Marc Moore from Stolen Girlfriends Club on sustainability and his epic shows

Marc Moore interview

Marc Moore, co-founder and creative director of Stolen Girlfriends Club. Image courtesy of @snapperonline.

New Zealand Fashion Week is nearly here again and when glancing at the busy schedule each year, you’ll notice one particular constant; Stolen Girlfriends Club’s show last on a Wednesday night. It’s a spot the popular local brand have claimed for many years now and it’s fair to say that ‘Stolen’ as they’re affectionately referred to by fans and fashion industry veterans alike, always deliver an electric show and often raucous after-party. The man behind the brand is creative director and co-founder Marc Moore, a former pro surfer from Raglan turned fashion designer, who is as fond of entertaining at those big shows as he is of coming up with his brand’s next covetable collection.

When I sit down for a chat with the affable and easy-going designer it’s a dreary winter’s day at Stolen’s Ponsonby head office and there are racks of fresh new leather jackets and cosy hoodies nearby, perfect for staving off the chilly weather outside. Marc is as good-natured and charismatic in person as he comes across to his many social media followers and it pretty quickly becomes clear that he cares very deeply about his business and Stolen is as much him as it is a brand.

For those who aren’t aware of the brand’s back story, Stolen Girlfriends Club evolved out of an art show that Marc Moore did in 2004. He had injured his back while surfing and created art while in recovery to keep himself busy. The show was a hit and everyone loved the name so Marc, along with his two surfing buddies, Dan Gosling and Luke Harwood, decided to start a brand with the same name in 2005, initially making a small range of tshirts, jeans and jewellery. None of them had any formal fashion training but they were full of ideas and enthusiasm for creating a fashion range that had their laidback but still rock’n’roll sense of style. Combine that with an irreverent sense of humour, cool kid insouciance and a bit of romanticism and you get the Stolen that fans around the world have come to know and love.

It’s been quite a crazy ride since their early beginnings, fast forward to 2019 and Marc is now the sole person of the three friends still working on Stolen Girlfriends Club full-time and it is very much his baby. 14 years in and the designer has learned the ropes of the fashion industry the hard way but with some pretty triumphant successes along the way. Right now, he’s just finished the brand’s winter 2020 collection, he’s also designing new jewellery for next year and creating another range of leather bags. While in the past Stolen has created sizable seasonal collections, these days he’s more about keeping things curated and Marc has learned that exercising restraint makes things more focused and creates a range that’s easier for the customer to digest and buy.

Like many fashion designers in New Zealand, he is also a business owner, which comes with its own set of challenges but at the heart of every decision is what’s best for the brand. “I am all about brand and product, that’s what I live and breathe and think about all the time,” says Marc. “I guess as a designer I have to be a bit of a dreamer and as a business owner also a realist in the commercial sense. It’s really quite weird, to have the two things trying to work together but I’ve gotten better at it.”

To make it work requires discipline and while he wasn’t keen on the concept growing up and is still a relaxed person, discipline allows him to get it all done and deliver strong collections. “The older you get, the wiser you get, you know that you need it, and you learn to interpret the word discipline in a different way. It just helps you do what you do a bit better,” he adds.

It’s fair to say that discipline has certainly paid off with the Stolen Girlfriends Club of today a well-oiled machine with its own retail stores in NZ, and stockists here and overseas. The brand has lost none of its early charm and swagger but regularly collaborates with some of the world’s biggest brands like Red Bull and M.A.C. Marc has always been a fan of juxtaposition which has seen Stolen work with the likes of Wellington-based artist Karl Maughan on a particularly artistic collection for the brand in 2011 which was a highlight for the designer.

Marc Moore interview

Stolen Girlfriends Club co-founders Dan Gosling, Marc Moore and Luke Harwood. Image © Stolen Girlfriends Club.

With fashion moving so quickly there’s a constant series of deadlines that keep the brand on track and while Marc and his team work up to three years ahead for bigger picture planning most products are a year in the making. From ideation of a concept, creation and testing, through to the finished product being delivered to stores, 12 months is needed to get things ready for retail and it’s a development process the designer greatly enjoys. He’s a big fan of testing and development to see what works and since Stolen Girlfriends Club opened their first store (as part of their HQ) in Grey Lynn in 2012, he’s been able to regularly test out his ideas by dropping small runs to see what customers think.

