Inside Trelise Cooper’s Incredible World

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Trelise Cooper in the showroom at her Newmarket head office, November 2016. Image by James Yang.

Fashion is a business of constant change and few New Zealand designers understand that like Dame Trelise Cooper, who has seen many labels come and go since she first entered the industry in the 1980s. The digital era has changed many things about the way we live our lives but the impact of smartphones, the internet, social media and being constantly connected has also completely changed the fashion industry. Whereas once a designer’s main competition would be the store down the road, especially in a small town, now people have access to online stores from every part of the globe and can shop wherever, whenever, without even setting foot in a physical store. Adapting to those changes has been a crucial part of surviving the past few years, but some designers, like Trelise, have not just survived but thrived and continued to find ways to be innovative and attract new customers.

When I meet Trelise on a grey spring day at her stylish Newmarket head office, she enters the room with vigour, greeting me warmly in her gracious way that makes those in her presence feel relaxed and welcome. She’s beautifully dressed in a fitted black silk dress covered in colourful floral embroidery, which is perfectly complemented by her red lips and signature blonde curls. As we sit down to chat Trelise is all smiles and wonderfully candid despite her hectic day, she’s keen to discuss how much fashion and her business has evolved and why she still loves what she does with a passion.

“I think that fashion is always about change and that’s kind of what I like about it, that it’s never constant. And for me, a part of me likes that and a part of it means I’ve never worked so hard in all my life!” laughs Trelise. “It’s upped the game so much for every designer I think and so traditional designers like myself who not only design for my own retail but I design for other retailers, we’ve been on a long kind of journey. You show a collection and you take delivery of it a few months later and that’s how it’s always been and that’s how retailers want it, but what that means for me as a designer is that I have to be on the money for what I am showing right now so that when it comes in a few months’ time it is still very relevant. Because by then what’s online and what’s at people’s fingertips may have moved on. So I feel like I have to be way more forward thinking and more ahead of the game than I’ve ever been and forecasting the trends intuitively, it’s always been an intuitive thing for me.”

Staying relevant means that Trelise travels a lot more, attending international fabric fairs to know what the trends are and what the feel of upcoming fabrics are. Where once she and her team used to do one range, one collection, twice a year, so the year had an ebb and a flow and there would be down moments and enough time for everyone to catch their breath. Now Trelise does four collections, four times a year for different labels and is constantly on and keeping up an incredible pace. She can understand why designers like Raf Simons (who exited his post as creative director of Dior after three years) choose to take a step back and not want the constant pressure that comes from always having to be on and quickly moving forward.

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Campaign image from Trelise Cooper’s Summer 2017 collection. Image supplied.

But for Trelise it’s the way things are and she doesn’t see it going back to the way things were which means she has been rethinking her business and how she plans her life. “But of course I’m not getting any younger and I was hoping to have probably slowed down and spent some time in France for a long deal of time sooner,” adds Trelise. “And I do now, I get seven weeks in the middle of the year that I take as holiday in France and that’s amazing. But none of us are an island, I only get to do this because I have an amazing team behind me, they’re committed and they’re passionate and they’re wonderful. And so I guess I have them to thank as that allows me to take that seven weeks. But I know that it couldn’t be any longer as by the time I come back everybody is frazzled and they’ve had enough and me not being here and saying yes or no. I do take emails every day but I guess the thing that I am looking to do is to kind of ease back somewhat because it is a massive kind of constancy and it’s 24/7, we are always connected.”

The expansion of the business has meant that Trelise has taken on more staff and resources, in particular two young women who have each taken the reins of two of the labels; Kayla Jurlina who designs COOP and Julia Leuchars who designs Cooper. They both travel with Trelise to fabric fairs and are involved with every aspect of each label while Trelise still designs her mainline Trelise Cooper label with input from Kayla and Julia. The women also design Curate which is the latest label in Trelise’s stable of brands and is at a lower price point than the mainline range and less detailed but still has the Trelise Cooper flavour.

“I guess what my goal is in all of that is to probably not be the pivotal point always,” adds Trelise. “There is someone else that can make decisions that I trust fully, so that I know that if I’m away and Julia says ‘I’ve put this in the collection’ or ‘I’ve put that in’ I know I’ll love it and the same with Kayla. I know that with COOP if she says ‘This is what I’m doing’, I know that it will be what I would love as well and that’s been a really great thing. So in a way there’s a succession plan underway and who knows where that will go but being at the age I am, I need to be thinking of that. And the future is bright, we have never been more profitable and we have never been more successful in sell-through terms in places like David Jones. So we’re having a really great run and it is good fun but it’s full on.”

