AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Geographically isolated from most of the rest of the world, New Zealand has a small yet innovative fashion industry that is struggling for international trade and recognition.
Remote sourcing and supply chains make it difficult to estimate the overall value of the industry. Although New Zealand’s apparel exports grew by 8 percent over the 2000-to-2009 period, they have come off their 2007 peak. Last year, they came in at 226 million New Zealand dollars, or $166 million at current exchange, down 5.4 percent from 2008.
So far this year, New Zealand’s apparel exports in the January-to-August period have risen 5 percent to 162.4 million New Zealand dollars, or $122.1 million, according to figures from Statistics New Zealand. Australia remains the largest apparel-export market, with 87 percent of apparel headed across the Tasman Sea. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are a distant second and third place at 2.4 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively.
But these export amounts are thought to represent less than 30 percent of New Zealand brands’ international sales, explained Fashion Industry New Zealand (FINZ) executive officer Mapihi Opai. Due to a lack of local apparel manufacturers on the islands, companies produce the majority of their apparel offshore and export it directly from their third-party manufacturers. High shipping costs discourage New Zealand fashion companies from shipping unfinished or finished goods back to the country before exporting them as final products.
“We are up against it, we are at the bottom of the world, and creating a product that the Northern Hemisphere is not ready to look at yet, as we are ahead by a season,” said Elizabeth Findlay, the owner and women’s wear designer of fashion label Zambesi. “To sell into the Northern Hemisphere, we need to build our profile so that we can attract the right stores to invest in the brand. The difficulty is that anyone buying has to consider the duties and freight costs of a label that is produced in New Zealand.”
Opai said that “niche high-end products” are generally manufactured in New Zealand, but when a designer gets to a certain volume, he or she has to go to China to compete in the Northern Hemisphere.
Despite these difficulties, there are signs that the buzz surrounding the industry is growing. The annual New Zealand Fashion Week, which was held Sept. 21 to 25, just celebrated its tenth anniversary.
“The global estimated advertising value for NZFW in the first year  was 1.2 million New Zealand dollars, or $880,000, and then in 2009 it was 64 million New Zealand dollars, or $47 million,” said NZFW brand manager Myken Stewart.
The late September timing of the event is problematic, with the industry heavyweights in the Northern Hemisphere rushing between fashion shows in New York, Milan and Paris.
“If you’re just trying to attract Australasia, it’s fine, but if you’re trying to attract Australasian buyers who go to London and Paris, it’s not fine. You’re up against a huge calendar that has been an institution for a long time,” said Zambesi’s Findlay.
A few New Zealand brands, including Zambesi, have found an international platform in New Zealand retail concept store Koko in Paris’ Marais district. The 431-square-foot boutique opened late last month. The boutique owner, Catherine McMahon, said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the French reaction to the store. “The use of our fabrics, colors and combinations give the French another option that they haven’t seen before,” she added.
Brand consultant Clif Loftin agreed that New Zealand fashion offers something new and original. “New Zealand fashion is exciting and new, it feels like the new frontier…while the U.S. market is more celebrity driven, in New Zealand it’s all about the fashion…it’s crazy it’s not in the retail marketplace in America, it would be cutting edge,” he said. Nicole Miller, who was a guest designer at last month’s edition of fashion week, said: “I think there is a very avant-garde aesthetic here, there is a lot of creative, interesting clothes. I think a lot of these clothes would sell really well in the States. I’m surprised there are not more New Zealand lines sold in the States.”
Yet the country’s designers face considerable obstacles. “You are generally looking, for anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, at a 300 percent markup at retail; from transportation, taxes and the cost of the structure of operating in a foreign market,” said Opai. “[In terms of price positioning], you are going head-to-head with the bottom end of global luxury, brands that spend hundreds of millions in global advertising.”
Up-and-coming New Zealand designer Alexandra Owen keeps volumes down for her low-end premium label as part of a successful strategy for breaking into the U.S. market.
“In the U.S., there is a lot of mystery around New Zealand; and they understand we do a premium product,” she said. Her fall 2011 collection features high collars with quilted textured materials in rich autumnal colors, creating a majestic, cinematic look. She is in discussions for U.S. distribution with niche boutique stores Elizabeth Charles and Kirna Zabête as well as Bergdorf Goodman.
“We haven’t had the influences of all the big brands in our psyches because [since] we live on the edge of the world, nothing is available easily, it all has to be sourced offshore,” said Trelise Cooper of her eponymous luxury niche brand. “That makes you inventive and way more creative. [I think] we have kept quite creative and fresh in our ideas.”
With around 300 points of sale globally, Cooper is one of the few New Zealand brands to have international success. Yet “export into the States, it’s never straightforward,” she said.