Staying true to your values

Poking your head around the corner at Ingrid Starnes’ Ponsonby store into a workroom, you get an immediate sense that there’s something special about the way this fashion label does things.

Amidst the fabrics and prints, you’ll find Ingrid herself designing the next creation – and it is this commitment to bespoke, New Zealand-made clothing that has seen the label create a huge following locally and internationally with its timeless, classic and considered designs.

With a strong brand and having learned early the value of a successful e-commerce platform, the label has doubled revenue twice in the last four years, expanded into bridal and custom made workwear with a Vulcan Lane store, diversified into a new fragrance range and is now on the cusp of a second push into the Australian market.

Backbone caught up with Simon Pound – one half of the duo behind the label – to hear more about the choice to go Kiwi-made, how it found its customers and the blurring lines between in-store and online retail.

Authenticity and care

Starting out in 2009 in the wake of the GFC, it wasn’t an easy time to set up a boutique fashion business in New Zealand. But, after finding its feet, Ingrid Starnes has gone on to have two stores in Auckland, supply more than 20 stockists around New Zealand and manage a successful online distribution channel.

Pound says that a clear pursuit of what the label stands for has been instrumental to the label’s success.

“Our goal has always been to create clothes made beautifully that people will love for years to come. That requires producing garments to the highest standard. It’s something that’s really important to us, and you’ll see the bespoke approach throughout the production process, whether it’s Ingrid painting a print herself for a collection or the custom-made tailoring service we offer from the workroom behind our Ponsonby store.”

“As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to get more control over the supply chain and how we source fabrics, which has helped. We’re on a journey and in the early stages of this but we do what we can where we can".

This commitment to authenticity combines with a strong social conscience, with the label choosing to have its products designed, printed and made in New Zealand.

Pound says it’s certainly not a calculating business decision, as what they gain in margin from the story of how the clothing is made doesn’t necessarily translate to savings if they were to manufacture offshore. But, nonetheless, it’s something the label is committed to.

“Knowing our product is made to good environmental and labour standards is important to us. What we’re finding is that there is a real growing interest in the traceability and sustainability of clothing, as more savvy customers want to know the impact of their product choices”.

“As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to get more control over the supply chain and how we source fabrics, which has helped. We’re on a journey and in the early stages of this but we do what we can where we can”.

“We’ll probably need to move into some level of international production at some point, given the lack of young sewers and machinists coming through locally. But it’s still possible to manufacture overseas and do things in an ethical way, however it would have to be very transparent for us to be comfortable, and its not on the horizon yet.”

Finding your customer

With a strong story and sense of what the label represents, Ingrid Starnes has attracted a loyal customer base of accomplished women over recent years. Television news presenters Kanoa Lloyd and Hilary Barry are well known regular wearers, as is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a longstanding customer who has supported the made in New Zealand and small local business for years.

“One of the biggest thrills of the label is when someone you admire chooses to wear the clothes on a special day for them, whether it’s a friend at their wedding, or a prominent, successful woman achieving great things in her career.”

For Pound, the ability to find and connect with “their customer” was a key part in the maturing of the business, much of which is due to the label’s push into digital.

“When we first launched our e-commerce store, we didn’t know if people would be interested in a $400 silk dress designed to be tailored and then buy that online. It felt like a step too far, but we soon discovered that it wasn’t. The reality is that we’re always shopping with Facebook and Instagram now. They are the new shop windows, reducing distance and creating opportunities.

“The other part of it is that to run a bespoke fashion business, with hundreds of touches for every garment, it’s very hard to reach affordable scale. The only way to achieve that is with processes and SaaS services like Xero, Vend customer management and Shopify, which have become an important part of serving the customer.”

He says that being a niche, boutique label has allowed them to connect with customers with likeminded value sets, even when setbacks have pushed them hard.

“It has helped us to find our customers, whether they are in Auckland or London. And, after our Newmarket store burnt down last year, instead of investing in a new store we decided to create more content and stories for digital channels.

“This approach has seen us engage with quality photographers and artists, and collaborate with likeminded creatives, including ceramic artists, to do bunch of really exciting things and give life to our story online.”

Branching out

This is a formula that seems to be working. With the development of a label that knows what it cares about and a means to connect with those who share these values, Ingrid Starnes has been able to branch out into a successful range of fragrances and beauty care.

These include highly acclaimed perfumes with international lifestyle magazine Monocle calling their perfume range “one of the best products to come out of New Zealand.”

“We got into fragrance because we love perfume. It’s been great fun and a different way to express what brand is about,” says Pound.

“It’s meant that we can give added depth to stories with each collection, such as our recent launch of a range featuring a print of a beautiful winter flower, the hellebore. We were able to complement the clothing range with a fragrance made with the same flower.”

Diversifying has also contributed to alterative revenue sources outside clothing.

“In fashion the business changes every couple of months, with new product required many times every new season, so it’s nice to have a steadier product range. While the fragrance range is sitting under 20% of our business, its export potential is great. We’ve already had stockists in Japan and Hong Kong with a product in complete contrast to the clothing industry, and the fragrance and cosmetic industries here are only getting stronger and stronger every year.”

It’s the realisation that building resilience and creating a robust business, combined with a willingness to follow their hearts and what they believe in, are really the key to the label’s success, says Pound.

He’s also acutely aware that the ability to grow from zero to six figures-plus revenue without a lot of capital wouldn’t have been possible without the support of others.

“There’s this viewpoint that business is individualistic or self-interested, which I think is bit of a fallacy really. We have a strong, mutually supportive eco-system with suppliers and even competitors who help us. It’s all hugely interrelated, and it’s the support from customers and business advisors, and the work of our team that helps us be able to keep doing more of the things we love.”

Simon Pound’s top tips

Love the Cloud

The move to using Cloud services and new versions of old legacy systems may seem daunting, but if you get sound advice, choose the right platform and invest time at the beginning it will pay itself back many times over.

Prepare for that rainy day

Ensure you’ve got cash reserves for adverse events that can strike at any time. The burning down of our Newmarket store was a huge drain of energy into non-productive work. Keep moving forward!

Do your homework on your supply chain

We didn’t realise the extent of customs restrictions when shipping perfumes, because of the pressurised alcohol. It slowed growth of our fragrance range internationally. Spend time trying to find out what you don’t know you don’t know.

Timing matters in a market

We had good sales in Australia post-GFC, with the economy insulated by iron-ore exports to China. But when the iron-ore exports to China drastically reduced the economy plateaued, stockists closed and we were forced to pull out. Things have changed now and we’re about to start another push into the market there.

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