This week is Fashion Revolution Week. It marks the fourth year since the Rana Plaza disaster, where 1,135 garment workers were killed, and thousands injured, when a building collapsed in Dhaka. It also happened to be the week that I finally had the opportunity to sit down with one pair of Residents of Wellington I have been wanting to interview for a VERY long time. You might have heard of them. They own a little fashion label called Twenty-Seven Names (who count Lorde among their fans & are stocked in David Jones).
As part of Fashion Revolution Week (the annual Tear Fund report on Ethical Fashion and company's grades is available here), I'm drawing attention to the rising importance of thinking before swiping (look out for a second piece, out on Friday 7am this week!). In the same way, you can make a weekly decision about how often you consume meat or animal products, there are many decisions a company makes, across a broad spectrum, to be more ethical in its approach to manufacturing its clothes for us to wear. As a purchaser, our power comes from whether we buy from these businesses over those who try to seduce us with a $10 fast fashion T-Shirt. It is up to the wearer who to support. I asked Twenty-Seven Names if they’d mind being this week’s Resident as an example of contemporary fashion that makes decisions about the environmental and social impact “of every single garment". Fortunately, they were dead keen.
"As a purchaser, our power comes from whether we buy from these businesses over those who try to seduce us with a $10 fast fashion T-Shirt"
I’ve loved Twenty-Seven Names for a while now. I’m also lucky enough that my mother is a serious fan, and has happily been picking me up bits and bobs from their range over the years, just around the corner from her place at their store on Vivian Street. She actively supports this brand because she likes that it is designed & made locally. Coincidentally, her city apartment even looks across at their workroom, where sometimes you can almost see the midnight oil being burned into the wee inky-black hours.
WHO ARE TWENTY-SEVEN NAMES?
"Like Thelma and Louise or Romy and Michelle, this dynamic duo is the true gold standard for BFF’s"
The brains behind this iconic New Zealand fashion brand are friends and business partners, Anjali Stewart and Rachel Easting. Like Thelma and Louise or Romy and Michelle, this dynamic duo is the true gold standard for BFF’s, meeting at primary school, attending the same high school together, studying in the same university town before starting a business together. Now, along with growing their label from strength to strength, they’ve even had little ones around a similar time. Honestly, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit their tight-knit friend-coupling didn’t make me a little emerald-green-eyed!
HOW DID THEY GET HERE?
Rach and Anjali were both born and raised in Wellington. “We both went to Karori Normal Primary School and then we both went to Wellington Girls College” Rachel explains as we sit together on a long floral couch in their workroom. “We’ve been friends for a long time!”
How did their friendship begin? I ask. Anjali replies: “We met playing a game of tag around 6 years old – the sort of tag where once you get tagged there is a pack of people tagging everyone. At our primary school, it was called ‘Black Panther’. Rachel and I got paired up because Rachel was a fast runner and I was a good hider. We won that particular game.”
While they may have taken out the Karori Tag Title, the pair were in different classes up until the age of 10. “We weren’t best friends straight away” Rachel explains. “Over the years, we both grew up together and were into whatever the other was into.”
After finishing Wellington Girls High School, Rachel decided she wanted to study fine arts and Anjali wanted to study fashion. “We looked at the places which were available to study in the 2000’s, and we decided to go and study in Dunedin because both our brother and sister were there and Otago Polytechnic had a really good arts school and a really good design school.” In 2002, they migrated from Poneke to the deep south of Otago.
Rachel and Anjali began the journey of their label at university making clothes just for fun. “We made T-shirts and hoodies. Our friends really liked what we’d made so we started making clothes for them too. When I [Anjali] finished school, Rachel still had a year to go of her fine arts degree. At the same time, a friend opened a store in Dunedin selling clothes. So, as a side project, I stayed in Dunedin and we made a small run of T-Shirts, Hoodies and Sweaters. One thing led to another and then we started the brand in Dunedin. We moved back up to Wellington and started to supply to more stores.”
