As the daughter of one of New Zealand’s most iconic designers, Sami Stretton knows a thing or two about fashion. She has always been involved in the family business, from button counting during her primary school years to launching her first fashion label in 2017. Now, as part of a five-year handover, she is the GM of Stretton, bringing a fresh perspective to one of the local industry’s most beloved brands.
We spoke to Sami about the future of fashion, her wardrobe must-haves, the company’s new homeware range, and why she believes mum Annah is Wonder Woman.
Did you always want to work in fashion?
I’ve always lived and breathed retail fashion. I’ve never once strayed. My earliest memories go back to when I was five, being in the office with Mum, or working with her every day after school — that’s where I was instilled with my strong work ethic. I’ve always seen Mum work so hard that it’s just normal to put everything into everything you do. Because I’ve worked in every area of the business, I understand how every piece goes together and how things should be done.
What was it like growing up as the daughter of a New Zealand fashion industry icon?
It was normal! Obviously, there were all the perks like fashion weeks and different things we used to do. I don’t think our family give her enough recognition — for me, she’s just mum at the end of the day. But when I look at it, I’m like, ‘Oh, my mum is literally amazing.’
You have worked closely with your mum and grandmother, Vicki, for years. What’s your favourite thing about working in a family business?
I love that I get to work with Vicki — no one calls her ‘Grandma’ — and Mum each day! Pre-COVID, when Vicki was still in the office every day, we would have lunch if we were all in, and those are special moments for me. This year, Vicki is 82 and still pays the accounts and wages every fortnight, and is as sharp as a tack. I really admire that. I think that says something about when Mum will retire, which might be never.
Since we are a family-owned business, the rest of the team is like an extended family, too. When we’re employing people, we really make sure they will be a fit for our team and culture. It’s become a tight-knit family vibe across our stores and HQ, which I love.
How do you separate your personal life as a family from the business?
We don’t, really! I know people are all about the work-life balance, taking the time out, but when you live, love and breathe what you do, it never feels like work. We’re constantly thinking about how to make things better. The company is a part of the family; it has been a part of our upbringing. The only person who’s not in the business is my brother. We just need to find him a job!
What do you see as the future of fashion in this rapidly changing landscape?
Hopefully, everyone’s going to continue to buy and support local. We are building some local wholesale accounts and our awesome online business. With everything that’s happened with COVID, the handover will definitely be longer, but in a good way. I can’t ever see Mum not being involved in the business, which is great as she’s the best mentor and support person, and I never want her detached! I don’t think she will be — she lives and breathes it. It’s been her baby for nearly 30 years. In fact, she had my brother and started the business in the same year. She’s a machine. She’s Wonder Woman, really.
In the future… who knows? Obviously, everyone has seen considerable changes in retail over recent years. I saw how Mum started, opening stores throughout provincial New Zealand, to how online started creeping in, and more international fashion stores started opening here. For example, in the heyday of brick-and-mortar, we had thirty stores, four in Australia, and we now have eight — a power eight. Being a kid and growing through the changes was very interesting. I guess that’s great knowledge for business, to show how adaptable we need to be and how things can change because nothing will ever stay the same.
Millennials, my generation, we buy everything online. Personally, I don’t shop in-store, I just get everything delivered. But our customer, the Annah S girl, still loves going into a store, she loves her connection with the great women we employ to manage the stores, she loves to touch and try on the clothes. But during the lockdown, our customers were not able to do that, so they got their head around online shopping. In a way, I think it might’ve been a booster, to get everyone more comfortable with pushing ‘buy now’ and feeling comfortable that they can return it if they don’t like it.
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How did COVID-19 impact your business? What steps did the Stretton company take to support New Zealanders?
It hugely impacted us and gave us time to reflect and assess what it would look like for us when we reopened. It was a pause, but a good pause in the end — a helpful pause. On the first day of lockdown, we were able to open as an essential service providing facemasks and they took over our lives! Manawanui — who are leaders in self-directed community funding for some of our more vulnerable — said, “We need 6000 masks, and we pretty much need them tomorrow” and it just grew from there. We donated fabric and cotton from our stocks and everyone at HQ office started making masks! We dusted off the machines in storage and started sewing locally again. It brought us together as a company and helped people feel supported and protected when PPE was light on the ground. We started a ‘Buy One, Give One’ initiative pack to coincide with the 6,000 we were making for Manawanui; and by doing this, supported diversity of the community and introduced our brand into different demographics. As a result, our retail assistants have seen lots of new faces in-store, post-COVID, which is great. Interestingly enough, the masks are still in demand — people are more conscious of not spreading cold and flu germs.
