes, we are only four years old! I have a lot of gratitude for those four years and the journey we’ve been on but I have a lot of optimism for what’s ahead. 

So, basically you’re inverting the whole production structure of your business from 80 percent seasonal collections for Maggie Marilyn and 20 percent ‘Somewhere’ essentials line to 95 percent ‘Somewhere’ and 5 percent ‘main’ line…

Yes – and we’re also significantly changing how we’re selling it to the customer, going to a direct-to-consumer only model.

That’s a… bold move. Talk us through why you decided to make such a giant change.

We’ve been on this journey for a while now of seeing the challenges of educating our customer but not having a direct line of conversation with them because we’re wholesaling internationally. To be honest, we’ve been moving in the direction of wanting to reduce wholesale and increase direct-to-customer for about 18 months, but we really didn’t see ourselves becoming a full DTC brand. But I guess this year has given me the time to sit back and reflect. 

Was lockdown when this all crystallised for you?

When we first went into lockdown, I went up to the Bay of Islands with my family and I had a lot of time to think about the business I wanted to build in the future. I realised that within the space of two weeks of the world going into lockdown, our industry was flipped on its head. It highlighted a lot of cracks in the fundamental business model of fashion and really made me realise the risks that were at play with our wholesale partners. I thought to myself, “How do I grow a business that is very resilient and can be here in 10 years’ time, 50 years’ time?’ It was never about quick wins. So it seems like a bold move but actually I think that being close to our customer and building a direct line of communication with them builds more resilience, because we’re getting direct loyalty rather than loyalty through a retailer.

Some of your wholesale partners will feel pretty disappointed though.

Absolutely. To be perfectly honest, wholesaling hasn’t been an easy process. We’ve had great partners and we’ve had some pretty horrible partners. I think it’s not often in our industry that a young designer says to a big partner, “Actually, we want to forge our own path. We don’t need you anymore.” I think that made them take a step back because they’d never been challenged in that way. It’s always brands doing whatever they can to get into these retailers at whatever cost, and sometimes you have to really sell your soul. So for me, it’s with gratitude that they’ve opened the door and allowed me to have access to a global customer, but moving forward I know that all we want to achieve in educating the customer about shopping sustainably was never going to be possible through a middle man. 

What does that mean to you, to educate a customer? What does that look like?

We’ve always tried to be incredibly transparent and vulnerable with our journey and taking the customer on that journey with us. I think that’s built incredible consumer loyalty and brand trust. From on our Instagram being very candid about the challenges we face to being transparent about where our garments come from and how they’re produced, I guess there are lots of different touchpoints for that education. But it’s incredibly challenging to educate a customer on what we actually do as a brand through, say, a department store in Kuwait.

I guess in a physical space the education is completely direct and responsive – is that part of the reason you decided to move into bricks and mortar?

Absolutely. For me, bricks and mortar will always play such an important part in the customer journey. It’s really about wanting to build a community of change-makers. In a world that has become so connected through social media and technology, but also strangely disconnected because of that, I think there’s real power in going back to physical space and connecting with customers in real life. At the start of this year we started doing fortnightly community events – that’s been up and down because of Covid – but that’s been a really great way of connecting with our community and educating them on our hopes and dreams for the future. 

What made you settle on the space at Britomart for your first store?

When thinking about where would be the right place to open a store, I really admired how Britomart has such a strong sense of community and a desire to build community. I don’t think there’s many other retail precincts in Auckland that have that. I think we’ve all had those awful experiences of walking into a store where you didn’t feel you belonged or the sales associate looked you up and down in the wrong way and I think that that level of kindness, warmth and accessibility has been important to Maggie Marilyn, and was the inspiration for the Somewhere line.

That’s the Somewhere line that will now make up the vast majority of your production. 

Yes. Over the first two years in business, I think we’d become disconnected from our original mission. Being stocked in the likes of Bergdorf Goodman or Selfridges, there is an element of elitism, and that’s something I never wanted for the Maggie Marilyn customer. I think Maggie Marilyn is for every girl, every woman. Whether it’s my 15-year-old sister or a 65-year-old woman, we’ve always tried to have a broad demographic. 

It’s interesting to hear that even though you entered the fashion world through the most aspirational and glamorous path, you never wanted an air of exclusivity around the label. 

No! Sometimes you have to go down a path to realise it’s not the right one. Growing up in the Bay of Islands, I had dreams of being in the likes of Saks Fifth Ave or having the likes of Michelle Obama wearing my product. But it’s funny, when all those things come true… they’re incredible, and I’m so grateful they’ve given me a platform, but I think I get so much more satisfaction from seeing a regular Maggie Marilyn customer walking down the street. That will never get old.