"Words mean nothing when they are not coupled with real action," says Emily Miller-Sharma. Photo / Babiche Martens

People Of The Year: Emily Miller-Sharma's Year Of Listening & Learning

The Ruby and Liam general manager has risen to the challenges of running a fashion label during a pandemic with urgency and passion

Like most businesses during the pandemic, the local fashion industry has been through its own unique set of challenges.

While some brands have successfully responded to the changes, others have fumbled and faltered their way through to the other side failing to read the room.

Ruby and Liam general manager Emily Miller-Sharma recalls the moment she felt changes were needed to adapt to a drastically evolving market.

"It was the beginning of the first lockdown in 2021, my son was 10 weeks old, and like everyone, I was having an incredibly stressful time," Emily recalls.

"I have ridden out some challenging periods in my 14 years at Ruby, and I know how much of a toll those moments took on my mental health, as well as on my husband’s life. Adding a baby into the mix I knew it would make the challenges more intense.

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 "So, for the first time ever, I genuinely asked myself if sticking it out was something I wanted to do. Spoiler alert, the answer was yes, but I set some really clear criteria. One of these was that as a company, we needed to accelerate the work we were doing around sustainability and be less afraid to share it with our community."

Being at the helm of two popular fashion labels required major changes to how it delivered and communicated its value sets in a time when brands are being held even more accountable when it comes to the complex discussions around sustainability and inclusivity — starting with shifting gears from a linear to a circular company wanting to contribute to a greater circular eco-system in Aotearoa.

"Because things were moving at pace over that time, we needed to communicate directly and quickly to our customers. Stores were shutting, everyone was confused. Initially, the action of being outspoken was just a necessity — we needed to get information out and we didn’t have time to navel-gaze about whether we put the comma in the right place. The response from our community was awesome and it really encouraged us to keep going."

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With the goal of being even more transparent set in place, part of this shift included being the first established fashion brand to sell its intellectual property — paper patterns of new and existing styles from Liam and Ruby that customers can re-create at home.

"We knew that we wanted to progress towards a circular business model, so we looked to learn from other industries. In the food industry, growing and selling food is comparable to how Ruby produces new clothes."

"But the food industry diversifies well: turning waste into a resource through composting or selling IP in cookbooks. There was nervousness about selling our IP in our patterns, but owning The Engine Room cookbook has never stopped me going there, it has only made me feel more part of it. I think this is the same with Liam Patterns. The more we share the more we get back."

The chance to slow down the pace of what the company was producing is aligned with Emily's personal values as the co-founder of Mindful Fashion NZ, the local organisation that aims to strengthen the industry to create a sustainable, circular and thriving future with a focus on building skills for our local manufacturing industry through apprenticeships and helping drive the local fashion industry's contribution to New Zealand's Zero Carbon Act efforts.

READ: How Mindful Fashion NZ Is Guiding The Local Fashion Industry Through An Unprecedented Year

 "This work culminated in the Liam Everything collection, where we collaborated with Wellington-based Geo Knits Slow to knit our offcuts into beautiful bags and sweaters."

The year also saw Ruby deliver a more extensive off-the-rack size range from sizes 4 to 24, with the continued option for custom sizing available to anyone outside of this range. While there's still work to be done for truly including sizes outside of a 24, it's a significant step in the right direction that other established brands could learn from.

Addressing head-on some of the issues the fashion industry hasn't always been great at dealing with of course comes with criticism from both customers and the industry, but that doesn't phase Emily.

"Oh sure, some people love to comment “unfollow” on a social media post or tell us we should stay in our lane. The thing is though, clothing is part of culture! It is influenced by, perpetuates, and influences it."

"So when we talk about an issue that affects our community, or about our work in sustainability we are very much in our lane. I’m sure that some in the industry roll their eyes at me — and that’s okay. As my mum will attest, I have always gone on and on about the things that matter to me. I’m 38 now and have personally experienced some difficult times. I think this has helped me feel less fearful about speaking honestly and publicly about the things I think are important."

Emily Miller-Sharma launching Liam in 2011. Photo / Babiche Martens for Viva.

"Obviously, we’re not experts in everything, and that’s where my sister Annalise — who is the head of Ruby's sales and a marketing genius — and her The Best Is Yet To Come online series plays a part. We use that as a platform for people who are committed to the work they do to educate others. The feedback on this has been really cool. A lot of the time it’s from those who are grateful to see some of their lived experience in the writing."

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As we head into 2022, Emily feels supported by her team and close-knit family in the knowledge that the changes made today are created for a better tomorrow. Her mother Christine Sharma, an industry stalwart and managing director of the company was inducted into the Co.OfWomen New Zealand Hall of Fame for Women Entrepreneurs in July, for her services to the local fashion industry, and has instilled the same passionate care for people into her daughters Emily and Annalise.

"Mum is really good at listening to and seeing the value, in everyone. She really cares about people, thinks deeply about them and encourages them on their journey. Our business is all about people and we wouldn’t be where we are today without her underlying love and care for people."

"One of the things that bind the strongest members of our team together is there is a genuine curiosity about what is going on in the world and a knowledge that we can be part of it. There is a willingness to accept that they don’t know the answer, or that the answer has changed."

"We read and listen to a lot on society, culture, politics, and I have learned so much from my team’s perspectives on a wide range of issues. It comes back to truly valuing the contribution that clothing can make to society and knowing that you can make a contribution without being frowny. Let’s face it, I like to have a nice time. But that doesn’t mean that I disassociate from my values. It’s the same with Ruby and Liam - we are there to bring joy to the people who wear our clothes."

"We have a platform that can contribute to positive change in our community. I get tired of the stereotype that clothing is only frivolous, or based around vanity. I mean sure, it can be! And that’s okay! It’s fun! But we can think critically and have fun at the same time."

As for brands who have yet to do their own internal soul-searching, Emily imparts some words of advice from her own experience

"Words mean nothing when they are not coupled with real action."

"Brands will have to answer what is asked of them, and that is determined by what their community is asking. I don’t mean for that to be cynical. I am not saying “ask me a question and I'll craft an answer”. I’m saying there has to be a human response, no matter what channel you are on."

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