kiwi labels sewing up the sustainable fashion market

By thinking local and acting global, New Zealand designers are fashioning a new world in which environmental and ethical sustainability reigns.

by Sarah Gooding
17 April 2015, 2:35am

For years New Zealand's political leaders have carefully curated a "clean and green" image to attract the lucrative film and TV industries. But as news of the country's dangerously high carbon emissions and hazardous deep-sea oil drilling spreads, they're fighting to retain that identity. New Zealand fashion designers aren't waiting for instructions on how to address sustainability issues - they're taking matters into their own hands by altering how they work.

Meet five Kiwi labels who are avoiding the ecological pitfalls of fashion production by ethically sourcing materials, reducing their waste and keeping manufacturing on home soil. All while creating collections that are loved around the world.

Lewis Fredericks

Josh Bowden (no relation to Liam) and Auguste Gruar take sustainable sourcing one step further. They use buffalo, ram and ox horn - normally wasted by-products of animal domestication - for their eyewear label, Lewis Fredericks.

Upon learning about the material's lightweight, durable and idiosyncratic nature - with each horn bearing unique striated grains - the designers were inspired to start their line, and set about finding an ethical source of high quality horn they could save from the scrap heap.

"The term sustainability is thrown around quite loosely, so we are proud to actually take a renewable resource and make it into unique eyewear," Josh says. But Lewis Fredericks' sustainability isn't limited to materials; small-scale production is an important factor, which Josh says they'll retain. "The process involved in making a horn frame is complicated, and doesn't couple well with large-scale bulk production." The label's 'waste not, want not' approach seems to have struck a nerve with eco-conscious Kiwis, as its stockist list has grown to 13 outlets across New Zealand and Australia since the brand launched in August.

Deadly Ponies

Liam Bowden has built a cult following for Deadly Ponies' ethically sourced leather handbags and jewellery since launching the label in 2004. Using super-supple, high quality New Zealand deer napa and small-scale craftsmanship in his Auckland studio, Bowden has cemented Deadly Ponies' popularity around the world. Lorde, Charlize Theron and Rachel Hunter have all been seen toting their bags.

Bowden's focus on quality over quantity has earned the label luxury status, and this enables it to continue operating at this scale. A spokesperson says, "The very nature of luxury means we are likely to produce relatively small numbers, even as we grow. We still produce the majority of our bags in New Zealand, whilst outsourcing some products and components overseas to create specialty craft and processes that we can't achieve here. But in saying this, we have a very capable team of local craftspeople who are always eager to rise to the design challenges we set."


Kowtow is another Kiwi label that doesn't let a love of sustainability stunt its growth. When designer Gosia Piatek failed to find ethically produced zips, she changed her designs. "We worked our designs to incorporate buttons, as we found recycled Italian-made hemp buttons," she explains. "We don't compromise on design. We work with what we believe in, and do it well."

The 100 percent certified fair-trade organic clothing brand is built on Piatek's passion for social justice and the belief that "anything is possible", something she inherited from her Polish political refugee parents. She started Kowtow in 2007 after scouring the world for a cotton supplier and finding one in India that could cater for her high standards and low minimum orders.

For Piatek, ethical production is "non-negotiable". "It's our foundation, it's what every design in the workroom is based around." And it's not just Kiwis who have lapped it up. Piatek says Kowtow expands every season, and it now has more than 100 stockists around the world and its first retail space set to open in New Zealand.

Company of Strangers

By thinking and acting locally, Sara Munro has forged a different path to sustainable success. The Dunedin designer has manufactured Company of Strangers with a small team of people in the South Island since 2008, and is committed to keeping it that way. "As long as our factories are here, so will we be," she says. "It's easier to control our intellectual property, our quality and make small artisanal runs." But her main reason is supporting her local community.

"To me it seems pretty logical," she argues. "Our country is not perfect - it has poverty, a low living wage, so we need industry here too. We have great talent and people here who need jobs. Supporting your own community first before saving the world - this is the best place to start, in my opinion." And it's clear that by loving its locals, CoS has become loved back.

It also helps that it knows what they want to wear: highly functional pieces that perform in wild weather. "We cater to the cold southern-most parts of New Zealand and also the hotter climates of Perth in the same season," Munro says. "The majority of our pieces are trans-seasonal."

Penny Sage

Kate Megaw brings the notion of community even closer with her label Penny Sage. She works with family-run businesses to manufacture clothes that she hopes people will pass down through their own families.

"It's very important to me to support the local industry and keep the production of Penny Sage in New Zealand," she says. "It means that I work with the most inspiring and skilled people here. I have found that these businesses are, for the most part, small, independent and family-operated."

By using mostly-natural fibres such as silk crepe, wool voile and brushed cotton, Megaw hopes her clothes will be as long-lasting as the companies she works with. "There's a preciousness to a garment made from natural fabrics that I think people value," she says. "A garment becomes a treasure, lovingly worn to death or passed on to another generation."

Penny Sage is also environmentally-conscious, using natural dyes. "It can be a challenge sourcing unique and environmentally kind fabrics - the selection in New Zealand is limited. So I collaborate with a textile designer using plant-based dyes. It means we are able to create something that's really special, and kinder to the earth."

While mass-produced fast fashion's popularity is enduring, small-scale, sustainable labels are proving the opposite is more endearing.


Text Sarah Gooding
Photography Leilani Heather for Penny Sage

company of strangers
deadly ponies
lewis fredericks
penny sage