Industry Spotlight – Debra Laraman of the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic
This week Debra Laraman of the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic talks to Anna Norman of Designer Direction. Debra offers advice for prospective fashion students and gives her perspective on some pressing issues currently impacting on the New Zealand fashion industry.
As the programme leader of Bay of Plenty Polytechnic’s Creative Design programmes, Deb Laraman shares her decades of experience – in fashion, retail, design, buying, illustration and textiles – with the future faces of New Zealand’s fashion design industry. For her, the role is a dream job, a chance to infect budding designers with the same passion and enthusiasm that has kept her in the challenging industry since the late-1970s. She tells them what she is now telling Designer Direction: yes, there is a push towards eco-friendly fashion, while designers also face stiff competition from cheap imports. But New Zealand designers can carve out a niche in high-quality, lasting garments. And if you have a great business plan, talent and drive, you can succeed in this constantly evolving industry.
What are some of your successes an educator?
The ongoing success of our students and our graduates in competitions such as Westfield Style Pasifika, where they have won one or more sections each year since they started entering in 2002. Many students have established successful business and it is pleasing to see them do so well.
What advice can you give to those contemplating studying fashion?
You need to be creative, open minded and multi-skilled, with good academic ability, and be able to work quickly and efficiently, on multiple tasks.
Are all fashion courses created equally? What should a prospective student consider?
The success of the institution’s graduates; the success of the tutors and the content of the programme (speak directly to the staff teaching); access to help outside the classroom (you don’t want to be just a number in a programme with 200 or more students); after-hours facilities; and proximity to your home, ease of parking and other basic things, which may add to stress and expenses.
What progress has been made with fashion education at a tertiary level, compared to 10 years ago?
Through FINZ, the educators now meet annually at a two-day conference, where they also present research and collaborate with industry. The fashion educators are now very aligned with industry.
What is the future of fashion design education in New Zealand?
We need to develop the creative thinking skills of students so that they are designers in the real sense of the word. They need skills and knowledge across a range of disciplines; they need a full and comprehensive knowledge of design process and context, and an understanding of global issues in relation to economics and environmental impact.
It can be challenging for graduates to start up their own business, particularly in our current economic climate. What are the key factors for setting up a successful business, post-graduation?
- Industry experience – it is vital that they have some industry contacts
- Business skills and some financial backing.
- Good communication and marketing skills.
- A long-term plan for the business: an understanding of the market and the creative potential to create a product with some differentiating features.
- An understanding of the impact of offshore manufacturing and the ability to realise its short- and long-term implications.
The fashion industry is constantly evolving, influenced by global events and, more recently, the failing economy. With these changes comes a shift in ideals and during the last five years we have seen a move toward incorporating sustainable business practices to help benefit the environment. How do you think a fashion designer might incorporate this into their own business?
They need to come to grips with this huge issue, on a range of fronts. Cheap imports have forced the industry to go offshore, to meet margins, but we don’t see the ethical and human rights issues involved in manufacturing in developing countries.
Designers like Stella McCartney and Katharine Hamnett, for instance, are great role models for a new way of thinking about eco-fashion. In New Zealand, Kate Sylvester is making environmentally conscious garments locally, using organic fibres.
Despite a shift in the industry to want to protect the environment, New Zealand is now experiencing an increase in the outsourcing of manufacturing to companies offshore. Is there is a future in apparel manufacturing in this country?
There is a future in New Zealand fashion and tertiary educators are doing their part to educate students on eco fashion and sustainable design. New Zealand could easily turn this situation around. For instance, if New Zealand designers made all their clothes here we could create 62,000 jobs and contribute 655 million in tax revenue and $11 billion to our economy (Good magazine 2008)
We cannot compete with cheap offshore manufacturers but we can produce high-quality goods that last longer and are made and designed in New Zealand.
What is the best advice you can offer to those looking to set up their own fashion design business?
Go for it, but only if you have good business skills or a partner who brings this expertise. You will need a product that has a point of difference and caters to a niche market, and you need to know your customer and how this product will be marketed, sold and distributed. And, of course, you need to be sure you can actually sustain an income. It doesn’t sound easy but there are young designers with talent and drive that are starting new and exciting labels. If consumers support them by asking for a New Zealand-made product, we can help them establish a business and a future.
Photo courtesy of the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.