From left to right: Lucy Vincent, Tony Burt, Scott Bridgens, Karen Walker, Donald Shepherd and Jeremy Hansen. Photo / Babiche Martens

How New Zealand's Best-Loved Premium Brands Are Defining Local Luxury

Viva talks to five of our best-loved premium brands about how they’re succeeding on the world stage

It used to be easy to know what luxury was. It was the most desirable type of product or experience — with goods made from rare and expensive materials and fine workmanship, selected in a lavish boutique or hidden atelier. It was the Birkin bag you had to wait months or years to get — if you could even get on the waiting list in the first place. It was the hotel suite with a famous person’s name or the word ‘Presidential’ in the title. It was the Rolex you might hope to be presented at the end of a distinguished business career.

Then the knock-off industry, the internet, the Global Financial Recession and the second-hand luxury and luxury rental markets came along. Suddenly anyone who wanted to could get their hands on a high-end handbag or a Rolex, or something that looked a lot like them.

Millennials couldn’t afford their own homes, let alone Presidential suites, but for the price of staying one night at a top hotel they could spend a month Instagramming carefully-framed shots in Bali that looked just as alluring. Venerable fashion houses like Louis Vuitton began collaborating with graffiti artists and streetwear brands (and hiring their designers) and a wave of new digital-led brands arrived, proclaiming their category to be “mass luxury” or “affordable luxury”. 

WATCH: Our Panel Discusses The Rise Of Premium New Zealand Brands

In the early 21st century, luxury isn’t what it used to be. It’s a category of product that people right throughout the traditional “middle class” aspire and expect to be able to lay their hands on, not one reserved for the one per cent.

This is a revolution that’s been great for smart New Zealand brands. Through the 1900s, our economy was based on producing primary goods, with a manufacturing base focused on practicality rather than luxury. Deregulation in the 1980s hit manufacturers hard, and despite the launch of the “Buy Kiwi Made” campaign in 1988, New Zealand’s manufacturing industry declined even further.

At the same time, a new breed of New Zealand brands began to emerge and thrive, focused on creating premium (but not inaccessible), beautifully designed products with compelling branding, manufactured largely offshore and directed at an international market. Although these brands might be recognised as emerging from New Zealand, their origin isn’t necessarily a part of their brand story.

Karen Walker. Photo / Babiche Martens

We asked Jeremy Hansen of Britomart, the luxury waterfront precinct that’s home to many top New Zealand fashion labels and design-led brands — to gather together and talk to people from five New Zealand companies that epitomise this new premium category — fashion powerhouse Karen Walker; Donald Shepherd, NZ marketing manager for Fisher & Pakyel; Lucy Vincent, founder of hair and skincare range Sansceuticals; Tony Burt from beverages company East Imperial; and Scott Bridgens, co-founder of Resident designer furniture — about how and why their brands are thriving in today’s global market.

Jeremy Hansen: Karen, when and why did you decide that a global business was a possibility?
At the time we launched, we were coming out of the tail end of protectionism. You couldn’t even buy a pair of Levi’s in New Zealand, decent ones. So there was a gap. If you wanted interesting product, you had to make it yourself in the fashion landscape. When it got to a point where it was like, ‘Actually, there is a business here’, we had to change what we wanted to make — whether we were just going to focus on New Zealand or whether we would keep making what we loved and focus on a global niche market instead, which is what we did.

Scott Bridgens. Photo / Babiche Martens

So we have Muldoon to thank...
Karen: Yes we do, entirely! If we hadn’t been closed in as a country at the time economically and in our domestic marketplace, I wouldn’t have done this.

Donald, Fisher & Paykel was founded back in the 1930s. What made it decide to turn its attention from the New Zealand market to a global one?
We started in 1934 and we had a manufacturing focus because we were producing great appliances predominantly for Australia and New Zealand. But we saw the change in the world in terms of the way it was developing. Access to foreign markets is now more achievable, so as a business we wanted to take the pillars that we’re known for — innovation and quality — and elevate the brand.

Scott, Resident was founded in 2011, and you’ve shown at many international design events since then. What was it about the global furniture market that made you think you had a place and a part to play in it?
More than anything, from a design point of view, it was the opportunity to genuinely test ourselves against the best. If you really want to get the best out of yourself, you have to surround yourself with those you consider to be the best.

Donald Shepherd. Photo / Babiche Martens

Lucy, we live in an age where it sometimes seems that every Vogue intern with a trust fund is starting an organic skincare line. What made you want to wade into the space from down here?
Like Karen was saying, it was really about being restricted, not having access to the kind of skincare and products that I wanted that were available in Europe and the US. One of the things that helped us was that we launched at a time when manufacturing was really starting to change. I think manufacturers started to see that start-ups were actually a market, and they started reducing their MOQS [Minimum Order Quantities]. Now I think you’re seeing influencers and everyone else jumping onto it because small brands are actually a market for big manufacturing companies.

Tony, you consider East Imperial to be an Asia-Pacific business. Coming from the advertising industry, what made you think tonic was the thing you wanted to do?
We had an insight about the premiumisation that was happening with spirits. I live in Parnell and seven or eight years ago if you went into Glengarrys there were half a dozen gins behind the counter and they were all known brands that have been around since probably your grandmother was drinking them. But if you go in there now, there’s probably 30 or 40. So we started building the architecture of our brand from the ground up and that took us close to two years to get that story right before actually going to market.

