Dame Trelise Cooper on lockdown, family and moving forward

Trelise Cooper interview post lockdown

Dame Trelise Cooper at home in Leigh during New Zealand’s nationwide lockdown. Image supplied.

It would be fair to say that 2020 has so far played out in a way that no-one could have predicted and while Covid-19 has brought with it immense heartbreak it’s also delivered moments of enlightenment and challenged us to rethink what we thought we knew about life and business. For Dame Trelise Cooper, this year has been a rollercoaster of emotions as it has been for many people, and she is feeling grateful for New Zealand’s current favourable position after a tumultuous few months.

When I catch up with Trelise over the phone from her Newmarket Head Office, she and her whole team have been busily clearing a backlog of online orders and it is still a welcome novelty to be out and about again without restrictions after NZ’s nationwide lockdown ended. For someone who usually travels internationally for several months of the year and has an exceptionally busy life, the stillness of lockdown was very strange at first for Trelise. While she welcomed the family time with her husband Jack and son Jasper, there was still the stressful matter of trying to run her business in the midst of a global pandemic.

As we all know, New Zealand’s lockdown began at midnight on Wednesday 25th March with just over 48 hours’ notice given before the country essentially shut down for what was then an indefinite period of time. Unsurprisingly, everyone scrambled to get things in order and figure out if and how they could continue running their businesses including Trelise, who packed up her office and headed to her holiday home in Leigh, just north of Auckland with her family. Like all of us Kiwis, she began the lockdown stressed of what may come but hopeful that everything would turn out ok for NZ.

“I personally found lockdown the most challenging stressful and difficult time,” says Trelise Cooper. “And busy, I have never been busier in my entire life! It was just a constant juggling of the issues and fears and unexpected situations that arose. I think that comes because I have 100 staff and our retail stores were closed and we had online operating, but we couldn’t do anything with the orders that did come through. I also had to deal with all of my retailers from New Zealand and Australia, the Australians especially have come through drought, bush fires and now this and they have been particularly fearful and stressed in their communications so it was about juggling what came up through email every day all through lockdown.”

Trelise’s long-time General Manager Kate Devlin was in constant contact with the designer during lockdown to offer support and wisdom, along with Trelise’s long-time PA Judith Pratt. Several of Trelise’s closest team members have been by her side for many years and while together they have been through a lot over the years, Trelise has never been more grateful for their unwavering support. Managing a fashion business is complex enough as it is when you manufacture in several different countries and are stocked in hundreds of stores but with production temporarily at a standstill and garments still to deliver it became a logistical jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how to fill orders and meet the demand that remained.

“It certainly wasn’t a lockdown of baking and yoga but I really wish it had been, because in the first few weeks it was an exercise of will we survive this? As we had blow after blow of retailers cancelling their orders and insolvencies. We had suppliers in China who were affected by the big UK companies cancelling orders so then we had factories that had product of ours close down and all of that Winter product that was made was confiscated never to be seen again. We kind of kept feeling like every day was a loss day and it was scary, and I think magnified because of the size of my business. Alongside of all of that I had some innovations and some ideas and I was implementing them in between all of the chaotic and scary stuff. Some days I feel like I didn’t really take a breath as I was in kind of a panicked state. And also having staff who were fearful and staff who were having anxiety about the future and about everything really. That kind of pastoral care that you need to have as an employer, I felt I needed to do that too. It’s been a very strange and challenging time but I’ve come through it feeling optimistic. I entered it optimistic and fearful if that’s even possible. Underlying my optimism was fear.”

 

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Grateful for the beauty of nature the sound of waves and the Tui’s singing

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For many New Zealanders, after the whirlwind of getting ready for lockdown came the quiet and wondering what was appropriate to do or say while we grappled with an intense and previously unknown situation. It would also be fair to say that no local business had ‘global pandemic’ in their business plan and knowing how to go about business as usual when it was anything but was a bewildering experience.

Trelise’s business is all about selling beautiful clothing with sequinned party frocks, impeccably tailored suiting and full skirted ladylike dresses among the looks that her labels are known for but all of a sudden there was no need for any of those kind of garments with zero events on and no offices to go to. Like many businesses, Trelise’s brands remained active on social media but to start with it became less about the clothing and more about acknowledging the situation and keeping the tone sensitive and right for what people were experiencing.