Another change for Trelise has been adapting her New Zealand Fashion Week showing from a high pressure presentation of her winter collection for the next season which is shown to buyers and media, to an in-season summer show for the public of garments that are already available in her stores. It’s a smart move business-wise and one that is also popular overseas. As much as she still loves the excitement and theatricality of showing at fashion week, like many designers she has been rethinking her marketing budget in terms of promoting garments that are already or soon to be available rather than garments that are still months away from hitting the shop floor. Social media has been a big driver in designers adopting this strategy as the moment a fashion week image hits Instagram it can create instant demand for that outfit, however that demand can substantially decrease by the time it arrives in store months later since people’s attention spans and interest are getting shorter all the time.

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Campaign image from Trelise Cooper’s Summer 2017 collection. Image supplied.

Not showing a winter collection at fashion week has meant a welcome lifestyle change for Trelise and aside from allowing her to take her yearly break to France it’s also meant that she can create her own “Theatre of Fashion” show on her own terms. The successful event has run for three days in June for the past couple of years at Auckland’s Q Theatre to full houses. “Everything on the catwalk is available now and if it’s not it’s a couple of weeks away,” says Trelise. “And so that means that the collection has gone out and sold to wholesale, I know that it has been a success and I know I can put it on a runway with great confidence. Whereas a fashion week runway is often the first time I have seen the collection all together in a cohesive form once it’s gone down that runway. And there is no practice time or anything and the pressure of that is enormous. So I was being kind to myself and my staff to go, I want to do this, I still want to show my wares, but I’m not sure I want to show it in that way and that was the thinking behind it.”

Embracing the likes of Instagram has become essential for designers and an effective way of marketing their brand as well as letting the customer know who you are, what you do, what your values are and what you stand for as a company. For Trelise that means employing a full-time social media person as well as a graphics team of four who work on all things digital for the business as well as creating custom fabric prints and advertising collateral. Trelise does keep an eye on Instagram though and like many people has evolved her habits to do more things online which has also changed the way she consumes fashion. “Online is the new magazine now, I reach for my tablet or my phone before I go for a magazine,” adds Trelise. “I still get magazines and they still inspire me but I now look and want to read online. I think it comes with convenience, you can do it anywhere, it’s not heavy and I’ve got a light. I actually found a magazine recently, a really heavy one and then I realised it was the September issue of American Vogue and we’re in November and I haven’t even opened it. The September issue was the one I used to get and enjoy and I do still enjoy it but I can’t believe I didn’t look at it when it first arrived. But it’s the time factor and in fashion the web has made my life extremely fast and so it’s about getting information quickly. So when I get a magazine, it’s contemplative time. It’s a time of stopping and reading and having space to contemplate and I don’t find I have that contemplative time anymore.”

The increased speed of Trelise’s life from having four brands does have a clever strategy behind it though. With the introduction of COOP which is aimed at the twenty-something market and Curate at a lower price point, they’re designed to make the most of the small New Zealand market by attracting different customers than would buy the Trelise Cooper or Cooper collections. Curate is in a lot more stores but they’re not the same stores as Trelise Cooper or Cooper and which means a much broader audience and that Trelise is buying fabric up to three seasons ahead which has also changed the production side of her business.

Previously Trelise worked with several offshore factories to produce the many garments required each season as well as local manufacturers but the tightened deadlines of doing more collections and delivering things faster means that she has pulled back more production to New Zealand to be able to manage it more effectively. “We work with brilliant factories in China and their technology is amazing and their factories are beautiful but they’re very systemised and so they might take 45 days to mill the fabric and another 45 to get the samples made and I don’t have that kind of time anymore,” adds Trelise. The increased speed of the industry also means that every delivery has to be carefully timed with a great deal of logistical planning involved to get a range to stores on time.

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Campaign image from Cooper’s Summer 2017 collection. Image supplied.

“If you sell to someone like David Jones you get a time on the dock that your truck is allowed to turn up and if it doesn’t they will turn it away if it’s late,” says Trelise. “Last week I heard that our truck didn’t turn up at the dock, it was half an hour late because of a real traffic hiccup in Sydney and our goods were refused and that can be hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting on that one shipment. So what I have to do then is get on the phone and plead with the powers that be to accept our goods. And so all of that is enormous and it’s a pressure for anybody that works here. There is nothing easy about fashion I don’t think. I think it’s the most challenging business. I know there are lots of other challenging businesses but I think people that don’t know a lot about fashion could look from the outside and think it’s kind of quite frivolous when it’s anything but. It’s a massive kind of investment and there’s a lot at stake with every delivery, with every fabric chosen. There is lots of troubleshooting every day.”

Once the new collections arrive in store retailers are still challenged to keep delivering something new, as once upon a time ranges were dropped in groups over three months and then nothing much new was added until the next season a few months later. That model no longer works for consumers and means many designers including Trelise design their collections with new pieces that drop more often so that there is always something new in store to attract the customer. The new global marketplace has also meant that customers are expecting designers to consider all of the ecological, political and ethical reasons why a garment needs to be a particular way while pushing the retailer to be cheaper and cheaper. This is where Trelise offers up other items like her recently re-introduced sunglasses line, and costume jewellery which is able to be updated more quickly than clothing and still gives the customer something shiny and new to add to their look.