“Back then, when it was the 2000’s fashion retail scene, you’d have an appointment at a store, or you’d cold call them”
The pair’s lives became that of travelling salesmen, bundling in the car and travelling around New Zealand to sell their wares. “Back then, when it was the 2000’s fashion retail scene, you’d have an appointment at a store, or you’d cold call them,” explains Anjali. “We’d show them our 11 items and explain they could have them in 6 months time if they ordered them from us. It was really different from how we would go about things now, but back then the climate was REALLY different. That’s how we started.”
WHAT WAS THE 2000’S FASHION SCENE LIKE IN NEW ZEALAND? HOW HAS IT CHANGED TO TODAY IN THE MID-2010'S?
“It was so buoyant!” says Anjali. “The economy was so strong before the global financial crisis.” Rachel echoes her statement. “There were so many brands starting up at that time,” she says. “We started a really similar time to ten other New Zealand labels that are now really well established. There are not really that many which have come through from that point. It’s become so much harder to start a fashion business in New Zealand.”
“There were so many brands starting up at that time,” she says. “We started a really similar time to ten other New Zealand labels that are now really well established."
Another feature of the fashion scene in the mid-2000’s which has changed to today is that back then there were far more multi-brand boutiques throughout New Zealand, some of which have had their spaces filled with large international chain stores (as a teenager in the mid-2000’s, I remember this well). “Multi-brand boutiques used to be this whole THING. Lots have now closed. We were quite young and were starting at a really different time” laments Anjali.
WHAT ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF TWENTY-SEVEN NAMES?
Rachel and Anjali willingly admit they’ve been “really lucky”. Within a year of starting their business, they were catapulted into the spotlight. “We entered a competition really early on – Deutz Fashion Ambassador in 2006,” the pair explain. “After ending up as finalists, Twenty-Seven Names debuted at New Zealand Fashion Week with 3 outfits we’d ourselves. Amazingly we met fashion writer, Stacey Gregg – she was the biggest thing in fashion back then. She introduced us to Showroom 22’s owner, Murray Bevan – and we are still with him to this very day.”
"Amazingly we met fashion writer, Stacey Gregg – she was the biggest thing in fashion back then. She introduced us to Showroom 22’s owner, Murray Bevan – and we are still with him to this very day."
Opening their Vivian Street flagship store is another highlight they agree on. “When you are stocked in other people’s stores, you can never really show it the way you imagined you would” Rachel explains. “…and in its entirety, as well” Anjali adds. Now, Wellingtonians can browse their line the way they imagined they would.
In 2010 the pair also had a photographic exhibition and gallery exhibition of Rachel’s drawings in Redfern, Sydney. “That was one of the collections which we really, really, REALLY were behind” enthuses Anjali. “That line sold into Japan and Asos. The line we’ve just done, ‘Leave no stone unturned’ is a homage to everything we’ve been trying to say up until now. There are so many happy moments we’re so proud of.”
WHAT THINGS HAVE THE PAIR MADE TO BE A MORE ETHICAL FASHION LABEL?
While Twenty-Seven Names don’t market themselves overtly as an ethical fashion label, you’d be surprised at the amount of thought these two entrepreneurs put into making sure their label treads as lightly on the world as they can. Rachel explains that with every single garment, there are decisions along the way that are relevant to how they make their clothes more mindfully. They do this in three key ways:
1. They’re Staunchly Made In New Zealand (and Will Continue To Be)
“From the very beginning,” Rachel says. “we’ve been staunchly made in New Zealand. Many brands start as being made in New Zealand, but understandably want to grow. They know that at a certain point they’ll need to go offshore. For us, we want to grow and develop in our own timeframe. We definitely want to be New Zealand made.”
Anjali agrees “If that means we have to be a smaller business, we can’t offer the same margins and be stocked at certain places, the that is a sacrifice we are willing to made to protect our ethical standpoint of being New Zealand made.”