The brand opened their first flagship store in Newmarket in 2015 which 4 years on is still a popular shopping spot on Nuffield Street. “I remember signing a 6 year lease, and just going, oh my god, what are we doing, but it’s gone so fast!” adds Marc. With Stolen previously focused on wholesaling having a proper retail store has been a game-changer for the designer. “It helps us improve the service and everything we are offering our wholesale stores which I hadn’t thought of before. Having the freedom of being able to display our product and communicate direct to the consumer, without any barriers, is big for us too. Hearing the feedback from the customers has helped us a lot, on everything from fabrication, to fit, and price.”

It’s a nice change for the designer from when the brand was 100% wholesale and what made it into stores was decided by the wholesaler. What the buyer wanted would go into the production and what they didn’t like wouldn’t make it past a sample, regardless of whether it was Marc’s personal favourite or had a lot of meaning for the collection. These days the popular styles get made but the brand are able to include the pieces they still want to do that help tell the story of the collection, more often than not those pieces still do really well with brand fans each season.

These days Stolen is stocked throughout NZ and has made inroads into Australia and Europe but in the past few seasons they’ve been doing particularly well in Canada having been picked up major e-tailer SSENSE. It’s a pretty big deal for Stolen Girlfriends Club whose brand is available next to the likes of Saint Laurent, Balmain and Issey Miyake online. It’s one of the brand’s biggest accounts and with the SSENSE buyer favouring directional, fashion forward looks it allows Marc to be that much more creative. Especially as SSENSE requests regular exclusive capsule collections which also make for fun projects for the designer.

Marc and his team work pretty collaboratively, and he favours a relaxed environment that is conducive to creativity and team work. “I am only as good as the team around me,” he adds. “I can’t come up with all the ideas myself, so I am constantly bouncing off everyone around me, whether they are in a creative or design role, or not. We are all living our lives and getting experience through what we are doing, so I’ve learned to collaborate more and bounce off of other people, especially in the last two years or so. I used to be lot more stubborn, but I think we’ve gotten to a much better place now, much more democratic. We will often vote on things in our company. Give a show of hands as to who wants this or that? I quite like it. It can be pretty off the cuff but its fun.”

That way of working extends to many aspects of Marc’s business including Stolen’s annual NZ Fashion Week show which is a culmination of months of work by him and his team as well as all the supporting sponsors and partners that help bring the event together. The shows are a chance for Marc to go all out on his creative ideas with the brand packing roughly 1000 people into their venue each year who all want a piece of the runway action (and legendary after party).

Marc Moore interview

Dan Gosling, Luke Harwood, stylist Zara Mirkin and Marc Moore with models celebrating their New Zealand Fashion Week 2010 show. Image © Stolen Girlfriends Club.

“It never starts with one idea and ends with one idea, it always starts with something then it evolves the whole time you are working on the show, and with all of the different hands that you have involved,” says Marc. “I’ll take the ideas that I like and that resonate with the brand to incorporate into the show in some way. When I first start thinking about the show and how I am going to present a collection I have an idea in my head of how it looks on the night, I can close my eyes and visualise everyone; the atmosphere, the music the type of weather, everything. From that moment through to the actual completion of the show, it’s such a wild ride, and you just have to be open-minded and go with it. You can never be too stuck in your ways, or cemented into any one thing as anything can change, you might lose a major sponsor or lose the venue you had originally been designing the whole concept around. Then overnight you have to rethink your whole concept, and find a new venue. Things like that happen with the shows but I enjoy them so much. It’s that one night of the year that we throw a big party to celebrate what we are doing. It’s hard work but that’s why we do the big shows, as we think the more people the better the energy.”

Those big shows have certainly gotten the brand a lot of attention with Stolen’s Wednesday night event always one of the most anticipated at NZFW. Their after parties have become those of fashion week legend too, but as much as he loves celebrating his brand’s success his focus is on delivering the best possible show and taking the crowd along for the ride. Having always wanted to be a musician, he views each fashion show as his concert and relishes the chance to entertain. “I love entertaining people, that’s my driver with everything that I do, whether it’s DJing or designing a collection to be shown at fashion week,” enthuses Marc. “I want to throw a show, and hopefully move people physically in some way, that’s the greatest power that musicians have, so that’s something I’ve always kind of wanted too.”

