We interviewed Alexandra and business partner/husband James Whitta in December last year. In the time it's taken to get Issue #1 to print Alexandra has closed her business and is off to New York for more adventures.. (oh and she's taking James too)
AO - Alexandra Owen
JW - James Whitta
MS - Matt Smith (Common)
MS - How do you start a collection,
how does it begin?
AO - It’s kind of different every
time now, you think you have a method and then you’re like, ah, i need to try
something else. So for Winter, this one, i just really started thinking about
shapes in fact that’s kind of how most of them start and then if i’m not
getting anywhere new with it, if i’m thinking okay i’m repeating myself here i
need to go and find an outside influence, so if i find myself going in the same
direction as before i go and i start hunting out old films or old books on
things like mens tailoring and sort of war time clothing and that sort of thing
and i start going down an investigation and i guess in that sense collections
can become a little bit more themed but not heavily.
MS Do you bring back ideas from previous collections or do you always
AO No i always leave them behind and whenever i go back to them i think
‘oh i really liked that one, and i go back and i think.. no’ something about
fashion, there’s a moment for what feels right and often i think that’s how you
see trends coming out at the same time on the catwalk, i’m not talking about
people copying, that become trends, but you see a specific mood one season and
that’s because the time is right for that and that is so often the case with
fashion. It’s a reaction to what’s just been, you want to move away from last
season, you want to go the opposite, it sort of feels like timing is everything
with fashion. And sometimes you can get your timing wrong.
MS And do you?
AO Um -
MS Is there a piece that will just not work in a collection or do you see
that, do you make a full collection then remove some?
AO I really try hard not to do duds, so that by the time we’re talking
about retail and how we’re going to stock it i’m really aware that that looked
great on the catwalk, that looks great in photos but it’s not going to work. I
think often for me i great frustrated because i don’t have the resources and
the man power to do all the work that i want to do so i can think of all these
amazing things and we can start at this point and i want to end at that point
and sometimes we get halfway, so that’s frustrating, you know - i wish i had Balenciaga’s
team of seamstresses and people that could actualise all your concepts but you
MS Would you lose something if you
did though, there’s a benefit in being a small ‘Ma and Pa’ outfit isn’t there?
AO Yeah there absolutely is, you’re
right because there is that fine line of you want to feel the mark of a
designer and you don’t want to feel like it’s been watered down throughout the
process, so there is that but by the same token it’s nice to feel like you’re
growing and developing and you’re able to bring in more people to make it
happen, and i think that’s one of the hardest things maybe for New Zealand
designers is that there’s sort of a plateau of where their internal production
MS How big is the team now?
AO We’ve got four employees, and this season we’ve had a really amazing
breakthrough, which has eased our internal production where we’ve had a really
good partner come on board to help us with our manufacturing. So they take a
load off with the sampling, the grading, and the full production, from
production management through to delivery. So we’ve been really, really, lucky.
MS What’s grading?
AO When you take a size from and eight to a sixteen. So all those
logistical things that have to be done, and we’ve done a lot of those things in
house before and we’ve done a lot of our own internal production management as
well which is ordering fabric, adding up all the buttons, all that crap. So
they’re taking a lot of the load which is great.
MS You use a lot of external people, with mentors you’ve spoken about
Michael Hill and Chris Parkin, and then styling by Karen
AO Yes, we used Karen for the show last year and that was really
exciting, but i still feel like we’re quite shut away down here, in a way i
really like it because it keeps you a little bit more focussed in what you
MS In previous collections, particularly your Fencing Coat, you’ve used
furniture detailing, is that James’s influence coming through?
AO Oh yip! He told me to do that actually..
MS Is having a furniture designer in the studio rubbing off?
JW Inaudible muttering
AO No actually it’s kind of a fluke that one, i’ll talk about his
influence in a minute, which is not much, could you just shut up and go and sit
in the corner? Go on... just pipe down.
JW I, I could sweep the floors?
