This, too, shall pass: How to run a fashion business in an economic downturn

FNZ Publisher Murray Bevan speaks to local business owners about their strategies to ride out a bear market, and shares their optimism for times ahead.  This is part one of a two-part series.

In light of a lot of negative news lately in fashion, punctuated by the closure of Auckland-based womenswear labels Mina and Hej-Hej, I spoke to five local New Zealand fashion design and retail business owners about the current obstacles they’re facing, and what positive changes are being made to address the shifts in spending and consumer sentiment.

The closures of Mina and Hej-Hej are just the tip of the iceberg: Benjamin Alexander recently stopped producing new clothing, quoting “the end of this chapter”, Napier-based Kilt shut its factory down just a month before Christmas in 2023 (although stores remain open), Auckland-based Maaike closed in August 2023, Wellington’s Nisa closed down in June 2023 (later to be saved by a crowd-funding drive), Okewa Rainwear shut down in September 2023, plus-size fashion brand Lulah Collective closed in October 2023, Carly Harris closed in September 2023 and Sassy’s closed in September 2023 after a 20 year run.

However it’s not all doom and gloom; some brands have taken the leap to open new stores and others are seeing opportunity for adaptation in the ways that customers are reacting to EDMs and trend-based items along with new designs and product development, and are taking on more feedback from customers. While some companies have closed down, others are thriving and see the next year as cause for cautious optimism.

Emily Miller-Sharma, General Manager, RUBY

Tell us about your new Mount Maunganui store and why you decided to open there.

My initial reaction to any new store opening is “no no no no no no please no!”. It’s a huge investment of time and capital, it’s a risk, and it adds more complexity to RUBY’s operations. 

BUT, Mount Maunganui had been on our radar for ages – our online sales to the area were strong and we didn’t have a wholesale stockist.

It’s our first new store opening in 7 years, and it felt so good to think through what RUBY as a physical space looks and feels like today. Community and collaboration were key when bringing the store to life.

What are the top 3 biggest trends you’re seeing in the way your customer shops now, especially in light of the cost-of-living crisis?  Has your business been affected, or has it bucked the trend?  How so?

RESEARCHING MORE. Yes, the “OMG it’s my cousin’s wedding tomorrow and I don’t have anything to wear” / “I am seeking refuge through spending” impulse buyers still exist. But we’ve seen a big shift towards our customers spending more time researching what they want – both in our IRL stores and online.

PART PAYMENT. We’ve always had in store laybuy, but part payment sales are higher as a percentage of our total sales than what in-store laybuy used to be.

LIPSTICK EFFECT. With less disposable income, customers are less likely to buy pieces that have a higher retail price, like a coat. Instead, indulgences like a fresh pop of colour, or a new neckline can be achieved through a lower-priced knit top.

What are the hallmarks of the kinds of products that sell well for you now, compared to 10 years ago?

I think it’s interesting to think about this as a conversation with our customers. A shift in their demands leads to a shift in what we offer them, AND ALSO a shift in what is offered leads to a shift in what is demanded.

Our standard size range now is 4-20 in RUBY and 4-24 in Liam. When Deanna and I started at RUBY, the size range was 6-12.  The demand for products smaller than a 6 and larger than a 12 was always there, we just weren’t catering for it.

The access we have to materials has changed over time, as does the price of them. 10 years ago, it was incredibly difficult to purchase a small(ish) batch of traced, certified, regenerative cellulose fabric. The mondo global retailers were able to offer it to their customers, but because of our size, we weren’t. But we can now! We use one of these fabrics now in our Liam line and I’m obsessed with its hand feel – it’s like the petal of a magnolia flower.

RRP change is dictated by the cost of the product. My goal has always been to have pieces in store that any of our customers could buy using the disposable part of a single pay packet. Whether it is using cash from babysitting for a $19 scrunchie, or using fun money from a fortnight’s pay to buy a $199 blouse for the office. 10 years ago those RRPs would have been lower, but our costs would have been too.

What are some of the future shifts you think you will continue to see evolve in fashion consumption in New Zealand in 2024, and how will you adapt to them?

Demand for secondhand product will continue to grow. It’s an obvious solution for people who want a pop of something fresh in their wardrobe and are mindful about sustainability. And the price point is lower than new which is helpful for people who have less disposable income than they used to have.

We ran a SAYS RECYCLE x TAKE BACK FRIDAY pilot as a counterpoint to the extreme discounting of Black Friday. We took back past seasons’ pieces from our customers, credited their RUBY accounts, and sold the pieces to new homes. We were blown away by its success! We’re working on an always-on relaunch so stay tuned.

TikTok trends are an interesting one. Products going viral leading to intense demand will continue. I’m not sure that I love it, but here we are. BUT one of my favourite TikTok moments was when we delivered our Margie Tie Back Tops into store at the end of last year. They have, you know, A BOW. TikTok simply adores a bow. What was cool is there were videos of people making their own versions of the Margie at home. Classic cutting the fabric out on the floor vibe. They were part of the conversation too and I loved it.


