Feb 08, 2018

Longstanding fashion label Annah Stretton is easily recognisable when it comes to New Zealand fashion. As founder and CEO of Stretton Clothing Group, Annah Stretton expanded her empire beyond fashion and is also now well-known for her philanthropic and entrepreneurial pursuits, aimed at instilling social change through a number of charitable ventures such as RAW and Kia Puawai. It is these pursuits that have led to Stretton being listed in the final ten for the 2018 New Zealander of the Year. Zara Overton spoke with the designer.

N. What made you decide to start your own label?

I guess I have always looked at opportunities. I happened to be in a role in the fashion industry working with the big generic players and developed a mindset that I could actually set up my own fashion company. I have always been about the business of fashion – it was about creating sustainable income platforms and fashion just happened to be a space that I had gained skills around and was passionate about. I was fortunate to have a nice mix of the left and right brain with a partial fine arts and a full accountancy degree.    

N. With the retail landscape increasingly becoming more digitally focused, how have you managed to sustain a strong bricks and mortar store presence?

Not easily. We are in such a disrupted space and continue to be, so there have been so many casualties. It requires a lot of new thinking and application to simply survive, my physical footprint is shrinking, and my digital business is growing. Key to a great physical retail business is the person who manages these stores.  I am lucky to have so many incredible women in my employ that front the retail stores daily, but these women are becoming harder and harder to find.

N. With that too, you’ve been very quick to acknowledge the digital side of retail, with your website providing an integrated platform of content, online shopping and personality. Has this digital evolution been quite natural for Annah Stretton?

Yes, it has. We certainly identify with the importance of this, not only to drive business through the digital platforms but also the physical sites. Key to this has been acknowledging who our customer is and how she uses social media.  We are active across all the relevant platforms and have a very healthy database that we talk to weekly. We constantly look for new ways to engage through giveaways, blogs, video and daily posts to support the seven websites that we operate.

N. How have you managed to continue manufacturing locally whilst also remaining competitive? 

We are manufacturing both in China and NZ (approximately 30% of the styles are still NZ made). They are all NZ designed – the difficulty in keeping production on shore is not so much a desire to make a cheaper product and stronger returns, but the diminishing manufacturing base in NZ for fashion, that makes it very difficult to achieve production that will enable you to actively compete in what is now a 24/7 global market with a plethora of offering and a customer that is spoilt for choice and price. So just as we are global in our consumerism, to survive and thrive we need to be global in our procurement.

N. What can we expect to see from the A/W 18’ Annah Stretton collection?

Annah Stretton Black Winter is titled “Brave Heart – Ngakau toa” and makes a powerful statement as to the work we do in support of social change. This is made through strong statement pieces that display a sophisticated modernism. Annah Stretton Pink Winter collection is titled “Choose JOY” and is loaded with the colour and frippery that has become the feminine love mark that we are so well known for. The collection makes a powerful statement as to the prioritisation of JOY over material gain and for most of us we never really achieve total joy, we measure our success in material wealth and possessions and I know that the happiest people in the world are those that choose JOY over everything else. So this collection is about bringing JOY to the fore of our mindsets for us all.

N. RAW (Reclaim Another Woman) is a charitable venture that you founded to work with recidivist female offenders, giving them real choice to make a behavioural change by replacing amplifying criminal activity through scholarship education and work.  What inspired you to start such an incredibly life-changing initiative?

Once again, it’s all about opportunities and how you play them out.  Most people are too time poor to see these. I seem to have this constant radar that tunes into the possibilities and an endless amount of energy to execute no matter what I have on.

The short RAW story goes a bit like this. I was approached by the Waikato Women’s Refuge to assist them with their corporate connections. Agreeing to help, I entered into a world of Māoridom, loving what I was being exposed to, but also seeing the challenges that existed. I knew that I had found the first initiative for my foundation that I had recently set up. I invited my sister Rebecca, with 25 years of mental health experience, to take the leading role in RAW and work with me. RAW was where I would work with socially disadvantaged women (with a focus on Māori) to get real change through education and living circumstances. The model evolved so that we started to work in the prisons with heavily recidivist female offenders – a demographic that had been written off by society, to get change and real reintegration by offering a new normal that had 360 wrap-around support and opportunities attached to it.

We have been working in this space for the last 3 years and have had 36 offenders through the model. Success is measured on a sliding scale, at the lowest end it is de-amplifying the criminal activity, at the highest end it is degrees, diplomas and capable change makers that work along side us to build “Brand RAW” and get the real change this country seeks. To date we have had none of the 36 offenders go back to prison for an amplification of their criminal activity. RAW has brought new thinking to a massive social and fiscal cost to the country and is making some huge inroads. They say that a child on a criminal pathway since birth will have cost the country 3 million dollars by the time they are 18 years old. Most of ours are either in their 30s or 40s and have been involved in criminal activity all of their lives, so the investment that we have all made, as a country, has been astronomical. See raw.org.nz for more information.