AO Would you mind? No - It’s actually, a Luchino Visconti film, a really
old film, had this really great fencing scene in the beginning which was all
about the fencing coat, but then they had club sofas everywhere in that film
and i’ve just …, like most people have, they have a real love for that couch,
and i kind of thought ‘oh’ lets marry the two together, put some buttons on
there. It was interesting because i thought we’d have to approach it from a
furniture point of view, and i was very terrified about having to work out that
detail and how it was going to work.
MS Because it is quite a prominent detail, they’re not small buttons and
it’s not a small area, it’s the whole coat.
AO But it ended up being quite logical, it was time consuming as hell
because you had to hand pleat everything, there wasn’t a machine that did it
for us, so everything was pinned before it was sewn. But it was a wonderful
JW But we’ll never do it again...
JW it was so labour intensive.
AO It really was..
MS You must have gotten a bit of press for it though, it was something
that popped up quite a bit, people loved it. Did it sell well too?
AO They did, the coats all sold out, that’s one of things i love about
New Zealand, i have to say. That every now and then you can throw a really
editorial piece in and people love it. Sometimes you misjudge it and they don’t
but things like coats and jackets if you can do something that’s really
original people will snap it up. The coats were, they were $1350, i understand
that’s a lot of money for women, so it’s really amazing to see them respond and
think that they’re worth that. Which they are.. because i know what went in to
them. But from a customers point of view they have to go ok, that’s worth that.
MS Do you consciously throw in editorial pieces in to your collections?
AO Yep -
MS So you sit there and you go, we’re going to need something to really
anchor this for the press?
AO Yep - I know which pieces they’ll take straight away, and they do.
MS How many pieces do you normally have in a collection?
AO Usually they’ve been quite small, 18 to 22 styles in the past. This
season i’ve upped it to 28?
JW It’s 29
MS And of that how many would you consciously go - this has to be a bit
more out there?
AO Well this season because i haven’t done runway with this collection
there has been less of those but i’ve certainly done striking colours and
certain other things to make sure that.., because i know that’s what it’ll take
to look great in an editorial and be picked out as unique. So there’s usually
about a handful that you think they’re going to pick up those pieces and
they’ll photograph well. Because black’s so hard to photograph, but by the the
same token you can’t forget to put black, you know classic black, in to your
store because people still love it and as soon as you do colour people say ‘oh
i want black, where’s the black?’
MS I remember when i went to one of your runway shows you had a leather
jacket with discs of leather..
AO Did you come to that? that was my favourite show.
MS I imagine that was a similar piece in that collection.
JS that was, we got a stamp made, so we cut those leather pieces and then
we folded it in four to make a petal and then sewn on so another quite labour
MS So now you avoid that?
JW we’ll never not do something because of the labour, if it’s part of
MS I guess being more established now you can ask the higher prices that
are justified by the hand labour.
JW exactly, we never really are scared of being able to sell something
because of the cost. Which is a nice place to be in, but by the same token we
have to be careful not to take advantage of that as well. So we do try to
charge what is fair, for the last collection, some of the styles were repeat
styles so we dropped the price down accordingly because they had been in there
before. But last summer with the Love dress which had five metres of silk,
there’s a seven or eight metre seam at the end there so it’s huge, it’s a lot
of work. I think that was $1200 and they sold out too.
AO people have to understand, not that you can really tell them, we’re
doing really low units here...
MS What sort of numbers do you do in a collection?
AO Often the most we’ll do is two to three in each style, per size, per
colour. So you’re not going to walk down the street and see five people wearing
MS So if it sells out it sells out?
AO Sometimes we’ll recut it but generally not. For winter we’re going to
do higher units because i think often if you’re saying no to people and you’re
turning them away it’s not always a great thing.
MS You’ve got to balance exclusivity.
AO We’re going to test it out, we’ve got to meet demand, we don’t want to
let people down. They can still be sure that it’s going to be carefully edited.