“As a more established brand, we need to help create a precedent for manufacturers to help other small brands be manufactured here."
There is another less obvious, yet highly important, reason why Twenty-Seven Names staying made in New Zealand helps to grow future fashion businesses in New Zealand. They help to keep all important manufacturing skills here. Anjali explains: “As a more established brand, we need to help create a precedent for manufacturers to help other small brands be manufactured here. If there isn’t an industry in New Zealand, other small brands can’t start - they can’t go to a Chinese manufacturer and say ‘Can you make five of these?’ The company simply won’t do it! Even more so, if we move offshore manufacturers won’t make 5 of something either because it can’t support them without a proper bulk of work coming through. There will be no industry here if people don’t actively support it.”
2. They Use Up Excess Fabric From Suppliers As A Core Part Of Their Range
Twenty-Seven Names also buy fabric off cuts from bulk fabric suppliers, who have extra fabric which would otherwise be thrown away. “We make a choice to use up waste fabric rather than using new fabric, to get a more exclusive run of a piece from a collection” Rachel explains. “We’ll look to those wholesalers first and try and, as a small manufacturer, try to base our collection around the excess of other fabrics,” Anjali says. “If someone tells us they only have 500 m of fabric, we go ‘OK, we can work within that’. We’ll only make 5 things and make to order on those.”
3. They Avoid Harmful Chemicals and Processes & Work With Other Suppliers Who Care Too
In all other areas, Twenty-Seven Names try and source fabrics that have a smaller environmental impact. “We try and keep down our use of fabrics where the processes are harmful to the environment,” Rachel says. “Our suppliers, for example, our silk supplier overseas who we’ve been working with for many years now, are really careful about what factories they’re working with now. It is nice to know that companies like this know their provenance about where it comes from so we don’t have to fly to the factory. Sadly, New Zealand doesn’t have any of the mills it used to. We had to get wool made in Italy because it doesn’t exist in New Zealand anymore.”
WHAT SHOULD NEW ZEALAND WOMEN LOOK FOR IN CLOTHES?
“Longevity,” says Rachel, “I’m a huge advocate for clothes that you wear, and you wear a lot. I hate making clothes that are too frivolous or would date really quickly. I love the idea of buying a jacket that you could wear every single day for five years, until it wore out. You might not wear it as much, and it would last even longer. I think that looking at the quality of the fabric is very important; choosing something with life in it rather than something you wear a few times and then throw away.” They also say to look at the cost of what you are buying. “The price of something is indicative of the fact something has gone wrong. If something costs $10, why does it cost that?”
“I’m a huge advocate for clothes that you wear, and you wear a lot."
They also say to buy second hand or vintage is another great way to explore style and reduce environmental impact. “Buying older items, like leather jackets or accessories, bring newer items to life.”
Twenty-Seven Names isn’t leaving Wellington anytime soon. “The support we have here is amazing. Our families and friends are here. Our partners are here” says Rachel. “We couldn’t just up and leave. It is also nice not to be as distracted by the scene the way we could be in Auckland. We live in a bubble and get the work done.” Rachel loves that she can walk from her home into work, just 4km out of the city. “It’s like, where else could you live in the world where you can walk into a city as compact as Wellington!”
"When it feels like everyone is wearing the same Asos off the shoulder top, it is important to think a bit more about how you’re voting with your wallet and the greater impact that spending more on good clothes has, from Wellington to across the globe"
Ethical fashion can be seen as a loaded term. But it can be as simple as buying locally made clothes, like Twenty-Seven Names. Personally, I’ve always loved buying locally made clothes. I’ve been a huge fan of Wellington Designers and New Zealand designers all my life. Now, more than ever when it feels like everyone is wearing the same Asos off the shoulder top, it is important to think a bit more about how you’re voting with your wallet and the greater impact that spending more on good clothes has, from Wellington to across the globe.