Designer Maggie Hewitt from Maggie Marilyn. Image supplied.
It’s been a little under a year since designer, Maggie Hewitt, launched her contemporary womenswear label Maggie Marilyn in September 2016, with her debut collection stocked on Net-a-Porter and featured on Vogue.com. It’s the kind of debut that fashion designers dream of and while Hewitt made quite the splash with her beautiful first collection, it’s clear that she has the goods to back up the hype and this talented young Kiwi is in it for the long haul.
It is one of those sunny wintry days when I catch up with Hewitt in her adopted hometown of Auckland. We chat over the phone while both basking in the sunshine that makes your day just a bit brighter and summer feel like it is closer than it really is. One of the first things that strikes me about Hewitt is her infectious enthusiasm, she’s warm and friendly, with a quiet confidence that belies her relatively short time in the fashion industry to date.
Her story reads much like a fashion fairytale so far, with the young designer creating her debut collection, having graduated from Whitecliffe College of Art and Design, only to be introduced by a family friend to fashion consultant Jo Knight, who had recently returned from London. Knight recognised the potential in Hewitt’s designs and the two took the collection to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia in May 2016 to showcase it to buyers. Net-a-Porter’s retail fashion director, Lisa Aiken, also saw that special quality in Hewitt’s work and Maggie Marilyn became the first label to be picked up in its debut season by Net-a-Porter in its entire seventeen year history. Even more remarkably, that first season sold exceptionally well and the young brand continues to be supported by the luxury ecommerce giant today.
So how did it feel to Hewitt to make such a spectacular debut? “It’s so surreal,” she enthuses. “I remember the first time that we launched on Vogue.com the same day we launched on Net-a-Porter. I don’t think that surreal feeling ever goes away and I think being based in New Zealand we’re kind of a world away from that life a little bit so it maybe feels even more special. I mean to see your clothing on a world stage is really special and amazing.
I think there’s something quite beautiful about being slightly naïve being based here, because when I started my label I didn’t quite realise how many other brands there are out there. But you go and show your collection in a place like New York or Paris and there are hundreds of other brands fighting for the spotlight or to be in department stores. It’s definitely a competitive game.”
Speaking of competition, earlier this year Hewitt was shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 LVMH Prize when she was selected from over 1200 candidates from 90 countries. It meant Hewitt was invited to meet with and have her work judged by 45 international fashion experts in Paris, including the likes of industry legends Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. The young designer had watched the competition since its inception a few years ago and knew she wanted to apply as soon as she was able. The competition pre-requisites stated that she had to have produced two collections, so as soon as her second was produced for Maggie Marilyn she took the chance and applied.
Looks from Maggie Marilyn’s Season One collection.
“I applied at the beginning of the year and to be honest I really didn’t think much was going to come back as it’s so competitive and thousands of designers apply,” says Hewitt. “When I found out that I got shortlisted it was amazing and even more amazing going to Paris for it. We had a showroom for two days where I got to meet some pretty incredible people and it’s really a pinch yourself moment. Even looking back it sort of doesn’t feel real because it was so incredible getting to meet the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour and all the fashion directors and buyers. It’s amazing to hear their feedback of what they think of your work. It was also quite exhausting to be honest because you’re giving so much of yourself but it was really surreal and cool.”
Although she wasn’t sure what to expect from the other young designers in the competition, she found camaraderie amongst them and a real sense of support that carried through. “It was such an amazing environment, it didn’t feel competitive and all the other designers were so supportive which surprised me in a way but it was great. I think it’s just nice to be around your peers as they are the people that know exactly what you’re going through.”
Hewitt has had a global outlook for her brand from early on with the ambitious young designer getting her entrepreneurial inspiration from her father. While she has had a lot to learn about business in a short amount of time, being able to bounce ideas off her dad and seek his advice has helped Hewitt form a logical and focused view on the business side of her brand. It’s not something they really teach at fashion school either with Hewitt finding that although she was well prepared for designing her collections through her studies, managing cash flow and reading a balance sheet were among the many new skills she’s had to pick up quickly.