N. Along with the RAW initiative, you also set Kia Puawai up as a charitable trust which aims at improving the health and wellbeing of the New Zealand population. Can you please tell us a bit more about this programme?

The goal of Kia Puawai is to work with people  to make edits to their normals that allow them to “Gain Health not Weight”. So, gone are diets and exercise regimes, we have simply set up a programme that takes account of a “relevant normal” and applies an edit within this, that eventually generates optimal wellness. Once again, we are applying new thinking to a problem that is escalating in an area that I have developed a huge passion for through the partnership
that I have in Te Atawhai – teatawhai.co.nz – kiapuawai.org.nz

N. Has your fashion career had any influence on how you set up and run your foundation?

Huge. Not so much on how I run it, but more so on how quickly I have been able to advance. The wonderful thing about fashion is the publicity we all get, and this in turn makes many of us household names. The converse of this is when you enter another industry you already have a credibility and a brand, and this enables you to advance and open doors a little faster than others can. I make no excuse for using my brand to advance conversations in the social space and I guess the business credibility enables me to engage with other larger employers to achieve some of the outcomes and support that I need to drive the social change agenda.

N. Managing several successful businesses, working with existing charities, launching additional charitable initiatives and mentoring future fashion designers as well as having a family, how do you fit everything in?  And how do you manage stress? 

I don’t believe in stress. It’s simply the mindset you bring to the scenario. I am a big fan of the pause and breathe method of leadership and given the diversity of my day, especially with the RAW women, there is not much that I have not encountered or had to deal with. I can go from designing a fabulous new frock to dealing with the world of methamphetamine and the challenges this brings to the RAW model. The company has always been multi-faceted and so much more than just the fashion. I have always wanted to generate profit that has a real purpose and was not just about my material gain. I have had, to date, the most incredible life and connected with some inspirational people, and yes the workload is big, but I guess as long as you love what you do it never becomes stressful – it’s simply who you are and how you roll each day.

N. The Annah Stretton brand employs more than 100 staff across it’s multiple businesses.  How would they describe yourself as a leader? 

Today we employ and engage with around 100 people that empower the main fashion company and the social ventures. My leadership has changed so much in the last 5 years, and my approach has been hugely altered through the social venture work. I guess the massive gift that the RAW women have given me is the understanding of another normal. RAW has taught me that this is not the case as we are all so different and are largely a consequence of our environment. So, developing an understanding of people’s circumstances and cultural differences enables a stronger collaboration and better outputs whether leading in my social venture work or commercial.

N. What do you like most about Newmarket?

The diversity of the stores, the flagship nature of so many and the completeness of the experience. Most of the brands that I love to shop are here, coupled with some new surprises that never fail to delight. I guess, “like attracts like” and with so many awesome retailers culminating together in this space we certainly are spoilt for choice. Newmarket (Teed Street) is the one area that I still prefer to shop, knowing stores are well stocked and diverse, rather than take to the Internet to solve my shopping pain.

N. Your NZFW shows have always been particularly memorable, including tea parties, mirrors and even a model wearing a boar’s head gracing the runway. What do runway shows or events like these add to the brand?

They are the brand and they are the conversation starters. The boar’s head will never die – I saw a reference and photo of it lately. I gave up trying to be part of fashion’s elite a long time ago and simply learnt to be comfortable in my own skin and doing what I do best. It just works, creating frocks that my customers love and not worrying about the press hidings that I got with each show. Given all that you do comes from the heart (a good space), I am now my own yard stick of measurement. Others do not or cannot do that for me. I have loved executing the shows, loved working with so many great people and loved the drama we have
been able to bring to the label and the catwalk. Sure, it was more about the show than the fashion, but that became our hallmark. All the shows are great memories that I would not change, and we certainly have some awesome imagery and worked with some incredible supporters and partners.

N. What’s next for Annah Stretton?

That is such a big question for me, even at my age, where I am well into the second half of my life. I feel like I have so much more to do and offer with Sami, my daughter, about to take over the reigns of the fashion company – we have a 5-year transition planned. Not only do I feel very fortunate to know the brand is in good hands, but I also know I am extremely lucky to have this longevity around my brand as many in
the industry don’t. I will look to get more involved in my social ventures through my foundation with a huge passion and focus on Māori and endeavouring to bring new thinking to some of our bigger social challenges where Māori can unfortunately be over represented in the statistics.

The work that I have been doing through RAW has brought a new perspective and balance to my life and Kia Puawai is another area that I am extremely passionate about, getting some big impact by optimising and prioritising health. It is however, early days and we are still very much in pilot. I will also be driving the wellness focus with a heightened interest in developing the Te Aroha wellness “Te Atawhai” retreat where I am in partnership with two others. I, more than anyone, know that success in life is about optimising wellness. Without our heath we have nothing at all. All the money in the world won’t make a slight bit of difference to a terminally ill person – teatawhai.co.nz

So, life is good. I am not intending to slow down, but I am intending to use all the skills and all the lessons and the knowledge that I have gained over 25 years to make a very real contribution to the fabric of society in NZ. It will be a “life well lived” and it only feels like I have just begun.