In the protected environment from the late 1930s to the 1980s, clothing firms proliferated, and some grew very large. In the late 1970s, for example, Prestige Holeproof made suits, men’s shirts, knitwear, underwear, socks and hosiery, as well as woollen and synthetic fabrics and knitting wool, in factories in Auckland, Hamilton, Te Awamutu, Whanganui, Palmerston North, Shannon and Wellington.
In the early 1980s the Industry Development Commission examined the clothing industry and decided there were too many factories making small quantities of too many different things. It encouraged firms to combine and merge to make the industry more efficient.
Against industry protection
Some argued against protecting the clothing industry. Federated Farmers president Sir Peter Elworthy said that protection was ‘a burden on every New Zealander’ and that the clothing industry should be put to the test of competition. ‘If they want to maintain the industry as a social employment service, the onus is on them to say how much taxpayers’ money they need to subsidise them, then let the consumer decide.’1
Licences end and tariffs fall
In 1992 import licences were removed so that anyone could import clothing. The high tariffs were gradually lowered. By 2009 the tariff was 10%, and was due to be gone completely by the mid-2010s.
Cheaper imported clothes
After import restrictions were lifted and tariffs lowered, the amount of clothing imported rose dramatically, from $129 million in 1989 to more than $600 million (in 1989 terms) in 1999. The price of clothing fell.
The end of mass-market manufacturing
By the early 2000s most of New Zealand’s clothing factories had closed as locally made clothing was much more expensive than imported clothing, mostly from China. In 2009 New Zealand’s two largest clothing manufacturers, Pacific Brands and Lane Walker Rudkin, ceased production – a sign of the demise of mass-market clothing manufacturing in New Zealand.
When Palmerston North firm Everest Fashions closed in 2008, owner Courtenay Darby told a newspaper reporter: ‘Our staff deserved to be paid much more than we were able to pay them. They are skilled workers and they were paid an unskilled wage … but even then it is too much of a gap between our labour costs and China.’2 Everest Fashions had been a ‘cut, make and trim’ manufacturer, making up garments for other firms. It was employing 28 people when it closed.
New Zealand’s 21st-century clothing industry was characterised by small companies that have found a particular niche in the market. Some firms design in New Zealand, but have the clothes made in Asia.
Most develop a brand, focus on design and aim for the top end of the market. Many, including Untouched World and Icebreaker, have specialised in fine merino knitwear. Others, such as Swanndri, Norsewear and Swazi, have concentrated on making rugged outdoors clothes for New Zealand conditions.
Textile innovation has been a feature of the clothing industry in the 2000s – seen in the development of fine merino wool fabrics and the combination of possum fur and wool. Fine merino wool has become an important fibre in New Zealand clothing manufacture. Icebreaker gives its clothes a ‘baacode’ – which tells the customer where the sheep that grew the wool lived.
High-end fashion designers who produced ready-to-wear collections included Karen Walker, Zambesi, Nom*D, World and Kate Sylvester.
Made in New Zealand
Those making clothes in New Zealand often use this as a selling point. One example is Swazi Apparel of Levin. When the firm lost a contract to supply gear to the army in 2009, founder Davey Hughes spoke of the need for New Zealand to keep its clothing trade skills: ‘When the expertise of these people is gone, it won’t come back.’3
Fashion Industry New Zealand (FINZ) represents and supports the fashion sector and wider apparel industry. Members include manufacturers, importers, retailers and designers.