For nearly a decade those shows were only accessible to the fashion industry and brand fans that were in attendance but the development of social media has opened up shows to everyone and has meant both fashion weeks and brands have had to change their approach to stay relevant. These days imagery and videos of shows are broadcast on the internet within seconds of the first model hitting the runway which means customers see the latest looks and want them now. Many brands are showing more in-season pieces so that customers can buy things immediately or offering a mix of current season and next season as no-one wants to wait six months for something that they’re already seeing pictures of. It can also be hard for brands to try and re-hype a collection when it finally hits stores six months down the track after customers have already seen all the imagery from fashion week. Stolen usually show a mix of current season and next season styled so that customers can see how it could work together which is a smart approach and means that customers can buy some of their favourite looks afterwards satisfying that need for something fresh off the runway.

To meet that demand is no easy feat though and Stolen have been manufacturing offshore since 2011 to keep up with the pace of customer demand and to make sure they’re producing the best possible products. The brand’s focus on digital printing and custom hardware meant they were struggling to find the right suppliers in NZ and now their clothing is produced in China and India with their leather products produced in Italy. “It was a huge learning curve for us and the biggest thing was cash flow. Working offshore we have to pay a big deposit up front when we place our orders, 3 to 6 months out from when the products go into store. Whereas when we were making it in New Zealand, we would place our order, wait for it to be ready and then we would pay for it on the 20th of the month following. By that time, we’ve already shipped to stores and are getting money from them, so there wasn’t much time where you were out of pocket.”

The designer also misses the hands on side of producing in New Zealand and being able to regularly drive out to visit the brand’s makers and learn from them. Being face to face made it easier to figure out problems on things that weren’t working or collaborate on ideas and made for valued relationships for Marc and his team. “There were some cool characters in the rag trade when we started, all of them said, ‘don’t start a fashion brand’,” he laughs. “That was their opening advice to us, these jaded rag traders, ‘don’t start it, don’t do it!’

That aging workforce has been one of the key reasons local brands have had to look offshore for production as those retiring workers aren’t being replaced and the technical skills they have aren’t being taught in the same way. Many of the young people who go through fashion schools want to be designers not pattern makers, sample machinists or cutters which has led to a huge shortage of highly skilled workers. Moving offshore comes with its own set of issues though, especially as more and more brands are trying to produce clothing as ethically and sustainably as possible which is a journey Marc and his team have committed to as well.

Models on the runway at Stolen Girlfriend Club’s NZFW 2014 show at Western Springs. Image by Michelle Weir for Beautiful Black.

“There have been some horrible things that have happened in the industry, but then optimistically, they made everybody sharpen up, and be a bit more honest, and ask questions, which is in turn putting pressure on brands, factories, makers and suppliers to do better which is a good thing. Big changes are needed but it’s a hard thing to tackle all that stuff. Where do I start? But you just start somewhere and consciously chip away at it.”

“Consumers really do hold the power to question brands on their practices, and try and get them to do a better job. On the flipside, I think consumers also need to know more about what is involved from a brand in business to completely change everything. If your business is a car, you can’t just pull the car to the side of the road and stop it, get under the hood, completely change everything, change the engine, and the way the doors open and the interior and everything, you have to stop everything to do that. You can’t just do that change while you are driving on the road. When you have a business, unless you are cashed up and have millions in the bank, you can’t actually stop your business for 3 to 6 months to completely overhaul your practices, change everything and go completely sustainable. You need to just chip away, while you are driving your business along, and its functioning day to day, and making money, and paying the bills. So you just have to really pick your battles. Be quite wise with what you select, and then just do that and then do the next thing and so on.”

As part of Stolen Girlfriends Club’s commitment to ethical and sustainable practices, the brand have joined Mindful Fashion New Zealand which was created by designers Kate Sylvester and Emily Miller-Sharma from Liam and RUBY earlier this year. The organisation aims to use the collective power of NZ fashion businesses to better support the industry, collaborate more effectively and band together to be able to get more ethically produced fabrics and trims into NZ which usually require huge minimums that are unattainable to many local brands. It’s still early days for the organisation but Marc sees the potential of it and is excited to be part of it.

