The story of a 21 year old Hamiltonian, opening her own fashion boutique on Victoria street, caught my attention. That it happened back in the 1960’s, fascinated me even more for the vision, gumption, passion and dedication it would have taken to succeed. It was a privilege to hear Wendy Hall nee Ganley of Elle boutique talk about her early career during an event at the Waikato Museum / Te Whare Taonga o Waikato on Sunday. The exhibition showcasing her work, “Elle & the Youthquake” was curated with the New Zealand Fashion Museum and runs until the 14th of October.
Take a sneak peek here…
A visit to the exhibition will take some of you back in time… and for the retro-curious like me, have you swooning over the display of 1960’s clothing we spend hours scouring op-shops for today. I’ve got a little collection of dresses in the mod style which I’ve collected over the years – it’s difficult to find them in my size, but I find the shape flattering and the colour and patterns fun.
Sunday’s conversation was facilitated by Doris de Pont, a fellow designer and Director of the New Zealand Fashion Museum in front of over 40 people.
Wendy started out by making clothes for dolls, herself and friends. After finishing school she contemplated what might be next; and while peers may have followed a path in nursing or teaching she decided to follow her love of design, textiles and colour. The decision was fortunate for Hamilton, which could have been forgotten as a trend setter for fashion in those days. Because trend setter she was! Hems were getting higher, she was cutting holes out of the midriff, using crochet loops to make her version of a fur coat and combining colours not previous paired.
She shared her love of colour, showing off the bright orange lining on the inside of her cream wedding suit – which is in the exhibition (bottom left of the photo above). Orange has been her favourite colour though points out it doesn’t look as good on her as it used to… I’m not sure if I believe this, I get the sense when looking at her that she would still get away with it – as stylish as she has remained.
Society was changing in the 1960’s. Youth were no longer restricted by pre-war conservatism and more women were in the workforce, giving many of us discretionary income for the first time. In fact, one member of the audience and one of Wendy’s first customers, an ex-nurse, recalls spending “all her pay” in Elle boutique, while other’s nodded in familiarity at lay-buying their latest desires. Many of these items still hang in their wardrobes.
Another theme, coming from stories of Wendy’s early career was the industry support given to her by fellow designers and given to others in return. Wendy learnt couture from Babs Radon in Auckland, and mentored Marilyn Sainty in return here in Hamilton. It was through working with Barbara Penberthy of Babs Radon that she was able to see how balancing motherhood and a career could work; through setting up a space for ‘the babies’ in her Frankton workshop.
Wendy was able to share her original sample books with the audience, which showed the textile swatches she had to choose from – and the designs and combinations used to make her clothing and accessories. I was really surprised each item was a one off – she explained there wasn’t the same awareness of economies of scale; customers wouldn’t want to be seen at the races in the same outfit as someone else and besides, it wouldn’t have been fun mass producing them that way anyway!
Before trade was opened up in the 1980’s New Zealand wasn’t inundated by cheap imported clothing; or “fast fashion” as we are now. Buyers consumed fashion under the kaupapa of “Buy once, Buy well”. Quality over Quantity. These garments were often one of a kind, hand made and of high quality, particularly with New Zealand wool a common textile to use. Collectors like myself can attest to this enduring quality – with it not being uncommon to find an immaculate 1960s dress or suit in an opshop (they obviously knew how to follow “care instructions” unlike me).
Inevitably it got me thinking about how different things are now, and most notably in comparison to fast fashion. Will there ever be a resurgence of NZ made clothing? Will we look back some time in the future and pin point the time when we started to “Buy once, Buy well” rather than base a decision on low cost and quantity. Will we look back in 50 years and know who our local designers were?
The Waikato Museum / Te Whare Taonga o Waikato has booklets about the exhibition available in their shop for $15.