Auckland designer Beth Ellery reboots her brand – on her own terms

Photography/ Todd Eyre

Auckland fashion designer Beth Ellery is back in the game. Here, she talks about her much-needed hiatus, Marilyn Sainty, and her radical new business model.

She’s the talented Auckland fashion designer you’ve probably never heard of – and with good reason. Four years ago, after a decade of designing timeless, beautifully constructed pieces for a loyal but discreet group of followers, Beth Ellery shut down her eponymous label.

“I was tired of fashion, starting to resent it a little bit or feel bored or not creative, like I was on a treadmill, so I thought, ‘Wonderful, we’re going to start a family and I’m never going to work again!’” Pregnant with her first child Wilson, who is now four, she closed her workroom, and laid off her assistant, machinists and patternmakers. She told everyone she was retiring, though there was nothing leisurely about stopping work to raise a family: “I retired to a brutal regime of childcare.”

Two years later, almost to the day, and pregnant with her second child Hazel, now two, she decided to resurrect the label. “It was the most useful thing, to have a break from an industry you think you know well. Suddenly, it became clear the mistakes I’d been making.” Still, the prospect of a relaunch was daunting. “That rack space isn’t going to be standing there empty for you. Someone will fill the gap – and you’ll have to scratch and claw them out of the way to get back.”

Beth Ellery Version 2.0 is a leaner, meaner machine, partly by necessity, but mostly by design. Gone is the outside workroom and permanent staff, replaced by a tiny but perfectly organised studio inside her home that she can pop into for short bursts of productivity when the demands of motherhood allow. The room has a high table for pattern-cutting, and a two-tiered clothing rack for samples and stock. The rest happens on a laptop. On top of wholesaling, she has branched into online retailing, and, along the way, torn up the rulebook. “I realised when I was on maternity leave that I can do whatever I want, because I’m an adult. I can have a business idea and just do it.” Ellery is 40. “God I was old to come to that realisation.”

In the new business model, Ellery designs clothes of the same quality, at the same cost to her, but dramatically reduces the retail price. A Beth Ellery winter coat that once would have cost $1500 in the shops now retails for $660. Retailers are asked not to take the full mark-up they might have expected before – which is huge – but also to never put items on sale. As in, never ever. “I’m saying this is the cost of the garment, it’s a thing of value. It has this value today; it will have this value next week, next year. It’s not like chicken salad, where suddenly it’s valueless poison.

“What was happening, and I know this is an arc that other labels will be experiencing right now, is there’s a frantic rush to get stock early into shops – an almost out-of-season rush. Things will be full ticket price, often quite expensive, for a short amount of time, and then these prices just plummet and plummet and plummet until they end up being sold at cost in the sale, and you have to make so many garments in order to even that out. I don’t want to make heaps of garments that get sold at cost. It feels wasteful. Indiscriminate.”

Ellery was born in Christchurch, the eldest of four siblings. Her father, Roger, was a pilot, and her mother Shona ran the 1970s knitwear company Rapaki Mahana, that made thick wool Fair Isle jumpers in ivory, brown and grey. “Mum was that rare kind of person who was very creative but also very practical.” She got her daughters to design their own clothes each season, which she put together on her sewing machine. Sewing became Ellery’s hobby. “Mum died when I was 21, while I was at architecture school. She was diagnosed late with an advanced, terminal cancer. It was a short but horrible illness. We were all very rattled. Sewing was my hobby, and I relied on it a lot to distract me. I sewed when I couldn’t sleep; if I was upset.”

Ellery loved everything about architecture school, except, perhaps, architecture. At some point – she isn’t sure exactly when or how – her hobby took over. She spent more and more time designing clothes until, as a very bold young woman, she showed a sample collection to iconic New Zealand fashion designer Marilyn Sainty, and asked her to take her on. “Only a young person would do that,” says Ellery. “Imagine if you did that now? Young people, they’re great.” Sainty obviously thought so too, and launched the Beth Ellery label in her Scotties stores in 2002. 

The pair remain great friends, and when Sainty retired in 2005, she gave Ellery all her old patterns. They are stored in her workroom, rather glamorously, in a Commes des Garçons cardboard box.

Sainty didn’t give Ellery specific advice but taught by example. “She never knocked things off. She always tried to make everything the best it could be. She was tough on herself but very nice to the people around her, and created an atmosphere of authentic creativeness.”

By insisting her clothes never go on sale, Ellery can sell them herself online, for a profit, without undercutting retailers. The result is a radical consumer disruption – different from the astronomically priced, ethically made goods model. Rather, Ellery’s clothes are half the price they once were, accessible to a larger amount of people, but still made locally and to a high quality. “I hate the idea of people buying things carelessly, indiscriminately, because I don’t want things to be disposable. I want them to be an accurate reflection of the time and thought that’s gone into them. You don’t wait for a Beth Ellery thing to go on sale – you just buy it because you really like it. Save up. Buy it. Take care of it.”