Founder Nicky Wagner on 20 years of FashioNZ

Nicky Wagner

Hon Nicky Wagner National MP and FashioNZ’s founder. Image supplied.

Nicky Wagner launched FashioNZ on August 10th 1998, back then the internet was still on excruciatingly slow dial-up speed in New Zealand, WiFi didn’t exist, neither did social media, and the idea of putting fashion brands on the internet was nothing short of revolutionary.

Nicky had spent over twenty years in fashion sales, marketing and running small businesses herself before the idea for FashioNZ came to her in 1997. The initial site was a year in development and was a very hard sell to New Zealand fashion brands before most of them even had email. But Nicky and her team persevered and it became evident pretty quickly that New Zealanders loved to look at the latest fashion online long before it was possible to buy it on the internet.

We start our celebrations of FashioNZ’s 20th anniversary today and will be looking back over the past 20 years of New Zealand fashion, technology and FashioNZ’s history for the month of August. There is no better place to start than with Nicky herself, so we caught up with her to find out more about how FashioNZ came to be, its exciting growth and the challenges of running an online business back when the internet was still a relatively new thing.

What was your background and what were you doing before creating FashioNZ?
I had been working in the fashion industry with designers, manufacturers and retailers, as a fashion agent, marketer, and importer for nearly 20 years when I discovered the internet.

Where did the idea come from for FashioNZ?
The idea came when I was reading a book that said “transform existing industries with new technology”. I was very aware of how tough the fashion industry was, particularly for new designers and small businesses- it was just so hard and so expensive to get new ideas and products out into the market. I could instantly see the value of having access to information about the designers and look-books on-line and was excited about a future vision of internet in every household- we never considered on every phone at that time. I “just knew” that the connectivity of the internet would provide un-thought of opportunities in the future for all of us.

What was the original plan and vision for the site?
The site was focused on providing on-line information, photographs, and look books, telling the stories of and showing the work of our best fashion designers and manufacturers. In those days, to inspire people to get involved, I had to send them coloured photocopies because very few people, even businesses, had email

What can you remember of the first day of FashioNZ being online?
I will always remember August 10th, 1998. The site had been in gestation for almost a year and I was determined that we would launch on time. We were absolutely exhausted from working on the site for weeks and right through the night before. But I was so excited to see the number of people coming on line and particularly getting emails from people about the site and as they signed up to subscribe to our newsletters and to enter our competitions. It was brilliant!

Hon Nicky Wagner MP

Nicky Wagner in her hometown and electorate of Christchurch. Image supplied.

There were very few fashion websites anywhere back in 1998, what was the response like from the fashion industry and the public to start with and how did it change?
There weren’t many fashion websites at all and certainly nothing in NZ. In fact most people weren’t even on online and I had to work hard to get people in the industry to understand the opportunity. But once we did get online, and as photo quality and size increased people got very interested and excited about seeing NZ Fashion in their own homes.

What obstacles did you face in founding and growing FashioNZ?
Every new idea is challenging for people, and in this case we were introducing a new technology and a new way of working as well. On top of that was the cost of developing the site was daunting, we could provide great content forever but needed to find an income stream to pay for it. It was real pioneering- challenging, hard work, but so exciting.

Who were major influencers in the growth of the site?
The site grew as the designers, manufacturers of fashion labels, retailers and department stores saw the numbers of their customers who were coming online and realised the potential of marketing on the internet.

If you had to rename FashioNZ today what would you call it?
I wouldn’t change it – I am a great believer in keeping it simple and like names that describe what they do. FashioNZ says it all- a site about fashion in NZ.

What do you see as your biggest achievements with the site and what did they mean to you?
I was captivated by the opportunities of the Internet. I was named a “netpreneur” in the early days. I think my biggest achievement was that I created a business that has survived 20 years. So many of the early web businesses and websites crashed and burnt.

FashioNZ at the start

FashioNZ’s original sales folders courtesy of Nicky Wagner (left). FashioNZ’s website entry image from 1998 (right).