Chris Dobbs, Co-Founder and CEO, WORKING STYLE

Describe the typical Working Style customer, and how they shop with you nowadays:

Our guys are successful, time-poor Kiwi males who need help and like to be guided and assisted by people they trust.  As a New Zealand heritage brand of 37 years, we know our onions and are well placed to be able to do this.  

What shifts have you seen in customer buying habits, and how have you adapted to them?

Our guys are coming in hot – they have been online, have a good idea of what they want and then we put it together for them.

The rate of new customers that we have been getting is testimony to our general service levels and the old-fashioned ‘Word of mouth’ that sees people referring people to us.  Nothing has changed here, except that our rate of new client acquisition has increased dramatically.

The basket size is down in some of our traditional market segments, but our rate of new client acquisition has reduced the impact of this.

To allow us to be even more focused on our clients we have implemented and rolled out a new CRM product. We have used Microsoft Dynamics as it was easy to build onto our current database which is all Sequel based.  This has allowed us to be incredibly granular with the data that we are using and dealing with every day.  This has taken us 18 months to roll out and has been a strategic decision for how we will navigate these tough times – our belief being that looking after our clients and delighting them will protect us when the chips are down.

Loyalty is massive for us – our new ‘Undies for Life’ strategy has been a huge success for our brand, whereby if you spend $2000 a year, we will keep you in undies (or socks) for life, as long as you keep spending at this level.

What are the hallmarks of the kinds of products that sell well for you now, compared to 10 years ago?

Working Style continues to work with the finest tailors and ateliers in the world and these companies are committed to sustainability and transparency in their processes.  Our biggest makers are all ISO 9000 qualified, certified and are good people.

The growth product categories for us now are softer and more affordable, and are more able to be worn in multiple occasions.  A $399 cotton dust jacket will sell out within weeks after arriving.

What are some of the future shifts you think you’ll continue to see evolve in fashion consumption?

We continue to strive to reduce wasteful packaging, to recycle, to minimise all plastic and to be hands on with the daily grind of being a good corporate citizen and reducing our carbon footprint.

What that means ? If management are visiting a store, we try and do a goods delivery ourselves.  We ask customers if they want a bag – many don’t.  We keep garments pressed clean and we deliver hanging and we don’t then just fold and pack for the sake of it.

Our gear lasts, lasts a long time so we are well and truly in the business of creating garments that become our client’s lifelong friends – Not just another fickle ,fashion, foray……

And we’ve been doing  this for 37 years .

In summary. This nadir will pass for us all if we have razor-sharp focus on our people – our team and our clients .


Liam Bowden & Steve Boyd, DEADLY PONIES

Tell us about your upcoming Queenstown store and why you’ve decided to open there.

For quite some time, we’ve wanted to enhance our service to Deadly Ponies customers in the South Island. This Queenstown store will offer existing and new customers a chance to connect and experience our brand. We plan to celebrate the best of New Zealand art and design within the space and showcase our pieces to a global audience.

How long has this new store been in the works, and what were some of the obstacles to finally getting the green light to open?

This project has been on the cards for a while, but we’ve had to work through numerous delays in finding the perfect site for our store. Our new space is set amongst some of the best brands of New Zealand and the world, located in the newly transformed central shopping precinct – a fantastic spot for both locals and travelers.

What are the top 3 biggest trends you’re seeing in the way your customer shops now, especially in light of the cost-of-living crisis? Has your business been affected, or has it bucked the trend? How so?

Our customers are certainly less impulsive, however, understand the importance of quality and purchasing timeless pieces, not products that are highly ‘trend-driven’. In many ways, the cost of living crisis is ensuring consumers are more discerning with their purchasing, and by holding strong to our core values and dedication to high quality, it has brought them our way

What are the hallmarks of the kinds of products that sell well for you now, compared to 10 years ago? 

The local market is far more exposed to global brands than it was 10 years ago, and e- commerce has a big part to play in that. International brands are more attainable, and social platforms have a lot of influence on what is highly sought-after.

Footwear is a new category for us, which has enabled us to diversify our offerings and bring in a new type of customer. We also work very hard to create pieces that continue to speak to our core hallmarks – buttery-soft sustainable leathers, 100% solid brass hardware, and a unique design aesthetic that our customers love. However, in this market, it is more important than ever that we are constantly searching for inspiration and evolving our pieces – whether that be through function, shape, or material.

What are some of the future shifts you think you will continue to see evolve in fashion consumption in New Zealand in 2024, and how will you adapt to them?

As a brand, we continue to create limited quantities – discouraging overconsumption. We also offer customers our buy-back initiative, which forms part of our Recycle Programme. This collection is something we are looking to expand in the future, understanding the ever-growing importance of sustainability. We’ve always adapted to the changing market, but for now, we are looking forward to getting in front of a global audience and taking signature New Zealand design to the world.