“So much had to be re-thought and re-worked and considered in a way that we hadn’t considered before because this hadn’t happened before so that has been a big part of it as well,” adds Trelise. “On the optimistic side we’ve had fantastic engagement from our followers on Instagram and Facebook and had the most wonderful support from our customers. This has forced me to look at new ways in which I could direct or pivot my business for the situation.”

One of those ways was something Trelise hadn’t done before but came to her as an idea so she got her graphics team to put it together to see if it would work. The team created direct links from the brand’s Winter 2020 look books to their online store which offered customers the chance to browse and shop complete looks in a way that they hadn’t done before.

“What I loved about that was that we were able to showcase our full collection in a storytelling way and customers were able to shop it like that. As we create these collections every season and we know what’s in them and if you visit a flagship store of ours you’ll know what’s in them but if you don’t live near a flagship store or you live overseas you might imagine that the collection is just what your local retailer has bought in. So being able to shop the full collection as we intended it was great and it was really successful.”

The success of the idea inspired Trelise to come up with another idea for her online store to encourage sales. While the brand’s Winter 2020 collection was being manufactured and shipped to New Zealand throughout lockdown Trelise’s team uploaded the full collection onto the online store for pre-order which was also really successful.

“I didn’t know if that would work, I didn’t even know if the look book idea would work but amazingly it also worked, and our online orders were fabulous. On the strength of that, in May we always have what we call our famous design room sale when we sell our over-runs and media samples etc. and so we decided to put that online but we weren’t sure if it would work either and it went off! We had so many comments from customers saying, ‘I’ve never been able to come because it’s always Auckland based’. All of this was unknown and a risk but it was so well received, and I wouldn’t have done any of it if it hadn’t been for the lockdown. The response has been fantastic and I guess what it has shown me is the fabulous support we have from our customers, from our brand fans, it was just amazing and they really loved it.”

Not long afterward Trelise Cooper’s excess specs from the brand’s eyewear collection were also uploaded online and sold quickly proving once again that Trelise’s customers were more than happy to buy online from a brand they trusted and loved. While all of these sales helped keep the lights on so to speak, when Alert Level 3 arrived and orders were finally able to be shipped the Trelise Cooper team were met with another problem – a massive backlog of orders that required all hands on deck to fulfil, including the designer herself and every available member of her team. Due to New Zealander’s penchant for shopping online during the lockdown the courier companies were also overwhelmed and while Trelise’s head office had two courier van pick-ups a day the van would be filled to the brim each time with yet more orders still to be sent waiting for the next one. Thankfully, customers were understanding about delivery issues which the brand doesn’t normally have and as always new garments from Trelise Cooper are worth the wait.

Trelise Cooper interview post lockdown

Dame Trelise Cooper helps pack online orders in her Newmarket workroom during Alert Level 3. Image supplied.

While she was incredibly grateful to have buoyant online sales and a record number of orders Trelise was also quite surprised by the volume and increased support from her customers. “I honestly thought that people would be very timid about spending and about the future and so they would be saving their money and not spending,” adds the designer.

She credits the government’s support schemes with making people feel a bit more secure and less scared about spending. “The government has been incredible. The subsidies and the schemes are super generous and it has made a huge difference to us in the way in which we have dealt with this because we have felt truly supported by the government.”

Trelise has also been grateful for the support of her family and while lockdown was a stressful time it was also cherished family time with her husband Jack and son Jasper. Her son returned to New Zealand from New York just two days before the lockdown began as he felt the need to be close to his parents and help support them as older people at potential risk.

Jasper did his mandatory self-isolation in the apartment underneath Trelise’s beach house and they were a socially distanced family for those initial two weeks. The trio went for daily bush and coastal walks at Jasper’s insistence which helped Trelise de-stress and enjoy the birdlife in their local neighbourhood.

