Designer Spotlight: Emma Ford Swimwear

Emma Ford Yellow KaftanEmma Stuart and Mark Burton of Emma Ford Swimwear are on a quest to bring a bit of razzle dazzle to the tired New Zealand swimwear market. With a few years of experience under their belt and some big dreams to strive for, they share their inspirations, loves, history and hurdles for creating what is becoming a very exciting little business.  Alex Dunn of Designer Direction brings you their story.

After Emma had worked with stretch wear for many years, the ever industrious designer spotted a gap in the market for quality designer swimwear made in New Zealand for New Zealand girls.

‘As far as local swimwear is concerned, no-one knows what’s made here and what isn’t. There’s nothing that’s actually branded as ‘New Zealand swimwear’, so that’s what we’re doing!’

Emma Ford - Zipper One BandauEmma confesses to be a hoarder of, not only her favourite labels (she has 25 pieces of Cybele!) but also of vintage collectables. Mark on the other hand is a huge fan of b-grade science fiction flicks, film noir and Hitchcock.

With Emma designing the styles and Mark designing the prints, they agree that their current range ‘Forbidden Planet’ (a reference to a retro sci-fi film) shows a blend of their interests.

And you can certainly see it in their bright silk kaftans, frilly edged printed bandeaus and textured lace bikinis that hark back to the days of retro funk and also Hollywood glamour.

Emma studied at Design and Art College in Christchurch ten years ago and then started making customised costumes for exotic dancers.

‘That’s where I got a lot of my patterns. I just made them up, trial and error. Most exotic dancers aren’t size six or eight, most have boobs and butts and are real New Zealand girls. So we started making all these blocks and trying different styles. I sold a lot of stuff so I knew it was working, I knew the shapes worked because each time I did it I tweaked and tweaked.

‘But I decided I didn’t want to be in that industry anymore, I wanted to have my own swimwear brand, and that’s when I met Mark!’

Emma Ford - Pink KaftanOne of Emma’s major hurdles was finding a factory that could produce garments of the quality she expected. She went through a series of factories that didn’t meet her expectations and felt frustrated in her struggle.

Things were reaching a low point and Emma found herself at a loss over production and also working a job she hated. She decided after a few weeks of sticking it out that she had to make some changes and so talked frankly to her employer. This bold step ended up providing the silver lining to her problems. Emma’s employer ended up giving her the details of a local factory specialising in stretch wear, a factory that she hadn’t been able to find on her own.

‘It’s the last proper New Zealand swimwear factory, which is awesome. There are ten amazing machinists and they only do stretch.’

Finding this factory was the impetus that Emma needed to kick her label into overdrive, and she still sings their praises as the facilitators of her dream.

Mark and EmmaWhile Emma and Mark both hold down day jobs, the label is something they get to do together and ideally would love to do full time. This year they plan to consolidate their brand and promote it heavily with the help of their PR company, Mint Condition.

In creating this season’s range they’ve aimed to optimise both sales and media exposure by separating the designs into two groups; the high end fashion pieces (think full length metallic numbers complete with zips and cut-outs) and then a core range of the best selling styles.  Stockists prices will retail between $149 and $199.

In the long term they’d like to be producing full time and eventually open a store where they can not only sell their beautiful Emma Ford range but also bring in specialist swimwear and resortwear from around the world.

And as Emma states, the ‘sad fact’ is that New Zealand is a really conservative market. ‘If we want to have a viable swimwear range we need to go to Australia and have Australian stockists.’ So that’s something for them to look at further down the track.

Retail: Get on the shop floor and see how things work. Find out how your product is treated and sold in store, and how your relationship with the owner, as a supplier, affects how they treat your product. Also get to know your customer by seeing who is buying your product and how they are wearing it.

PR: Invest in good PR! Don’t expect to be able to do it yourself. These people are professionals, they know everyone in the business and their reach extends further than yours. It’s seems like a huge undertaking financially but it totally pays off, so take the plunge.

Expect it to be hard: Both Emma and Mark agree that it’s bloody hard work to create your own label, but it’s also equally rewarding. ‘The most rewarding thing is when someone else is into something that you’ve designed from the ground up. When we have 10 million people like that then we’ll be really happy!’

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