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Exclusive interview: Annah Stretton

If being a top designer isn't enough, Annah now has a cafe, in an inspirational speaker and runs a magazine.  We caught up to find out how she does it all. From Waikato diary farm to global phenomena.  Where does your inspiration and drive come from? 

Annah: The inspiration comes from everywhere - you're never going to run out.  If you're a creative, no matter what area you're working in, be it food, jewellery, shoes, even wine, you constantly have ideas.  You get fed from the immediate environment, you get fed from movies, you get fed from books, you get fed from all sorts of things so you don't know when the next idea is going to hit.  It can just be some words that you hear. 

As far as drive and passion go, I just love it.  I love what I do and I still love the industry I work in.  I love the people I connect with.  I've just spoken to 100 women at lunch time at The Crown Plaza.  It's a glass half full. You were named as the 2009 New Zealand recipient of the Veuve Clicquot Award - how did that make you feel?

Annah: That was one of the most special awards. The fact I had to be nominated for it made it special.  I didn't know I had been nominated.  There were 50 women who had been nominated which was then narrowed down to a pool of five and I came up against a very scholastic and capable pool of women running serious companies.  It was a big surprise!  Veuve Clicquot were looking for someone who has a balance so it's not just about the corporate thing and I do have that.  I probably want to be known as making a difference to women in business. Once you'd mastered fashion, did publishing (Her magazine) and Café Frock automatically follow?

Annah:  No.  My life has been about opportunities.  My life has been shaped by opportunities and even opportunities that I've missed have shaped my life.  The magazine came along because I was writing for it.  They emailed me one day to say they didn't need me to write the column any more and mentioned that the magazine was for sale.  When they mentioned something about buying it and I wrote back and said yes.  It was an opportunity and it was something I wanted. 

I had no abilities in publishing.  I had to learn so much.  So it's taken three and a bit years to get it profitable and it is now and I like what it is.  It is about opportunity.  But fashion is still my main stake and it really does make my money.  The Annah S brand especially is a really powerful brand for me. Annah S is about working with mainstream women and giving them a great fashion experience.  Most women in New Zealand don't give a damn about the designer, they care about the design, they care about how you make them feel when they come into the store, what the retail girls like, what the ambience is like.

Designers don't often see that, so therefore a lot of them battle on the market because they're creating beautiful things for themselves but they're not focusing on how much they need to look at the market out there. So Annah S enables me to see the money coming in the door and Annah Stretton enables me to play as far as creating collections. In fashion, apart from a creative flair, what other skills are required to ensure a point of difference in the market? 

Annah: The thing about New Zealand fashion is that everybody is so different.  When you talk about business and women in business, I talk about creating a point of difference.  If you're going to set up a fish and chip shop, go out there and be the best fish and chip shop in the area and there's still a market out there for you.  With fashion we do that automatically and each designer will bring their own creative flair to that market. 

The best thing for them is to ascertain how they get out there and match that to the market and how they reach that market.  It's hard for them so therefore a lot of businesses never get past the hobby stage.  I embrace what the whole industry is from the Ezibuy through to the Karen Walkers - we're all very necessary to the industry and I love what it is.  I have a huge respect for Gerard Gillespie, who set up Ezibuy, and Karen Walker, who has managed to take a relatively small company in comparison to Ezibuy and established a global brand at that level.  They're very different but all part of our industry. What makes you proud to be a New Zealand fashion designer?

Annah:  I'm proud to be New Zealand.  I love that.  My 'proudness' extends to the fact I'm a Kiwi.  I love the perception that people have of what New Zealand fashion is, I love the creativity.  I've worked out how to make money out of fashion.  The big focus for me would be to get some of these other designers that are coming through to create more sustainable models.  I teach business and fashion and am a big advocate of getting business into the fashion degrees and diplomas because if we can get them to start thinking about sustainable business then these wonderful creations actually find a market and people do buy them and we become a much bigger industry. 

I know where I sit in the market and I think that everybody needs to know where they are and then target that demographic.  Because when you're trying to be all things to all people or when you create stuff that you're absolutely love without thinking about where to start, how to pitch or how you market it, it's not a recipe for a successful business.  Which New Zealand designers do you admire?

Annah:  I don't really.  I'm really comfortable with who I am, I sit comfortably within my own skin.  I don't aspire, follow, look to, or want to be any of them, or be inspired by any of them.  Overseas?  Vivienne Westwood - it's about the brand story she builds about the clothing and the way the story builds that I love.  And Jean Paul Gaultier and the way they poke fun at fashion.  What's your favourite colour?

Annah:  Purple.  What item of clothing can you not throw away?