“We got to be amongst nature and witness the very subtle but definitely changes of the world pausing and how nature reacted to it. The bird life was sensational, all of the native birds have been such a joy on every walk and I’ve discovered beautiful DOC tracks and walks that I never knew existed in our neighbourhood that were just a short walk away.”

Trelise and Jack’s son has lived overseas for many years so the chance to spend quality family time with him was particularly special. “I have had an incredible family time throughout this as well, just the three of us, my husband, my son and I. It has been a very special time because we had seven weeks of living together and luckily none of us with any symptoms, so our bubble was able to come together after Jasper’s two weeks. Then we were able to share meals again and not walk at a distance. We would have cocktails on the cliff and look for whales but at a distance which was strange but kind of funny. I look back at those photos and I think gosh there has been a lot of change from back then to now but that has been one of the true joys that was totally unexpected. We didn’t know he was going to come home, he made a decision fairly quickly to get on a flight and so we have had a really special time through what I’d call some of the hell of it. It has been very rollercoaster-like in all kinds of ways, from the absolute love and joy and hope and family time through to the scary feelings and losing money here, there and everywhere. Because our business went into this year buoyant and very optimistic for the future before we knew there was going to be a global pandemic. We had really strong sales and great profit and a business that was feeling strong and buoyant and then Covid marched through the door and all of a sudden things turned quickly and we were worried that this could be one of the worst things that ever happened to our business. But actually no, what I’ve got is a whole raft of new initiatives and new innovations on how I want to do business going forward.”

Like many fashion businesses Trelise Cooper has been trying to figure out how best to realign their production and deliveries better with what customers want. For a long time, the fashion cycle has been a bit out of step, offering Autumn/Winter collections from February (who buys a coat in mid-summer?) and Spring/Summer collections from July when it’s still freezing cold. While some brands have shifted to dropping monthly collections which are more in tune with the weather many brands are still stuck in the old cycle and this global pause due to the pandemic has been viewed as a way to finally reset the system to work better for everyone.

 

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#inseason 🖤

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Trelise Cooper was among many brands to post on social media about a need to change the fashion cycle and there has been a lot of global commentary about it in recent months. “The post that I put up wasn’t my idea originally but I saw it and I thought this is exactly what I have been talking about for so long because I feel that it had already begun with online. People go online and they want to buy and wear what they’re seeing now, they don’t want to wait three months until it gets cold etc. they go online to buy something, get it delivered and wear it now. I also feel like this pause has allowed us to align with nature, you just need to look at it globally and how it’s changed things in the world for the better environmentally. I feel like it’s time to align with nature and the season and actually slowing things down and have seasons that when it’s cold we sell coats and when it’s hot we sell sundresses. At the moment it’s kind of the opposite of that and what that brings is the need for sales because businesses aren’t turning over their stock as much because people don’t want to buy a coat in February, we’re delivering coats in February for goodness sake! So, I feel like this pause has shifted our seasons anyway because we couldn’t deliver Winter when we usually do, we’re delivering Winter now when it’s cold and we actually want to rug up. We’ve been given this great opportunity to realign but the challenge of it is we need everybody to get on board with it we need all fashion houses to do it so that all the retailers can do it.”

As it stands now many Spring collections will be late due to delays in production and shipping especially for those who manufacture offshore. While some brands have been quite vocal about using this time to reset others are continuing to try and keep to the old system so it will be interesting to see what future fashion seasons look like. Stock regularly going on sale has become a big problem in the fashion industry with consumers now expecting not to pay full retail price and waiting for the mid-season sales on new collections. “I think if we have less garments going into sale mid-season, retailers will get a much better sell through and margin, and then that means that we as manufacturers will get a better sell through and what that really means is that actually we don’t need to discount and end up filling landfill with stuff that hasn’t sold, not that I do but it’s a problem. I think it will be so much better for the fashion industry.”

The other issue with the current fashion cycle and proliferation of fast fashion is that because consumers are paying less for an item of clothing people are not valuing their purchases in the same way anymore and we have become a society that discards things very quickly. Trelise is among many designers trying to teach customers to value their purchases by sharing how they’re made and the huge amount of work and incredible details that go into each of her garments.

