I really don’t know how to start telling my story. It’s similar to a lot of young women with dreams of making it big in the fashion industry. First, before I go on, I would like to say that even though I am mostly putting a bad light on the rag trade in this country, I would first and foremost say that there has been some wonderful people I have met along the way, who would have given the shirt off their back to help me.
Sadly, though, those people are few and far between.
Starting from the beginning; I was always obsessed with textiles and clothes from a very young age. My Grandmother nursed my talent from when I could barely talk. She could not work a sewing machine to save herself but her beading and needlework were exquisite. I remember her teaching me embroidery and I loved every second of it. She even took me to a specialised needlework classes for ribbon and embellishments at the tender age of seven. Creating with my hands gave me immense enjoyment.
I was never an academic child. I was diagnosed with dyslexia from an early age, growing up in the 90’s, it became my Achilles’ heal. They had not yet perfected teaching children with a disability like mine and I really struggled in school. The only thing that gave me pleasure in the classroom were my art classes, where I could express myself and not have to worry about if I could read from a book or try and figure out an equation with something I could barely process on a page in front of me.
I was 11 when I changed schools and realized that my talents were in sewing. This was a private school, with a strict uniform, and on mufti days the girls would dress to the nines. My parents were always grounded and though money and material extras had to be worked for. Meaning buying nice clothes at expensive shops was out of the question for me bar special occasions. Some kids might have gotten angry and felt they missed out. I was grateful, because this helped me realise how much I loved creating outfits. I had an inner diva and she wanted to express herself through what she wore.
It wasn’t long until people were asking me what I was going to make for mufti day and if they could pay me with candy to make theirs! I was talented at design and excelled with it at school. Apart from sport, design was the only thing I didn’t completely fail at – I accumulated many design awards by the end of my schooling.
Looking back, it was at time I first saw a problem with sorting out my life career. Because I wasn’t an academic student, I was never pushed to sort out what I was going to be when I grew up. I was left to sort out a career path for myself. I was given absolutely no advice, and had no idea what I was meant to do.
I had my heart set on this university and got accepted! The years at university were some of the best I ever had; learning tailoring, art, design, construction and fashion history. It was wonderful to attend those classes. However, only one class existed for business of fashion. … Yes ONE BUSINESS CLASS. A subject where the majority of students graduate with dreams of starting their own fashion type business. That all these creative processes and art history classes mad up 90% of my University education and only 10% were on tariffs and trading agreements on countries like china and India as well as overhead costs for a company, advertising and online vs. foot traffic etc.
No one at University ever told me that the likelihood of starting up a cottage industry company would likely fail within the first 5 years either. I wasn’t educated on things like tariffs and trading agreements on countries like China and India. I had no idea about overhead costs for a company, advertising and online vs. foot traffic etc. The faculty put rose tinted glasses on the industry making out that everyone would get jobs once they graduated.
During and after Uni, I was working for 5 years for a prominent New Zealand Fashion House (I won’t name names, but lets say this is probably our biggest NZ Fashion House and is one of the few doing well overseas). I worked for this house in the workroom on a contra basis (product instead of money). Because the designer was notable, I thought I could look past the fact that the House did not pay me money for the years I worked. I thought I could look past that they exploited my intellectual talent because I thought I would get my dream job out if it.
Boy, was I wrong.
After graduating, like you would imagine, I approached them and asked to be put on their books as an employee. After 5 years, a degree and proving my worth over and over – you would think this was a no brainer yes. Not only was I told no, but I was let go because there were a ton of eager girls lined up around the block eager to work for this designer. This was the first time I realised what underemployment was and how rampant it was in the New Zealand fashion industry. Why pay someone money when an undergrad will o it for free? There I was, a naive, unemployed and about to graduate with no real job prospects on the horizon.
I thought I had caught a break, that when I did graduate, my talent was recognized and a person to do my own line of work sponsored me. This was hard, as I had no experience before in finding manufacturers and suppliers for garments. But my sponsor was kind and showed me the ropes to create a production line.
Once a line was done – a year later – cold calling was on the line to promote and shift the units of stock as well as producing a website. Now, during my years at University no one ever told me that 5% of a line is creative, the other half was business… why would they make me spend 4 years learning the 95% creative? because of this, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. If you’ve ever tried cold calling regarding anything, you’ll know it’s HARD. As much as I tried to shift the units from the website to get 100% of the profits, I found that people did not really care for online buying if you had no established name for yourself. Most of my sales came through foot traffic in boutiques where they would take a hefty cut on the items.
