Meet the designer: Fleur Clarke from Reine

Fleur Clarke

Fleur Clarke

Fleur Clarke is deeply driven by creativity, passion, and a lifelong desire for excellence. So when the Auckland designer lost half of her beloved carefully acquired wardrobe to fire, it proved a timely pause to reconsider her options. Coupled with the end of her corporate career and COVID lockdown, she was inspired by the constant refrain of ‘you need to do what you love’. And so she did.

The result is New Zealand’s newest high-end fashion label – Reine. An impeccably designed and tailored collection of timeless luxury statement pieces, Reine also stands out from the crowd for the fact it is manufactured entirely in New Zealand, using traditional tailoring techniques and quality fabrics sourced locally.

Fleur is the first to admit that when it comes to design, tailoring, and business, she is something of a perfectionist. Her early industry experience came at the hands of icons such as Kate Sylvester and Adrienne Winkleman, and she also hails from an impressive pedigree of generations of fashion industry experience.

However, her newly released Reine collection is authentically designed and created around her own uniquely individual inspirations and desire for minimalistic luxury.

“I come from the school of ‘less is more’, so with that in mind, I concentrate acutely on refining the silhouette, fit, fabric choice, tailoring, quality, and construction,” she says.

“I admire designers who are original and carve a niche in the market without compromising their own design aesthetic.”

As to what inspires her on a regular basis – it’s everything from art, architecture, and interior design through to characters in a book which can also spark a design narrative.

“Mostly though, designing is an instinctual process for me.”

The Reine collection delivers thoughtfully designed statement pieces, crafted for a lifetime, not just a season. The design aesthetic is around striking elegant forms and silhouettes with a strong emphasis on couture tailoring.

“I’ve been a super social working mother all of my adult life, and an avid traveller, so I am designing for people who have diverse and multi-faceted lives.

“I personally have always been drawn to the statement piece – ‘those shoes’, ‘that coat’, ‘that bag’ – the quality investment pieces that make an outfit, and tend to still be a favourite for years.

“Fundamentally, the styles are modernised silhouettes of my favourite pieces that I have designed and remade over the years or styles that I wished I had in my own wardrobe.”

Every garment is designed, fitted, and cut by hand in the Herne Bay workroom studio. A small talented Auckland-based team completes sewing production. Permanent collection styles are produced in limited stock quantities, with pre-orders driving the rest of the production.

FashioNZ finds out more.

Fleur Clarke

Reine Annie House Coat, Reine Carine Wool Coat

Where did you train and what did you love most about it?

My tertiary training was at AUT (then AIT), where I enrolled in the apparel administration and management diploma course. It was a very different curriculum from the current fashion degree they now offer. We focused on pattern making, manufacturing, production planning, industrial engineering (time study), garment construction, and business management. I would describe the learning environment as ‘industrial bleak’, definitely not ‘industrial chic’. The drop-out rate was high. The teachers were a tough no-nonsense crowd; I remember a lot of sarcastic comments made at our expense, which, of course, now I think were probably completely warranted. Needless to say, I was a terrible student, which is hilarious (and embarrassing) to think of, as I’m such a detail-orientated, focused person now.

What I loved about AUT? It opened my eyes and gave me a realistic version of what the rag trade was really like, and that I still wanted to be involved.

What is your background and what was your introduction to the fashion industry?

My career started with master tailor Adrienne Winklemann as a pattern maker and cutter. I consider my time with Adrienne as my formal training. I was learning and practicing complicated pattern-making skills that I would not have had the opportunity to do anywhere else. The double bonus was that I worked in the same room as my son’s grandmother, Heather, whom I adore, and who is still patternmaking after 49 years.

At the time, the High Street was pumping; the industry was still busy and fresh. There were so many new designers emerging, great magazines, and numerous photographers, models. and stylists were cracking it internationally. My social life was off the chart (so glad there was no social media then). After five years with Adrienne, I moved to Kate Sylvester in the early 2000s, which was an incredible experience. It was quite challenging moving from bespoke, couture one-offs, to full-scale manufacturing at first. I remember asking why we couldn’t have French seams on an already complicated and extremely expensive to produce garment. Very naïve! After leaving Kate Sylvester, I contracted to various New Zealand high-end designers.

What have been the highlights/positives of your career so far?

My positive experience in the industry was meeting seriously talented, hardworking, and diverse people. Having the opportunity to make many different types of garments and learning from experienced professionals was an incredible education. Working for brands that were the stars of a fashion week, or were starting to realise their potential internationally, was so inspiring to be a part of.

Generally, just being a part of a strong creative industry bursting with potential, and going to some very cool events was intoxicating (literally).

What were the greatest challenges of your role in the industry at the time?

The productivity challenges for me were that costing analysis, specification, and production technology software wasn’t that commonplace or was very expensive, so everything was very manual. The fiscal challenge was working long hours, for very low salaries, with no overtime paid or perks.