MS Does one collection do better than another, does winter sell better
AO There’s no rhyme or reason to it and it’s usually just styles, some
styles go straight away and you’ve done really well off them then other
JW or they’ll sit in the shop for three months then we’ll sell one and
then they all go. For what ever reason, the change in the weather, or people
suddenly get the itch, i don’t know what it is but it’s really hard to plan for
and that’s the problem with changing your stock every season, you have to hope
and pray that people are going to accept it again. So far they have.
MS So you outsource PR, styling of runway shows, ..
AO Last year was the first time we've used a stylist, but we've
outsourced PR, Showroom 22, for nearly 5 years
JW We out source production
MS Did you ever do all the production?
AO Yes, there have been seasons where we have, last winter when we were
doing a lot of the handmade pieces, the pleated pieces, we had a machinist here
who was dedicated just to doing the really complicated pieces, ..
MS How far do you take a collection before it goes off for production?
JW it does vary and we do want these guys to take over more of the
sampling part of it which hopefully the will do next season, they seem quite
AO this season i’m doing all the prototypes here, i’ll do the full colour
ways here, usually we don’t sample in all the colour ways but this season
because we’re setting up for online we’ll do all the colour ways.
MS And you pick up a pair of scissors and a needle and thread?
AO Yep, absolutely.
MS You start with a piece of paper and pencil and you sit down with a
bottle of wine?
AO (laughs) well most of time i either have an idea of the shape,
i’ve just been thinking of it for a while and it is often a reaction to the
last season. I think, ok i want to move away from that, i want to go here, i
want a more relaxed sleeve, i want it dropped, i want and 's' curve at the back
or whatever. And i’m thinking, okay so the last season was really decadent or
opulent, this season i want it to be really pure, i want to pare it pack, i
want a simple palette, so there’s all those things floating around and then
most of the time i start with the fabric. So i get the colour palette sorted, i
get the fabrics sorted and then i work from there. Just start sketching out the
shapes. And if i feel like i’m not getting anywhere, if i haven’t had thoughts
to that point i have to look elsewhere.
MS And that’s where you bring in movies and things like that?
MS But they never come across in your final collection do they? You don’t
send people down the runway with their hair tied in a plait with a whisk and
bowl in hand or holding a chicken with a rake in the other hand... That never
comes through, that’s a private part of it?
JW there’s never a...
MS If i see rakes and chickens coming through in the next collection you
owe me royalties...
JW 10c for every chicken.. There’s never a ‘theme’ that we could do that
MS Other people rely quite heavily on themes..
AO People always say what’s the name of your collection, I don’t have a
name for it.
MS Have you ever named a collection?
AO Never and i’ve always found it strange, everyone works so differently
but i kind of feel like it’s almost like a circus, like it’s clown theme or
something. This is actually for women to wear.
MS Your shop and workroom are in a building owned by one of your mentors,
Chris Parkin, does he have an active role in your business?
AO Not so much anymore, he really did in the beginning. I think the great
thing about him is he’s just such an enthusiast and he really enjoys seeing
young people do things.
MS It’s good to have a sounding board, to qualify what you’re thinking.
AO Yeah and he’s a businessman, so we worked through a lot of the nitty
gritty in order to get here, but you know as the business has progressed we’ve
needed more advice, more specific, we mentioned Michael Hill and that’s because
he is a retailer and we’ve found ourselves in this position now where we have
to be a retailer, we have to understand what retail is a lot more. I think
we’ve been quite naive to that in the past because i’ve leapt from being a
designer and selling to other people to wanting to have my own presence but not
really understanding the back end of it that needs to make it thrive. We’ve
still got such a long way to go but once you get the toolkit you can do really
great things with it.
MS Why Michael Hill? He’s a jeweller with a reputation of mass and
discount as opposed to you, someone the complete opposite, were you introduced
AO We met up with him through a mutual contact.
MS Were you looking for someone or did it just grow out of conversation?