From the beginning, the designer has created gorgeous clothing that is made to last and meant to be treasured. “For my Trelise Cooper brand especially and all of my brands there is a lot beautiful work and craftsmanship that goes into it and into the detailing like the embroidery or the way in which it’s stitched, it’s all done by hand, it’s not machine done. It’s all done by people who are craftspeople and I think so many people don’t even know or think about that, it’s a bit like not understanding where food comes from, some people just kind of pick it up in an unconscious way and use it and don’t realise what it took to grow it and I feel the same about fashion. There’s an unconscious aspect to a lot of people not appreciating what goes into it and then not valuing it. I had the opportunity recently to go through some boxes in my garage because my son was home and I wanted him to help me. I had stored archive garments that I haven’t seen for years and I was re-boxing them and I thought I could get that out now, I love that piece and I was really delighted that actually everything in that box I could wear now and it would still be relevant. It wouldn’t look like I was wearing an 80s or a 90s garment. So, I think it is that valuing and appreciating the craftsmanship that goes into it and continuing to treasure it.”

Trelise got to see some more of her garments from previous seasons pop-up on social media during the lockdown too, as her brand’s social media followers engaged with #frockupfriday which the brand got into early on in the lockdown. It was a way of having a little fun and bringing a bit of distraction to the situation with Trelise’s followers and team getting dressed up on Fridays and sharing their photos on Instagram using the hashtag. Given that many of Trelise’s customers wear the brand’s clothes frequently to work and events it was a chance to also feel kind of normal and to do some digital people watching checking out what everyone else was wearing. Frock Up Friday was a huge success with a great number of followers getting involved each week including Trelise’s own team and the designer herself too.

For Trelise it presented a bit more of a challenge though as she hadn’t packed much in the way of dresses to take to her holiday home and was without her usual wardrobe full of glamorous outfits which were at home in Auckland. “I hadn’t taken anything much like that away to the beach. I was very much in my casual, easy clothing up there and so finding frock up things was interesting and then I got my Instagram boyfriend Jasper to patiently take my photo, pulling him out of his workday in the US. He was like ‘Muuuummmm’ (laughs). It was also a fun way of engaging our community and our staff. Some of our staff weren’t busy because if they were in retail there wasn’t much for them to do otherwise but they loved getting dressed up and it was lovely seeing another side of those people that work for us and another way we could all come together as a family. And we all enjoyed seeing each other and our customers dressed up. It was a really fun thing.”

The return to the office post lockdown was a bit of a jolt back to reality but a welcome one in that it allowed a version of normal to begin and Trelise like many other business owners could assess where things were at and how to carve a path forward. One thing she is not so keen on is a return to the frantic pace of life pre-lockdown and all the things that were taken for granted. Trelise has always been an optimist and while running business with a global pandemic still going on is full of uncertainty, she chooses to focus on the positive side and what she can control.

“We’ve had unprecedented website traffic, it’s almost unbelievable and what a great opportunity really, we’ve also had a lot more new followers on social media and a lot of engagement. That’s been a big job in itself, seven days a week, making sure that people are responded to and guided to select garments. Our ecommerce and our digital has just been amazing especially in what we’re doing now, there has been a quantum leap in how we use it to how we did before this situation. If you have an ecommerce and or digital platform you have to keep evolving as things change. It’s almost like osmosis of it because you don’t even realise you’re constantly changing but if you look back the way you did it before is so different and that I think is what people who aren’t involved or haven’t bothered with digital will miss, all of that change that comes as a natural next step.”

While it’s still hard to plan what anyone’s next steps will be in the long term due to the current global situation, it has given us all some time to reflect on what we’d like our new normal to be and the things that are best left in the past when the pandemic is over. Trelise has always been one for self-reflection and visualisation and she sees more stillness and time with her family in her future and hopes others feel the same too.

“I feel like this pause has shown us all a whole other way that we can be and my hope is that we hold on to all those things that we can see as good changes and actually implement them in normal life more and do things differently. Now that we’ve been forced to implement positive change it would be really good not to go back to the old ways and constant rushing around.”

Trelise Cooper Spring 2020

Looks from Trelise Cooper’s upcoming Spring 2021 collection.

Images supplied.

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