The site picked up subscribers, traffic and won numerous awards within the first few years of being online, what was that experience like and how did it shape the business?
Being recognised for the work we did made it all worthwhile. It was an upward spiral – the better we did, the more people came to the site and the more successful our designers and businesses became.

Everything has changed a lot since 1998 but what do you think are the most significant changes in fashion/websites since then?
The biggest changes are what the internet can now deliver. Ultrafast broadband allows for larger images, video content, animation and a richer fashion experience. And of course interactivity – that is all new as is online shopping. It’s a whole new world of opportunity.

What was the first New Zealand Fashion Week like in 2001 and what was FashioNZ’s involvement with it?
Fashion week was always a buzz. Dame Pieter Stewart is a friend of mine and so we worked together from the beginning. FashioNZ allowed Fashion Week to have a permanent online presence before having their own website. My staff and I went and reported on every fashion show which was a huge effort and we were all exhausted by the end of the week – but it meant that Fashion Week had a full record of their event and a much greater reach.

Do you have any favourite brands or designers that have been in your wardrobe since then and you still buy from 20 years later?
It’s amazing some of the garments that I have 20 years later. Swimsuits from Moontide, a perfect (very worn) pair of jeans from Vamp. The odd piece of Trelise Cooper, and Nom*d and just the other day I dragged out a beautifully cut business jacket from Angela Lewis. And I still use one of the early Fashion Week Saben bags to go to the gym.

What was the best thing about running FashioNZ and what are the highlights that stand out for you?
Instant results – I loved the fact that I could come to work with a new idea for the website and by home time could see customers online using the facility. It was a cheap, easy and exciting way to introduce and test new ideas or features and to see the public’s reaction immediately.

FashioNZ in the beginning

L’Oréal New Zealand Fashion Week 2001 coverage on FashioNZ (left). About FashioNZ page from 2002 (top right) and Nicky Wagner’s editor’s letter from 2002 (bottom right). Screenshots via Wayback Machine

How would you describe your personal style and what’s your favourite fashion item from the past 20 years?
Eclectic – I love to mix and match and to wear old favourites with new looks. I like to have enough choice in my wardrobe so there is always something that works – but I’m also into decluttering. So a bit of a tension there.

What was the best piece of advice that you got while running FashioNZ that you still refer to today?
My best piece of advice is “the best way to predict the future is to make it happen”. That inspired me to create FashioNZ and when you’re working in new technology you have the freedom to shape how you use it. I was very aware that if I could dream it up the internet could probably deliver it. I think that is relevant to all walks of life.

Where do you see the fashion industry going from here and do you still follow it?
I continue to follow fashion although perhaps not as closely as I have done in the past. I see more diversity in looks, a greater variety of price points and the opportunity for people to have more choice in what they wear. But always the bottom line is, you need to pick clothes that flatter your body shape and suit your lifestyle. I used to have a customer who would say she would only buy something if it was “to die for”, now that’s a bit extreme but I never want to buy something just for the sake of having something new.

What do you think of FashioNZ 20 years later?
I think it’s brilliant that FashioNZ has been around for 20 years and has become a highly respected and well used source of fashion information and advice. I really appreciate the contribution of everyone who worked on the site during my time, and particularly thank everyone who has worked on it since. Looking after and developing a website is an on-going challenge – it requires a great understanding of the industry, collaboration with those who work in it, hard work and constant innovation. Congratulations to the present FashioNZ team.

What are you up to now and what is next for you?
I’ve been a member of Parliament for the last 13 years. I’ve been the Minister of Customs, and my knowledge of importing was useful to that, the Minister of Statistics, of Christchurch Earthquake Regeneration, and of Disability Issues. And an associate of health, conservation and tourism and always what I learned working in the fashion industry has stood me in good stead.

I’m now the National Party Spokesperson for Arts Culture and Heritage and I’m particularly interested in the creative industries and the innovation that comes through creativity. Of course, the fashion industry is part of the creative sector, so I am very keen to see NZ designers and the industry in general doing well locally and on the international stage.

Images supplied.

To browse back through FashioNZ’s 20 year history visit Wayback Machine.

Related Articles

Pin It on Pinterest