The physical challenges were standing all day on concrete, in freezing or scorching factories, lifting heavy fabrics, pattern making, and cutting all day, which, of course, resulted in serious repetitive strain injuries. I imagine this has changed now due to health and safety laws. Stress was another factor, as we constantly met incredibly tight deadlines, with huge production challenges i.e. with so many moving parts in the product-to-consumer cycle; literally anything that could go wrong would go wrong.

All of this sounds terrible I know, but when you’re in it, it’s so challenging and extremely satisfying when you get through the hurdles and produce a stellar range.

Fleur Clarke

Reine Alexa Blazer Coat, Reine Alexa Blazer Coat

What did you do during your career outside of the fashion industry?

After 12 years in the industry, and after making everything from street fashion to wedding dresses, I literally had to leave because I couldn’t afford to stay any longer. I went to work for an advertising company (not sure why they hired me as I had no experience). Then, because I had been exposed to an immense amount of retail, sales, marketing, campaign and business strategy, I took the opportunity to work for a property investment company in the role of a shopping centre manager, which I loved. Eventually, I ended up in Project Management and Executive Assistant roles, which were so varied, really challenging, and I got to work with some great mentors.

Every role I have had has either been in a challenging environment or I’ve been put in the deep end. I am grateful that my fashion background gave me tenacity and problem-solving abilities that ended up being invaluable.

The best thing I did professionally during this time? Saying yes to every opportunity that came my way even when I was terrified.

What prompted you to start your own label?

There were three factors that prompted me to start the Reine label.

Firstly, half of my clothes perished in a fire in December 2020 and I had to replace them. Not easy to find replacements when you’ve made most of them. But it was a big reminder that I had the skillset and I still wanted to wear the designs.

Secondly, the little voice in my head that kept saying “You need to do what you love” had just got too loud to ignore. Probably sounds familiar to a lot of people now right?

And finally, I have the right support and encouragement around me. My husband G is pretty epic in general, so it wasn’t a surprise that he would be my biggest cheerleader and support.

What were the greatest challenges of starting Reine?

In August 2021, I finished my last corporate role forever (where did 20 years go?). I left work after a great send-off and then – 100+ days of lockdown. Terrible for most I know. For me, it was the starting point of defining the business.

Over this time, I covered off brand development, website build and content, costing analysis spreadsheets and production spec sheets, designing and pattern-making 110 styles, which I later refined down to 20 for my debut collection. Many long days and nights were spent sewing toiles, cutting samples, having fittings, sourcing local manufacturers and machinists, branding workshops and finalising the range.

The biggest challenges so far have been learning and mastering areas that I’m not particularly interested in but are imperative, such as the back-end workings of website operations, coding, and social media.

An external challenge has been finding machinists who are prepared to take on new clients. They are like gold. When I started in the industry, there were so many machinists because it was considered a great career choice.

I did get lucky with the bonus addition of my old friend, Amelia Faleafa coming onboard as Reine Studio Manager, three weeks before we launched. Amelia’s wealth of fashion industry experience and her positive demeanour was just what I needed.

Why is NZ design and manufacturing important, and why are you passionate about locally sourcing quality fabrics?

Like many others, I would like to contribute to the preservation of tailoring, and the New Zealand-made industry generally. With this in mind, I have only used fabrics and components sourced in New Zealand and will only manufacture locally.

Fleur Clarke

Reine Carine Trench Coat, Reine Manon Cape

What are your key priorities for you with your label?

One of the things that I admire most in people is their individuality, so in regards to design, I want to create garments that are also individualistic in style.

As our primary focus is on the design and craft of premium garments, I would like to be recognised as a homegrown luxury brand continuing traditional tailoring practices. The intention is to keep our business completely localised including manufacturing.

What are you most proud of in terms of your debut collection?

That the designs are authentically me.

What is the most unexpected thing about this industry?

That the manufacturing side of the business is so small now and the great operators who are still going, don’t seem to have a younger generation keen to take over (my observation).

What is your all-time favourite purchase/item?

I have a thing for shoes and books – I wouldn’t be able to choose.

Fleur Clarke

Reine Cecile Luxe Coat, Reine Carine Wool Coat

What wardrobe piece should everyone invest in?

Whatever makes them feel great in. You can’t beat confidence.

What’s one of the worst fashion decisions you ever made?

Probably wearing something polyester that clung to me in embarrassing places. You only do that once.

Do you have a style rule you always try and follow?

For me, it’s always about proportion, fit and quality of materials. When clothes fit perfectly, you feel and look a million bucks.

What is something people might be surprised to know about you?

I’m actually an ‘outdoors girl’, which my husband loves teasing me about. He insists on taking lots of ‘really neat’ photos of me in my sailing, fishing and hiking gear, instead of the actual views.

Images supplied.

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