AO We’re always looking for someone new to talk to who has a different
perspective. I’ve found that it’s harder to get advice from fashion because i
think that fashion’s really competitive and i think that you get a clearer,
more honest perspective from someone that’s not necessarily in competition with
MS I can’t imagine Michael Hill is threatened by you.
AO No he’s not, he’s the richest man in New Zealand, and of course our
models don’t align. But that’s not the point, he understands how you sell a
JW He also understands the fundamentals, true fundamentals of retail are
the same through every industry. There’s a certain amount of money you have to
make and a certain amount of people you have to have in order to make that
money and a certain amount of advertising etc, etc. and those are the same of
any business if it wants to be successful. The fact that we’re selling designer
clothing as opposed to discount jewellery is kind of irrelevant in terms of it
being a retail business. That’s a thing that we've had to learn, both being
creatives, both wanting to talk about the dream and talk about our aspirations.
AO To live off design equity
JW And then realising you have to pay for it.
MS Shit we’ve got nothing to eat tonight, we’re in that magazine, and
that magazine, but there’s nothing to eat.
AO Exactly and New Zealand is quite misleading like that because anywhere
else in the world that could translate to something quite lucrative but here in
New Zealand you can get quite a healthy profile but end of the day you’re still
hand to mouth trying to make it work, especially in creative industries. It’s
been challenging on that front, we’ve had to fund everything, our trips to NY,
we’ve had a lot of support and patronage from various private individuals but
in terms of support from an industry council or what have you that just really
hasn’t been there.
MS Do you have 100% ownership of Alexandra Owen?
MS There’s no investors?
AO No, there are no shareholders.
MS Which is something a lot of people learn along the way.
JW Yep, keep ownership, because as soon as there’s somebody else
involved, and of course at some stage you do need somebody involved but wait
till it’s worth something, because otherwise you give up too much.
MS Until you’ve created enough of a vision, till it’s already on track..
JW You need to prove the model first, it’s needs to be making money
before you get money involved. The money should be to grow the business not to
AO And that’s not to say i’m not always looking for someone that might be
a suitable partner because at the end of the day when it gets really really
hard and you’re the only ones accountable and the only ones who are there to
drive it, that can be quite debilitating sometimes, you really have to push
hard to get through those times and some times you do think wouldn’t it be
great if someone just came on board and..
JW saved the day..
AO A nice big corporate team..
JW There was something on Womens Wear daily the other day, an article
about five designers talk about being invested in, and they all said they thing
they didn’t understand was it meant they’d be working for somebody, and that’s
what happens, you take money and you have a boss.
MS To be able to sit down and do your collection and go - what do i want
to do, what’s going to sell, and that’s it.
AO As you know a lot of people outside
this industry or outside any design discipline have a tendency to think what
you do is really easy and they’ve got ideas too, and it’s amazing how often
people say - oh can’t you just do it like that, can’t you do it i n sequins,
can’t you do it in zebra stripes?
JW The main thing that ‘non creatives’ is that they think that the
creative bit is having and idea and if you have an idea it’s automatically good
and that’s creative, where as creativity is having 100 ideas and finding the
AO And knowing how to execute it.
JW If you decide to be in the applied arts, then they are applied, and
they have to apply. so it does need validation and you have to be aware of that.
you’re not just an artist sitting in your room and saying i have amazing ideas
and you will purchase them. it’s understanding what people want and that is
actually an exciting opportunity as opposed to annoying part of the process.
AO And really challenging as well. It’s very very challenging to make
things that people want and need and make sure that you’ve got the spectrum
covered. It’s a really tricky business and i think honestly that’s why most
people fail, because they don’t connect that. To be honest i didn’t really get
that until we went to NY, and while i think i’ve been sensitive to
womens needs on the whole, it's important to remember that you can't just do
whatever you want and say 'too bad like it or not'. Going to NY has really
really helped change that perspective for me.
See photography by Doug Johns