It’s something the energetic designer is taking in her stride though with Hewitt finding as much enthusiasm for creating her future as she does for creating her collections. “It’s rewarding having your own business as there is something exciting about carving your own path in life, “ she adds. “I love the business side, I find it really interesting and when you can see that there is a profit in sight that is super rewarding. You’re not just creating beautiful clothes but you’re getting something out of it. I think that is equally as important.”
She has certainly discovered how much hard work goes into running a rapidly growing label with Hewitt recognising that the perception and reality of the fashion industry are two different things. “I think there’s kind of a misconception of how much hard work is in fashion because it is such a beautiful, creative industry, “she says. “And we do sort of live in a dream world in a sense of what we’re trying to create for the customer, but it takes so much work and so much determination to push through the hard times. It’s still a business, which is easy to forget in the creative industries but it has to make money like any business.”
Looks from Maggie Marilyn’s Season Two collection.
One of the first things Hewitt had to get right for her business was finding her suppliers and figuring out how Maggie Marilyn was actually going to produce the initial big order from Net-a-Porter, which was a lot larger than she or Knight were expecting for the brand’s first season. Auckland’s CMT (Cut, Make & Trim) production companies are much fewer in number these days and finding the right ones is more a case of word of mouth than trying to Google where to go. You usually have to know someone or be recommended to a factory.
However, that sizable first order for Net-a-Porter also helped open doors for Hewitt with the huge number of units a more attractive proposition for factories than the smaller runs they often produce. “I think in a way getting someone as big as Net-a-Porter straight away has been really amazing for the efficiency of the business,” adds Hewitt. “Because the more units you make the more efficient it becomes in the sense of your makers want to take it on because it’s more efficient for them. If they’re making five of something and then five of another thing it’s not really efficient for them, they can’t really get a good production line going. So it has been really good for us.”
Maggie Marilyn (Marilyn is Hewitt’s middle name) recently launched its third season with the brand now stocked in impressive American department stores Saks Fifth Ave and Neiman Marcus as well as China’s beautiful Lane Crawford department store. The brand has picked up further online retailers as well with Stylebop and Shopbop joining the list of stockists this season. Those connections came about as a result of Hewitt and Knight’s Paris Fashion Week trips where they have showcased the new collections to a plethora of international buyers and media each time. Maggie Marilyn was also picked up by exclusive Ponsonby concept store The Shelter for her first season as well and her third collection has just arrived at the popular boutique.
“It was really amazing to pick up quite a few more brick and mortar stores this season which is exciting for me, “adds Hewitt. “Because even though Net-a-Porter is such an amazing opportunity because you’re a global brand straight away, it doesn’t give that opportunity for customers to come in and try the brand on and get to touch it and feel it and understand what it’s all about. I’m also excited for people to be able to even just discover the brand if they haven’t heard of it before and go into a department store like Neiman Marcus and just stumble across it. I think also with the price point of our clothing, it’s not a luxury price point but it’s on the higher end of a designer price point. I think it’s hard for people to want to spend $800 on a jacket online when they can’t try it on.”
You have to wonder how Hewitt and Knight are managing to keep the juggernaut that is Maggie Marilyn manageable with its rapid growth and increasing number of stockists. But they have both feet firmly on the ground and are trying not to let it get too big too fast as Hewitt is adamant about maintaining the ethics, sustainability and high standards of the brand.
Looks from Maggie Marilyn’s Season Three collection.
“It’s been really exciting and we’ve had so many learning curves with growing so fast but we are trying to manage it well going forward,” she says. “It’s that balance of wanting to meet consumer demand because we have had such an amazing response to the brand but really ensuring that we get the quality right and that never wavers. There is definitely a fine line and we want to grow organically with our makers and not put too much pressure on them which is also important.”
With the addition of high profile department stores to Maggie Marilyn’s stockists list it means that Hewitt must keep to tight deadlines with delivery time frames and efficiency is key. It also means that things move quickly and the designer has already created season four, shot the lookbook and recently taken the collection to showings with buyers in New York and Paris. Season four means the brand has come around full circle already, with Hewitt’s first collection for Resort 2016/17 now joined by her season four collection which is for Resort 2017/18.
