Designer and businesswoman Natalie Chan.
The sun blazes high in the sky on a blistering January day as I make my way along Auckland’s Parnell Road towards a blush pink awning which bears Natalie Chan’s name. The prettily decorated front window of the boutique is filled with a myriad of fashionably feminine delights which no doubt catch the eye of women of every age, not to mention many awestruck little girls. Natalie Chan’s flagship boutique has been on this prestigious strip since 2009 and in its current spot since 2012. Her atelier is in fact above the boutique, where she works with a small team of talented women to create beautiful millinery, ready to wear and bridal fashion for an ever growing array of clients.
Chan herself is petite of stature and wearing a lovely cream strappy dress of her own design as she greets me warmly with an easy charm before we move through into her dressing area for afternoon tea. Many a bride has stood and contemplated herself in delicate bridal finery amongst the winsome cream and blush interior of Chan’s boutique since she began designing wedding gowns over a decade ago. As we sit down to enjoy sublime French treats from her favourite patisserie Vaniye, I quickly come to learn that romance and history are two of Chan’s favourite things.
Growing up in a creative family, she was drawn to fashion from a young age and was fascinated by dressing up and pretty things. Chan’s mother Alma, who is a well-known florist and owner of Cartier For Flowers, encouraged her daughter’s artistic streak and by the time she was fifteen Chan was offering to volunteer at charity fashion shows, keen to learn more about all things sartorial. Those early experiences fuelled a desire to make fashion her vocation so she completed a course in pattern drafting and garment construction at AUT to hone her technical skills. Stints at Global Fabrics and Trelise Cooper followed and it was while working for Cooper that Chan launched her namesake label in September 2001.
Fast forward nearly fifteen years and the little label that started as day wear and street wear has evolved into a highly respected business that dresses numerous brides, celebrities and stylish women every year in Chan’s signature feminine style. It’s no accident that Chan’s label has grown to this level either, as her love of beautiful garments is equalled by an astute business acumen that she has honed since her early days in the industry. “I sold from a little boutique which was the workroom above my mum’s florist down my road,” says Chan. “When my mum moved her florist shop I felt like it was perfect timing and I was ready to take it on. My dad gave me a lot of talks and he was like ‘You know this is business,’ and I was like ‘I know, I’ve sold stuff from my workroom’ and he was like ‘This is different; once you hit the ground floor retailing is a different thing.’ And so I’m really lucky because my mum has been in business for 20 years and I’ve learned a lot of things from her. My dad’s background is also in business so I got a lot of words of advice. Although I have to say that because they are my parents I didn’t really listen a lot of the time, because apparently I knew better, except I have a change of tune now.”
The Natalie Chan team from left to right: Helen, Linda, Natalie and Frances.
Chan went for the European upstairs/downstairs approach when setting up her boutique and atelier, where the artisans are never far from the shop floor and things are able to be changed quickly or made bespoke on request. “For me I feel like this approach works for us and I feel there is a change, where there is just such an excess of everything people are now wanting to know where things are coming from,” adds Chan. “All we have to do is look at the hospitality industry and where the food is coming from and they tell you the food miles and the stories. I feel like fashion will have its turn as well. There have been quite a few documentaries about where the clothes are coming from and raising the awareness behind those stories. So hopefully people are making better, more conscious choices and sustainability choices. I like to push for that too because I want to educate people as well. What’s been happening overseas can’t continue.” The business also tries their best with fabrics as well but unfortunately sometimes it’s very hard to keep that accounted for. Small things like where the cotton was produced or how it was picked could be different.
However it’s important to Chan to try and control what they can control. She regularly has to remind people that because things are handmade, hand cut and hand sewn in her workroom, the prices reflect that. It’s clear that Chan has great respect and admiration for her accomplished team who she works closely with. It’s important to her that their wages are fair and recognise the talent and training of the artisan world they work in. Frances, Helen and Linda all wear many hats and have varied roles within the atelier and boutique but the tight-knit team all have a say in the creative choices of the business. Together their skill, style and knowledge combined with Chan’s have helped the Natalie Chan name become synonymous with impeccably made couture fashion and millinery.
It was New Zealand Fashion Week 2015 that saw Chan and her team further test their skills and debut a series of incredible hand-painted bridal ensembles that featured appliqued flowers, delicate lace and stunning matching headwear. As the first label on the runway at the New Zealand Weddings Magazine show all eyes were on these magnificent creations that were the standout collection and a testament to the team’s dedication to their craft. “From a business point of view I think it was really important because it’s showing people that we can be in that calibre,” says Chan. “Because to do something for fashion week is on a different level. It’s a huge investment for the business, not just financial but also time and talent. It’s also great to know that my team can do it together, we really can. Research and development takes up a huge part, especially for that collection. Because we weren’t contracting getting the fabrics coloured and dyed we had to do it. And when we came to do it, it was like what kind of paint? How are we going to paint it? How is the art going to look? That’s because that’s what it is, you’re basically painting art on fabric. So much research went on, trying to find the right fabric to paint on, because you can’t paint on any fabric, you have to make sure it gets sealed in and is colourfast because if you didn’t do it right you could take it to the drycleaners and the whole artwork would fall out. That was a challenge but the thing was we wouldn’t have it any less.”