Tony Burt. Photo / Babiche Martens

What part does New Zealand play in your brand?
Tony: We didn’t set out to create a New Zealand brand, to be honest. We set out to create a global brand. We felt that New Zealand wasn’t intrinsic to the story we wanted to tell. I mean, New Zealand’s not really famous in the history of gin and tonic, and our brand is anchored in history and tradition. But Asia is, hence the name East Imperial. We also didn’t want to create a drink like a lot of the bottled waters that come from New Zealand that say 100 per cent pure New Zealand water, because that restricts us if we ever wanted to move our base away from New Zealand.

Karen, have you observed changes in the notion of what it means to be a New Zealander in a New Zealand business? For a long time it was considered that we were improvisational and had this ‘No.8 wire’ mentality. How did you step out from under that?
For a long time I had a problem with that because I thought that what it meant was ‘She’ll be right, just bung it together and stick a bit of Araldite on it’. But I’ve come to realise that’s not what it’s about at all. The No.8 wire mentality is about problem solving through creativity. And so I’ve come to love it. That’s what we do every day in our job. We’re in the business of fashion, so we’re dealing with form and function. The product, whether it’s a pair of sunglasses or a fragrance or whatever, it has to function and it has to make you feel something. We’re in the business of dreams, but it also has to function. And so that No.8 wire thing, the problem-solving creativity, is really the core of that.

Donald, part of Fisher & Paykel’s shift into the global market has also been a shift from providing a range of appliances at different price points to New Zealanders to a focus on the premium market. What made the company decide that was the best way forward?
When we were looking to target China and America, the UK and Europe, the opportunity was in that premium space. So we as a business needed to transfer our thinking from being a manufacturing-led company to being a design and brand-led company. Our product innovation and our pipeline and our thinking needed to shift, and as that happens, we need to take our traditional New Zealand and Australian markets along with us.

It’s a journey because Fisher & Paykel is so entrenched in our minds. We’ve probably all grown up with it in our homes. We all believe we understand it. But I think seeing the brand elevate and take on the global stage is something New Zealand can be proud of. We are quite the opposite to Imperial in that we really strongly integrate New Zealand into everything we do because it’s part of our personality, it’s part of our DNA.

Lucy Vincent. Photo / Babiche Martens

Scott, Resident produces furniture, lighting and accessories, many of which are not small or easily transportable. How do you handle the logistics of that business if someone orders a dining table from London for example? Does that create a barrier for you?
I think logistics is our strength. We knew from day one that we needed to make that our strength because being from New Zealand, it would be perceived to be our weakness. One of the strategies we use is to manufacture large volumes of product locally, and when I say locally I mean we manufacture for the US in the US, for Europe in Europe and for New Zealand in New Zealand. Our business is definitely built on an ability to find a good recipe of manufacturing know-how, and connecting the dots to local manufacturers who can execute on our behalf.

Lucy, has that been your experience?
Yes, we’re predominantly an online brand and service is a huge driver in our business. We can deliver to the customer in a very short period of time — we reach people in the US in two days and so we’ve been able to achieve great growth there.

Jeremy Hansen. Photo / Babiche Martens

It sounds like many of your businesses wouldn’t be possible without technological developments in the last decade. Karen, how has that aspect changed in the last decade or so?
Karen: The power has now completely shifted into the hands of the consumer and the designer or the brand. The media and the traditional multi-brand retailers have had to re-write their rules entirely. The media are kind of shifting to becoming retailers and the retailers are shifting to take on the media role and bricks and mortar retail is now billboard and experience — it’s the theatre, not actually where the sales happen. Everything has been re-written.

Finally, what opportunity are you all most excited about in the decade ahead?
Tony: We’re excited about the intersection between wellbeing and premiumisation. What we are seeing is this wellness trend that’s washing over everything. People demanding lower sugar, understanding where ingredients are coming from, how a product fits into their lifestyle. Also, low-alcohol drinks are becoming a thing. This new generation coming through don’t drink like the generation before them. We think the brand can move into a lot of different areas over the next five to 10 years and that’s really exciting for us.

Scott: Our products are products you can work with in both traditional workplaces and people’s homes. That’s a part of the industry that has been changing for a while and will continue to. So for Resident it’s an opportunity to come in with a fresh perspective and bring products to market that are a fundamentally different option.

Lucy: For us packaging is really topical right now. We’ve been used to a very disposable consumer society and so we’ve been trying to find innovative ways to come up with a solution. And we’ve found some great things and we’re really excited to truly make a difference.

Donald: We produce large appliances and the main impact we have is through the energy and water they use in our homes or through food preservation. So we have invested a lot in the product performance. As the generational shift to the millennials comes through, value-based decisions are even more prominent. They look to understand not just what you do but how you go about your business. So we’re starting to bring those stories to life. As a brand we’re interested in how people are living in their homes — it’s about being confident enough to immerse our products to support their way of living, whichever way that is.

Karen: There’s plenty of product out there. The world doesn’t need more stuff. So it really becomes about telling stories and small moments of euphoria. The business we’re in is telling stories in an exciting way and continuously going out and telling those stories. A lot of the time that takes the form of partnerships or collaborations or alignments with other brands, retail stores, humans, whatever the case may be.

At the moment we have one with the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, which is one of the highlights of my career being able to work with one of my favourite cultural institutions in New Zealand on a Frances Hodgkins project. Last year we worked with Disney, and we’ve worked with Uniqlo, we’ve worked with Sephora, Blunt Umbrellas — another great New Zealand brand. And that’s the thing I think I’m most excited about. It allows our brand to stretch into areas we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Share this:
New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

Subscribe to E-Newsletter