She couldn’t be more enthusiastic about her busy career though and can’t wait to release her latest collection. “I’m super excited about season four. I feel like it’s still got the same aesthetic and feeling to the other collections but I think it’s quite a progression in the sense that there are some really bright pops of colour which is quite interesting for me,” she adds. “Up until now it’s been a more subdued, dusty colour palette and then I’ve also added in prints. I’ve done some custom prints, so that has been really exciting.”
There is certainly never a dull moment for Hewitt with each day different from the next and busy periods of sampling, selling, production and deliveries making each season go by quickly. One thing is certain for Hewitt though and that is that she is determined to remain based in New Zealand. Thanks to technology and the ease of travel in the current era that vision is more achievable for a young fashion business than ever before. “To be honest it’s something that’s really important to me,” she says. “You can never really know what’s going to happen in the future but I definitely think from how I feel at this point in time that I definitely want to keep the business based here. At least the headquarters based here and also production and manufacturing here as long as possible. I love New Zealand and at the root of who I am I think I’m such a home girl and I was brought up in the country (Kerikeri) in the top of the North Island. I wasn’t brought up in a city so living in a big city like New York or Paris doesn’t appeal to me to be honest. I love going there and I love travelling. You get such amazing adrenaline and there’s an amazing energy to those cities but I also love going to the country and sitting under a tree or swimming in the sea. I think it’s also about being a creative person being in the right head space and for me New Zealand has that calmness and slower paced way of life that works for me creatively. If there’s blue sky and fresh air it just makes all the difference.”
“I like pushing the boundaries in the sense that I believe I can have an international brand but be based not in one of the main fashion cities. I think the world is so global it shouldn’t have to matter where you are based or how successful the brand can be.”
Looks from Maggie Marilyn’s Season Three collection.
Hewitt points to the success of Karen Walker, whose brand has become a global success story, and cites the trailblazing nature of Walker’s success as inspiration for her own business. Hewitt also enthuses about the clever campaigns produced for Walker’s fashion, jewellery and eyewear collections and its clear that the young designer has long term goals, plenty of ideas and the drive to back them up.
But who does she see as the Maggie Marilyn girl and how does she inspire those collections that feature romantic layers of ruffles and luxurious silk? “I definitely think a lot of my inspiration comes from thinking about who the Maggie Marilyn girl is,” adds Hewitt. “It’s not necessarily a life that she leads or a stereotype like she’s a lawyer or whatever. It’s more a feeling of who she is inside. She’s a dreamer, she’s quietly confident, she’s strong but kind and never afraid to speak the truth. She’s a feminist but she’s still openly vulnerable and she fights for the underdog. I think first of all she’s an optimist and believes anything is possible.”
Adding to the idea of that muse is Hewitt’s own laidback style which influences the feel of her collections. She coined the term ‘livable luxury’ to describe her luxurious garments that have a casual elegance and that she wants women to feel comfortable in wearing them every day. When thinking about her own busy life Hewitt was drawn to make effortless pieces that the wearer can keep going back to because they know they look great and they feel amazing when wearing them. Most women are short on time in the morning so Hewitt is trying to make things as easy as possible for her customers to get ready for the day ahead.
Those customers form a wide demographic according to Hewitt, with the designer wanting to create pieces that her mum would wear as well as her two teenage sisters and her twenty-three year old self. Sweetly it’s actually Hewitt’s mother who has been the designer’s lifelong fashion inspiration. “As cheesy as it sounds I’m inspired by my family and they’re a huge inspiration for me,” she says. “My mum is such a beautiful and stylish lady I think she was always an inspiration for me growing up.”
Now that she is grown up, Hewitt is certainly ready to take on the world, with Maggie Marilyn’s success inspiring the young designer to dream even bigger for her label. Since the brand’s ethical production values, contemporary aesthetic and youthful charm that have hit all the right notes both here and internationally, the sky is the limit for Maggie Hewitt and this really is just the beginning of her remarkable story.