Annah:  I am in love with the pair of black pants I've got on.  I wear them as if they were stocking, leggings.  They can make a summer dress wearable in the middle of winter.  I can wear them every day because no one knows!  So I love the shape, I love the fit, I'll never throw them away.  Actually I'm worried they're going to split or wear out because I don't know what I'm going to do!  The fabric, the cut and everything about them is absolutely perfect and I can't actually replace that fabric, even though they're our line.  A very basic item because it means that everything else becomes absolutely wearable.  What are your essentials? 

Annah:  A great black pair of pants also gives your leg great shape.  So if you're taller you can often wear slightly boot-legged. I'm not a legging girl but a great pair of black pants is definitely a big focus for me.  The other thing is a really great generic sun frock that you can wear on holiday and wear it differently, not too loud.  I love to re-use and recycle, as it gives women permission to head back to wherever and select pieces. The re-use/recycle gives women permission to actually start mixing so there's not this stigma or wearing last year's fashion; more that you're clever. It's having an eye.  I'm a big frock girl.  The simplicity of a frock is great. What makes a dress come alive on a person?

Annah:  I think the first thing is the colour has got to fit.  If you take a colour and hold it up to a person's face their eyes will come more alive.  You can actually tell if it's a perfect fit.  We all know different people suit different colours.  The second thing is that you've got to work with the body shape.  We've developed some really cool body shapes.  We call women a lavender or a rose bud or a tulip.  We're been teaching the team to ascertain what their body shape is. 

From a woman's point of view you need to know what works on your body shape and you can actually change garments based on that - feeling great about a colour that works and a style that actually suits your body type; and believe me there are four different body types. And the way you actually hang it together, think about, for example, how the shoe works. Get things working with it and it's quite simple to do.  If you look at the stylists out there, it's all very different so it's ok to have your own and as long as you're working with the colour that works for you and a garment that suits your body shape then you can make it look right. When it comes to accessories, what's your favourite?  Is it shoes, handbags, jewellery? 

I am the worst women for accessories.  Shoes are a real fetish of mine.  I tend to stay with a handbag for 6 months - I'll buy a great handbag then swap it out.  I don't wear a lot of necklaces.  I find it quite painful the way I move in my daily life.  A great watch I think is really important.  I invested a few years ago in one.  I have never regretted it.  It's a Dior watch and so many people comment on it so for me having some great pieces rather than a whole load of dingle dangles. Go for simple, great pieces that stand the test of time.  I think I've had diamond studs in my ears for 49 years now! If fashion, your café and your magazine excite you when it comes to work, what do you do to relax?  

Annah:  Balance is achieved by the stuff you do in your life.  And the balance I get is by paying it forward.  It's not only the teaching I do, it's the mentoring I do with women.  In a week I probably speak to half a dozen women about their businesses, and it's also the charities I work alongside. It's not giving them cheques, it's actually about fronting their brands, working with them and endorsing their brands.  Things like that are the balance so it's not all about me.  And that's the stuff I love to do.  The huge concert I staged in the Waikato with Tim and Neil Finn that raised a substantial amount of money for True Colours, which works with children who chronic and life threatening illnesses. 

So that's the next stuff and that's the stuff that balances me out in every day. Even today I've had a balance of magazine, fashion and philanthropic.  A work day in Auckland will be balanced out like that What's next?!

Annah: I don't have a succession plan.  As long as I still love it like this and I don't have an expectation that my daughter will step into it.  She's just finished a B.Com and next year does a fashion degree at Otago. This is my dream, my baby and it doesn't have to fit her.  If it does, fine but if doesn't then it doesn't matter.  I've done wonderful things, I've had these incredible opportunities.

What a neat moment for Telecom to see me as someone fit for their brand.  The fact is it's about business and connecting women throughout New Zealand and I've been blown away with it.  And yes, I was on that mountain in Andorra and yes, I was freezing!

What a wonderful opportunity that was and I took that in and I embraced it and I loved that.  I had 12 days out with Telecom travelling the world and it was probably one of the more memorable moments for me because I didn't know what to expect.  I had no control, I just had to go with the flow.  I didn't take a lot of work.  Because I didn't have my computer I wasn't communicating back.  We were shooting in the day and socialising at night.  It was just a wonderful time. Where do you see yourself in ten years' time? What does the picture look like? 

Annah:  I see myself working in the main Annah Stretton brand - the umbrella brand that's actually about growing women to know they can actually have the family connect and still build a strong brand.  I have a strong brand and business in the market that's profitable so therefore I empower and share that and that's what I'm focused on now.

Fashion allows me to do that and I've built a big team up behind me that can actually develop those connections and do what needs to be done to actually keep the company growing and thriving.  The magazine I am regularly involved in and the synergies between them are huge. The fact you connect with so any people through that magazine means I have something I can add value with.  It put me up on the starting block. 

For me, my goal is to take women and work out how to get them to the next level.  It's really rewarding.  It really is. 

Visit Annah Stretton's official website


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NZ Fashion Week 2010 

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