Chan’s team certainly rose to that challenge, utilising the knowledge and expertise of her suppliers to create pieces that were unlike any other on the runway. When it came to show day she was backstage overseeing each look so that it was the perfect representation of how she wanted her brand to be seen on the runway. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than watching my own show,” says Chan. “If something got put on wrong or an outfit came out wrong and you couldn’t do anything about it that would stress me out because I could have control of that in the back. I got offered to be out the front but no designer sits and watches their own show. To be honest the fun for me is really at the back. There’s this amazing rush and excitement and we still get to watch it on the screen at the back so there is that. It was an amazing experience to be a part of and one that I would not trade for anything else.”
Design sketch and runway photo of a bridal look from Natalie Chan’s NZFW 2015 show.
Weddings has been a big part of Chan’s business for over a decade now, what began as making mostly bridesmaids dresses has evolved into making more bridal gowns and specialised headwear to complete the look. It’s a part of the business that holds a special place in her heart and having had three weddings of different sizes to her husband Ray in 2010, she is more than qualified to advise brides-to-be on the practicalities and consideration that needs to go into planning the perfect bridal outfit. Chan is also quick to note the overwhelming amount of choice that is now available in the wedding industry which can lead to some confusion when brides get a little carried away on Pinterest.
“Sometimes you can have too many inspiration photos and I’ll have this poor bride showing me all her ideas but I’m like we have to edit this,” muses Chan. “My job is to help edit and have the best look for her instead of the bride putting all her ideas into one dress and end up looking like a Christmas tree.” Often by the time brides come to have an appointment at the boutique they’ve already done a great deal of research and have come to Chan for her wonderfully feminine style that has a classic appeal but is still fashion forward. Occasionally though, the bride isn’t too sure what she wants so they then rely on Chan’s expert guidance to create the dress of their dreams. It’s not uncommon for a bride to pick design features from several of Chan’s gowns and have them translated into a bespoke dress that is a unique collaboration between bride and designer.
Creating unique millinery for weddings, the races and special occasions has also become a big part of the Natalie Chan brand. Initially Chan created some basic headwear to complement photoshoots for her fashion label and it wasn’t long before she realised there was a gap in the market for beautiful headwear that was handmade and of a high quality in New Zealand. She began training in the still very traditional ways of making millinery and has completed courses in Australia to get the high level of craftsmanship that is evident in her label’s couture headwear. As well as the changes in bridal wear, Chan has also noticed many changes in headwear and finds that clients now are much more adventurous and will wear the more dramatic and larger pieces that were pretty much unheard of a decade ago here.
It’s a shift that she couldn’t be happier about and partly credits it to the 2011 royal wedding which saw a renewed interest in millinery due to the dress code requirement for all the female guests in attendance to don headwear, making for an exceptional display of millinery finery. “People are actually turning up to weddings now with hats on and going back to that old style of dressing again and I love it,” enthuses Chan. “ I think you’ve got to dress up for these special occasions because it doesn’t happen often and the photos will look amazing.”
Couture millinery by Natalie Chan from her Cinematic Starlets collection in 2015.
Photography is another aspect of weddings that has changed dramatically in recent years with professional photoshoots now standard at many weddings creating images that wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of Vogue. These stunning images are perfect for social media and Chan’s team are always delighted to be able to share images of bridal parties styled in their designs. “I personally think social media is important because I think people want to see your presence online,” adds Chan. “I feel like people have more access to social media than print yet I really appreciate print because that stays around a lot longer and it can be passed along. But the whole digital age has just changed things so dramatically and it can be challenging, but people can reach you directly which is great and the response has to be quite quick so there is that expectation. We haven’t gotten to the stage in our business when there is only one person doing it the whole time and that’s all they’re doing. What we do is share it out so everyone does some and adds images so it doesn’t have too much of a template or anything just to keep things interesting and different. But it does take time to take good photos and the standard has gone up exponentially. It has to be curated really well and people expect that when they take the time to flick through your profile. I’ve really noticed that and we’ve had to change some of our strategies for that. We just have to put in that extra twenty minutes to make it look good.”
You get the feeling that it isn’t hard for Chan to make things look good though, with her innate sense of style and sharp eye for design, this is a woman who is very clear about who she is and what her brand represents. It’s a business that she is in for the long term too and is acutely aware of how her decisions will help her brand to be a lasting presence in the industry. As we wrap up afternoon tea I press her for her thoughts about where she sees her brand’s future. “The business has so many facets and I always want to improve or do things differently and push new skills,” says Chan. “At the end of the day I’ve always wanted to keep this business, that’s a long term goal, it’s just what we do with it. I love the bridal, I really do, it’s something that’s blossomed really well and I want to continue doing that. I love the bespoke side of things too, it’s the idea of slow fashion coming back in and I love that. I think the biggest goal is becoming better than what we are each year and trying to outdo ourselves, that is probably the hardest thing. It’s always trying to improve everything whether it’s the design or the business itself, that’s basically the crux of it. It’s always learning and improving, because how do you get anywhere in life without learning? And I want to inspire the girls to do that because we’re a team. What can we do that’s different that hasn’t been done before? That’s such a great reason to wake up in the morning and be so excited for.”
– By Evelyn Ebrey
Images courtesy of Natalie Chan