After a decade of dressing New Zealand women – and a challenging year leading a fashion label through a global pandemic – Ingrid Starnes is reinventing her eponymous brand. She speaks to Jessica-Belle Greer about her new outlook.
Ingrid Starnes is sitting at her family’s dining-room-meets-meeting-table, a mosaic of art behind her as she feels through the fabric of what will be a one-off belt. “Often with the little special orders at the moment, I’m actually doing them myself,” she says.
“I’m loving spending more time creating and making.” Like many of us, the past year has seen Ingrid prioritise and realise what’s important to her. At the start of 2020, she was on the coattails of her eponymous label’s 10-year anniversary and ready for some exciting next steps – then Covid-19 came along and kept them in check.
At a glance, everything was great. One of Ingrid Starnes’ loyal shoppers, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, wore her white silk Mio top on the cover of Time magazine. With her husband and business partner Simon Pound, Ingrid, 38, was getting ready to open a store in Auckland’s world-class Commercial Bay development, and they were looking at selling internationally after a successful showing in Paris.
Taking a closer look, the move required the couple to take on extra debt while part-way through production of their next collection. When Covid hit, and all but essential services closed, the brand’s revenue fell and wholesale orders were cancelled. Their hard work, and the future of their business, was unravelling.
At home for the Level 4 lockdown, Ingrid and Simon were confronted by the need for change. “In some ways it was good, because we had quite a lot of time reflecting,” says Ingrid.
Homeschooling their 12-year-old twins, Ned and Olya, and daughter Gertie, nine, at the same time, it was also tense.
“It is so much stress on the family,” says Simon, when asked on reflection. “It’s hard to feel there are any right answers when in a situation like that.”
Already the couple had noticed the traditional fashion model – of making collections well in advance of selling and often discounting at the end of the season – was not sustainable. Being proudly made in New Zealand while competing with a fast and loose international marketplace was an ongoing challenge. The precarious position they found themselves in brought the message home hard. “That lockdown kind of made us look and go, ‘What’s going to happen?’” recalls Ingrid.
“I guess the worst-case scenario was to go bankrupt… That would just be devastating.”
While much was unknown, Ingrid and Simon were sure they needed to do the right thing by their suppliers and those they worked with. They launched a PledgeMe campaign and asked if their community would like to invest in the future of the brand by becoming shareholders. The campaign started strong, but fell just short of their $200,000 target.
Instead, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands and bring the brand back under their roof. They shut their beautiful Commercial Bay store shortly after it opened, as well as their Ponsonby flagship, and moved the business to their home in Auckland’s Westmere – a creative and calming space with potted plants growing past the walls covered with art.
“The change was really hard at first and took a bit of getting used to,” says Ingrid. “But I’m actually really enjoying it now, the freedom it allows me to work and parent – with school pickups and this time with the kids for the brief moment they are young. It’s really special, and that’s something I try to remind myself on the harder days any mum or dad at home would know.”
During the disruption, the business had to let go staff that felt like family, but they are able to still employ one full-timer, Veronica, who works on production, and part-timer Tori, who helps with communications. They spend most of their time in the downstairs studio, with fabric samples piling up to the low ceiling and a moodboard overflowing with inspiration.
Watching their parents create something of their own has had a positive influence on the children. Ned has taught himself how to make pencil cases and scrunchies and is often in the workroom sewing with the team. “It’s a really special community around them of creative people making things happen.”
Ingrid grew up in an expressive household herself, on a lifestyle block in Manutuke, Gisborne. With the home being built by her parents – and always semi- finished – the kids were free to draw murals on walls as they went up. Ingrid was known to sneak into her mother’s sewing room upstairs, covered in patterns and machines, and make doll’s clothes and costumes. “It was pretty magical,” she says of her childhood.
The budding designer and her three sisters were sent off for traditional sewing classes. When their babysitter gifted the girls a collection of 1940s clothing for dress-ups – including lace dresses and real fur coats – their mother would point out the details in their construction as they played.
As a young designer, Ingrid cut her cloth at Kate Sylvester, before the birth of the twins in her late twenties. While on maternity leave in 2009, she and Simon decided to launch their own label and Ingrid Starnes began with small collections and special one-off pieces made from home. It gained a strong following for its quality garments with a modern approach to vintage sensibilities. “Now what I’m doing has almost gone back to that,” tells Ingrid. “Making the samples from home and working it all out as I go along.”
As when the label started, there will be around 10 styles presented a collection, which is tighter but more frequent to fall in line with the seasons. The difference this time is the pieces will be available to preview on the brand’s website. If enough people pre-purchase a style, it will be on their doorstep in three to six weeks. By going direct to customers and only making what they want, it’s hoped this approach will help curtail over-shopping and the high cost of local fashion.
Throughout her career, Ingrid has championed the work of creatives and artists through collaboration – including Kirstin Carlin, whose miniature Untitled (Found Flowers) painting is part of the pattern of art on the wall behind Ingrid during our interview. “That’s what I love about working in fashion… all the people you collaborate with,” she ponders. “You’re always creating.”
Special custom Ingrid Starnes orders are still available on request. The bridal arm of the business, Ceremony, is continuing – again streamlined to be more affordable. With more freedom to try on styles, Ingrid is looking at developing a classic range to complement each new collection, which will offer signature styles, like Jacinda’s Mio top, slightly altered each season to perfection. “At the moment, it’s a total experiment,” says Ingrid.
“We’re still not set in motion.”
Ingrid is learning to be more open by sharing her company’s behind-the-scenes story. While the label has always been transparent, they are communicating even more with customers new and old – something that doesn’t always feel natural to those who are used to keeping up appearances.
If it feels uncomfortable in a good way, then we’re doing the right thing
“We’re in the mindset now of, if it feels uncomfortable in a good way, then we’re doing the right thing,” says Ingrid of peeling back the layers In our new normal, she’s noticed a renewed interest in shopping local. While Ingrid isn’t your typical fashion customer, because she makes most things herself, she is making an effort to support her most-local community by stopping by the Avondale markets each weekend.
Having a much more hands-on approach to her own business again, Ingrid is ironing out her processes. She’s seen how much material becomes unused as off-cuts from each garment, and while Ingrid Starnes’ way of creating is more sustainable than most, she is aiming to design to the width of the fabric to avoid any wastage going forward. “You can always be doing better with sustainability,” she says. “You’re always going to be looking at better ways.”
The lessons from lockdown are not lost on Ingrid. “Probably the biggest one is stepping off the hamster wheel and being brave and making a big decision, when it felt so scary.”
A year on from their world being turned upside down, Ingrid and Simon are grateful for the kindness they have received and are not taking anything for granted. “Lots of people have had rough times through Covid, and we just feel lucky that we got the support and help we did,” says Simon.
“We all know at the moment how grateful we are that we’re here,” Ingrid adds. “To have a home and food on your table and all the things that go with that are quite amazing. Honestly, we are some of the luckiest people in the world. It doesn’t matter what happens.”