We also used the opportunity to become more available — more affordable — to everyone feeling the financial pinch from COVID. Employers reduced employee wages, to enable them to keep their jobs, and people lost their jobs altogether. We thought, how do we as a company share and support this country-wide difficulty? So, we cut the fat out of our prices and re-priced all our clothes to be more affordable, which means more women can get the benefit of a gorgeous piece of clothing. It’s an exciting time because we’ve opened ourselves up to another customer group that might have only shopped with us once a year or for a special occasion. Now she is able to come in and purchase for every day if she desires! I think that’s the biggest thing for us; we always want to change and be there for our customers — and for women. If that means making our frocks more accessible so more women feel great in them — which is what we want at the end of the day — then we’ll do it.
During lockdown, we were not working on anything unless it was a mask. The orders placed on our whole entire summer season have been delayed. Normally, we’d be gearing up to go into our winter sale. Now, that’s not even a thought. We’re selling winter products in winter. Normally, we’d sell our winter range in autumn. The whole cycle has changed. Summer will be delivered later. We’re making trans-seasonable collections that work for now, which adds to our sustainability message.
How important is sustainability to you in the current eco-conscious climate?
There’s a lot going on in the New Zealand fashion industry around sustainability, like being able to trace everything that you’re using. That idea is awesome, but I just don’t know if we’d ever be able to do that. Instead, our sustainability approach is about making quality garments that can last.
We’re definitely not fast fashion. For us, it’s about quality. We make quality pieces that our customers are able to wear time and time again and not have to throw it out in three months because it looks like a rag. We receive some awesome ‘love’ messages from customers saying, “Oh, look at this garment, I’ve had it for ten years, it doesn’t look a day old!”
That’s what we’re about — choosing quality fabrics and constructing garments well so they will wear and wash well.
Can you tell us about Roost Home, your new homewares range?
We’ve always had the wallpapers, but they kind of get lost in the brand. We wanted to put them on their own page and give them some air time. Roost has a different handwriting to the Annah Stretton brand, so it’s nice to spread it out. Lots of our stores have custom wallpapers, so we made them available to purchase, instead of keeping it our best-kept secret.
It’s a theme — you can get blinds, wallpaper and lightboxes in the same theme. And the lightboxes make a cool gift idea for those hard-to-buy-for people we all know. We are looking to wholesale these, as well. They are all original artworks. What’s really cool is the photography; all the photographic images are taken by Mum herself on trips she has been on and wants to share.
Additionally, Roost supports young contributing artists, since we offer their work for sale. We’ve just loaded a collection from some of the Elam art students in support of the RAW work Mum does with women’s prisons.
You also recently launched Olive’s Kitchen, a pet wellness business. What was the inspiration behind that?
We’ve always had a huge passion for animals, we’ve worked with the animal causes for a long time and a portion of sales from one of my collections was donated to Pet Refuge. We’ve always had dogs growing up, and when the third dog, Olive (the product star), was diagnosed with a mass cell tumour at the age of three, Mum knew we need to find another way to 1) get Olive well and then 2) keep her well. Mum went down a rabbit hole of reading, trialling and testing, creating a mix of natural ingredients largely based on nuts and seeds and Doggy Daily was born! It is now thoroughly researched and extensively tested on dogs and is vet-supported. We also have one for cats, too. Simply mix the dry supplement into your fur baby’s meal, just once a day. It’s great for your pet’s gut immunity and health, joints, anxiety, skin and coat. The secret to great pet health is in the gut — and that is our number 1 goal to feed the good guys in the gut.
Pets are so important, and the key to a long and healthy life is keeping them well. People are having kids later, but their fur babies are now their babies so why shouldn’t they be healthy, too? The sad thing is, pets are dying of the same lifestyle diseases as humans, and a lot of these health challenges can be managed through their food.
What are the three pieces you believe every woman should have in her wardrobe?
Our Stretton Adoring Astor Faux Fur Coat, which is a no-brainer; the Annah Stretton Dotty Entourage Wrap dress, for any occasion you’re stuck for something to wear; and a great pair of jeans!
Do you have any design heroes?
Apart from Mum, who’s amazing at everything that she encompasses, I personally loved watching Karl Lagerfeld’s magic. His creative direction and what he did with Chanel’s shows… his artistic flair was amazing.
What’s your best advice for someone wanting to work in fashion?
If you want to work in fashion, you’ve got to jump in feet first. You’ve really got to go for it, you can’t be half in or half out. Then, you need to know who your customer is. Why are you passionate about it? What’s your point of difference? Fashion is such a cluttered and competitive horizon, with so many different brands competing to be noticed with their different digital messaging. To really stand out, you really need to understand what you’re trying to say, know who your customer is, and connect directly to them through digital platforms.
Where can we follow you?
What don’t you leave the house without?
Lip balm and a water bottle. If I leave the house without either, I literally feel dehydrated with chapped lips… is that dependency?