Among the other changes in her business, Trelise recently added Little Trelise to her collection of brands. However it’s not the childrenswear of old that Trelise stopped doing in 2011 but more a less expensive, trend-driven collection that is not as dressed up but perfect for playdates and fun outings. The cute new range has been really successful already and is manufactured offshore along with Curate which means it’s more feasible for Trelise’s production team and still delivers a great product at a fair price. “It could never come back as the thing it was before, because it was just too expensive,” says Trelise “And I think that’s the thing people want something great but at a reasonable price. When you look at brands like H&M and Zara Kids and those brands that do it so beautifully and so well and at such a great price point there is no way I would want to try and compete with them. But what we’re offering is something a little more exclusive. A little more unique, but still fun and beautiful fabrics. I think people want their kids to be as fashionable as they are but they don’t want to spend massive amounts of money on one item that means they can’t really buy other pieces.”

With so many things on her plate you could be forgiven for thinking that the increased pressure and speed of the fashion industry would make it hard for Trelise to still enjoy her work. But the designer has been slowly adjusting her business so that she can take time out when needed and make sure that she still maintains the passion for the job that she still deeply adores. “A long time ago I gave up the word balance because I don’t have any,” laughs Trelise. “And it made me feel guilty that I didn’t have balance. But I do integrate and I integrate my family as my family is very important to me. I have my husband Jack, my mum, and my step-kids that live in New Zealand and my son Jasper who lives in New York.” Trelise and Jack also bought a weekend house up at Leigh on the cliff looking out to sea so they can watch the waves roll in and the whales swim by. Trelise tries to go up every Friday so that she can de-stress, get a good sleep and just relax.

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Campaign image from Cooper’s Summer 2017 collection. Image supplied.

If she has to be at work because she’s up against a deadline she’ll sometimes go to the beach and then drive back down and drive back up again as it only takes an hour to get there. “That’s saved my life I think and it makes me a better person, a nicer person,” says Trelise. “ But you know the fashion industry is notorious for working late nights and on weekends and the more that we have had to do the more I have tried to go let’s not. Let’s try and take as many weekends as we can, as many evenings as we can as personal. Keep it disciplined and not do that. Have we perfected it? Not really, there are still some crucial times but its way better than it ever used to be. Because I don’t want to work like that, I want to have personal time and I don’t want my staff working like that.”

When she does get downtime, especially on airplanes, Trelise is a fan of fashion films and counts “Dior and I” and “Balenciaga” among her favourite fashion documentaries. For Trelise it’s also a relief to see that the challenges she faces in her business are also present at those famous fashion houses. “It is that thing where everything is pushed to the limit until it goes on the runway and there is still an element of that in what we do. But when I watch those films I don’t feel as guilty, I think we’re not that bad!” she laughs.

That said the three weeks leading up to any range presentation, fashion week or big show mean a lot of pressure for Trelise and her team with any error by suppliers meaning that garments are sometimes not finished up until the last minute. It’s not uncommon for Trelise to have someone waiting at the airport for a late fabric to arrive so that it can be whisked to her design room before being carefully cut and sewn into the desired garment that’s then sent down the runway or to a photoshoot. Those samples aren’t always what Trelise had in mind though and if it’s not looking how she wants it to look a quick rethink might mean changing the hemline, neckline or some other alteration so the look is just right.

“What I ask everyone is ‘Are you buying this yet?’ And if they say no then we look at it and we have to make it the very best it can be,” says Trelise. “It’s got to be so aspirational that we will want it. If I’m not buying it I go and cut the bottom off, turn it upside down, sew the hem onto there etc. Then we send it out and people go ‘Oh, I love that.’ Whatever it takes that it gets that response from people, I want that. It’s got to have that want factor otherwise I won’t be here next year.”

There are immense expectations on designers to come up with something different or new every collection which is a lot of pressure. And for Trelise that pressure extends to the retailers who are relying on her to come up with a range that will sell to their customers. But at the end of the day it is those customers that are why Trelise designs in the first place. “There are so many women out there that love the clothes and I have to remind myself of that because sometimes it gets lost in the trouble shooting,” says Trelise. “I went to Christchurch and I did this private event for about a hundred ladies and they were all just such lovely fans and it was so nice and so uplifting and I decided I have to do this more. Because you get so bogged down in all the stuff that it takes to get a garment hanging on a rack and then all the fashion politics that kind of swarms around it. It’s just so nice to go and meet a group of people who really appreciate that you have thought about them and have given them a solution and allowed them to feel good. I like that transformative part of dressing where you feel great and you feel like it’s the right dress for you so you can relax and not think about your clothes. I always get a lift when I see my garments on the street and I always thank the person for choosing it. That’s what keeps the fires burning for me and the passion.”

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