I’ll tell you the truth, I never broke even on the venture and it broke my heart.
I left a little disappointed about the venture, but felt ok about the situation as at least I could say I gave it a go at that point in time. I gathered with my experience in overseeing production and sourcing manufacturers and suppliers for fashion lines, as well as show casing in New Zealand Fashion week, it would give me a great edge for working for a grounded well know fashion house. However, when I approached a few notable New Zealand Houses for employment, it was the same answer: “We love your work, but we just don’t want you to work for us. But hey love those leather bags you have, can I buy some units off you so I can sell them in my stores with my label in them?” At this point I had grown a thick skin on intellectual property and even though I was beginning to fear for my financial future, I knew I had to say no. My work is my work, if they like the things I produce then they should hire me. The cheek of them to think they can stick their label in a few units for my blood sweat and tears and pass it off as their own? Forget it! (sadly this is something that happens all the time in the industry).
I had realized at this point with my experience, I was now too overqualified for people’s liking, and what they were only prepared to pay for a person in the roll was barely above minimum wage. My own adventure had in a way turned out to be my Achilles heel for employment.
I ended up back in retail for a long time and it caused me to have depression. It was hard to even get a job in retail as many times employers said I was overqualified for the position.Whatever that meant. Low wages when I was a graduate and educated killed me inside and I found myself crying a lot at night when I was alone.
I got an olive branch through a friend of a friend about a year later from working in retail. This was a firm which had lovely suits for men, as well as importing fine home decor and accessories from all parts of the globe. Even though this was still retail, I had the chance to help fit people for suits! Menswear was my specialty and passion, so I jumped at the chance. I worked with a man that was nice to me at the start. But when it became clear to him that I had training as a men’s tailor in the past, he became more and more hostile towards me. “Fitting men is a man’s job” and “how would you know of a man’s form when you’re a woman?” were things he would frequently say to me to try and belittle me and make me feel as uncomfortable as possible. He always tried to take my fitting jobs away from me as I guess he just saw me as competition. I could not believe how sexist he was to me, he really made me so uncomfortable in what should have been an enjoyable work environment. This was a part time arrangement as I was working for myself at the time doing things like men’s suits and wedding dresses for weddings. That colleague made my life such a living hell that I ended up resigning from the position as my attempts to tell my employers of the situation fell on deaf ears.
Things got worse for me as I later found myself working in a textile company, to which my married manager tried to make me sleep with him for a pay rise. I couldn’t believe it. The more I told him to back off the more he persisted. Yet again I was being treated as a second-class citizen. I had now grown an extremely thick skin to this sort of drama and was not going to let this low life get away with it. When I took my grievance to higher management, he then made my life a day to day living hell in a bid to try to get me to leave. I was not going to leave without letting that creep get what he deserved. I sought the help of a solicitor filed for a personal grievance and mediation with the company for mismanagement of the situation.
My manager went under investigation and lost his job not only from my grievance but other matters – that I can’t say – he was doing within the company. I was paid out and left disillusioned by the entire industry.
Today, I still do a few things here and there for people that know me. I tend to work from home and do alterations for people. I still love designing and making my own things. But in reality, I would get more money working as a receptionist with fewer hours in the week then I would back in the industry. Most of the people I went to University with are either in retail or have had to pursue different careers.
One thing that the rag trade has given me which I believe has been a great blessing in a way, is a thick skin, also, the ability to say “NO”. “NO I will not settle for your offer and, “NO I will not settle for that wage or amount”.
I am not going to dwell on my experiences within the industry. Worse things happen to people everyday. I just think sometimes outsiders look at fashion as a glamorous thing to be in. Like we stand around calling everything fabulous and live in coutre – that’s just not the case. I want to let the people reading this know, that there is a very dark underbelly to the NZ Fashion Industry.
Here is my advice to anyone struggling in the industry like I did:
– Don’t sell yourself short, or let people take advantage of you with your intellectual property. If you think it is worth that much then it probably is.
– Speak up if you feel you are being mistreated in the workplace, silence does not solve anything.
– Settle on a contract , an apprentice should be paid, even if it is minimum wage.
– Never settle for more than 2 weeks unpaid work experience. If you have done it for that time, you can put that on your C.V. , don’t let it get into a case on underemployment.
-Love what you do. It’s a hard industry to be in, if you’re not passionate – do something more lucrative.