“We can’t commit to massive minimums alone,” he adds. “We’ve been looking at organic, certified fair trade cotton, actual organic, not green washed organic cotton that’s actually good for the environment, and its just thousands of metres to buy, and we don’t have that capacity. We are doing 30 to 50 units of garments, we are not doing 1500 to 2000 unit runs, we are making very small runs of everything, and it’s hard to commit to a year’s worth of fabric in one go. So it’s great that we are banding together and we can combine our small buying power together. There’s more mills that are making these fabrics now which is so good, because the more that come out, it will get more competitive, and the price will come down, and the minimums will go down, then its just better for the world, its easier to be sustainable and its better for everyone. Right now, it’s still quite hard, there is a lot of limitations for small brands.”

While they may be a small brand on a global scale they’re certainly pretty massive in terms of popularity here in New Zealand which was helped along by Stolen’s early adoption of social media. While they were mostly just going with the flow as they went along, they’ve recently created a social media role in the business and developed a strategy for the likes of Instagram and Facebook. They already have great reach in NZ but their goal is to extend their reach into bigger markets like the US where they already sell online to and aim to be stocked in retail stores in future.

Marc has a personal interest in social media as well, as a creative person he’s previously looked to it for inspiration but more recently has pulled back from it. Like many people he’s found it has become a lot of sameness and clutter which makes it hard to find the exciting stuff. It’s also very easy to get caught up in scrolling feeds when there are lots of other things to be done too, not to mention how much social media can alter your perception of what’s real and what’s not.

Marc Moore interview

Finale by Stolen Girlfriends Club at New Zealand Fashion Week 2018. Image by Katherine Tuenter.

“I’ve cut back a lot lately on Instagram, I find that it’s easy to get sucked into it like it’s the real world, and everything depends on it,” he adds. “Sometimes I find I have to step out of it, just take a few breaths, and get some perspective. Take stock of my surroundings in real life, not just online. Online is important, how you are portrayed, and how you interact with people. But inspiration wise probably less now, from that side of things, everything is so fleeting on Instagram, it is hard to really connect with anything that is long lasting. There’s some cool new stuff happening but also a lot of clutter to really sort through. So I’m learning to practice restraint and trying to curate more.”

“Social media has also put a lot of pressure on the young people coming up to be perfect and that’s boring. Give us the grit, give us the realness. Give us stuff that’s a bit shit. It’s all good, its part of real life, and it’s something we can all relate to. I think each generation zigs, then they zag, and this generation now is really rebelling against all that stuff and it’s good, it needed to happen. It’s easy to get caught up in putting on a perfect front but it’s good to be real and be yourself.”

Being true to himself hasn’t always been easy and while the designer admits things got off-track a couple of times when they tried to mould Stolen into something that didn’t quite work, these days he’s clear on what the brand values are and where it’s all going. Stolen Girlfriends Club will hit the 15 year milestone next year, which is a big achievement for any business but especially in fashion and retail which are known for being incredibly competitive.

Looking back on 15 years he’s pretty clear on the moments that stand out as highlights and the brand’s first show at New Zealand Fashion Week was a special one for Marc. “Up until that point, we’d never done a big event before, so when we did that first show, that’s when I worked out we’ve got something else other brands don’t have. We’ve created this energy and this atmosphere, and that was when it dawned on me, it just hit me, ‘Oh my god, we’ve created something bigger than us,’ and it was a pretty powerful moment. If I close my eyes it’s one moment I will always remember.”

Marc has pretty much lived and breathed Stolen since the brand was first created and 14 years on it’s a part of his identity as well as his business. The brand reflects his own views on life and as he was the one who came up with the initial concept he’s felt connected to Stolen since he first christened it with it’s now well-known name. Fans can expect to hear much more from Stolen Girlfriends Club for years to come too, with Marc committed to the brand as his long term plan with goals of further growth, continued product development and of course, more epic shows.

On that note, it will be interesting to see what Marc Moore has in store for NZFW 2019. I can tell you now that whatever happens it will be a great night, most likely one that becomes a legendary story, later told over drinks by this ordinary man from Raglan that created an extraordinary brand.

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