Field Notes


23 April 2018

Posted in: Industry, H&F Presents, Environment

The last week of April kicks off Fashion Revolution Week, where we find out who is behind the production of our clothes. This is the one week yearly that encourages consumers to ask fashion brands, who made my clothes. The consumers then hope for the response from these brands to find out who was behind the making of their clothing.
Hawes & Freer are taking part in this global campaign for the second year in a row, to have an open and honest conversation with those in our fashion industry. Who are the people in the NZ fashion industry? What is their background, and do they value the importance of NZ made clothes as much as other Kiwis do? 
We have the answers. New Zealand meet the people behind your NZ made clothes. 
Mary-Ellen Shen
Mary-Ellen, Designer & Director at Shen Clothing

How long have you been involved in the industry and where did you start?

Mary-Ellen: My first job was at Jag in Wellington in 1991, and I loved it. It was a great era I always draw inspiration from the 90s. I spent all my wages on oversized jackets with enormous shoulder pads. Since then I’ve honed my design and business skills in both the local and international fashion industry. I worked for Patrick Steele in the mid-1990s after I finished fashion school, he taught me a lot about fabric, about quality.   In the late 1990s I worked in London for a boutique called “Savage London” a boutique selling mainly leather, I then moved into a large commercial company Poeticgem they did work for Topshop, that was my first exposure to how the offshore industry works and the mass market.  On my return to New Zealand I worked at High Society for 10 years, so it gave me a great grounding into a commercial company that was NZ made. But my passion and dream came to fruition when I started Shen in 2011. I was able to use all my experience and contacts to build a brand that is about quality and design. My aim is that Shen embodies the personal values I bring to my design and reflects the qualities and aspirations of the women who buy Shen.

How has the fashion industry evolved over the years?

Mary-Ellen: It has completely changed. The thing I have noticed most is that the customers are more discerning because the web gave them access to labels across the globe. Our competitors are now worldwide, where previously it was largely restricted to New Zealand. But so too our market is potentially worldwide too.

Shen Silk Wrap Dress in Dove Blue

You buy your silk from us, why is it important to you to know the back story of your fabric?

Mary-Ellen: I buy fabric locally firstly because I love the industry and the people in it. It is a tough trade and I like to support local suppliers. We are in it together and we all work hard for our dollar. I also trust the people I buy from that they can do the quality control, if I had to do it I would need to QC fabrics and it becomes a whole new business model.

Why should consumers be just as aware of where their fabric comes from as well as where their clothing is made?

Mary-Ellen: I think consumers need to be aware of fabric for the sake of our environment. There is firstly the composition of the garment and then ultimately its disposition. For instance, we need to be aware of dyes, in terms both of our global environment and for our own bodies; dyes which may be dumped into the environment and through the garments themselves may affect your skin.

Do you think there is enough awareness in NZ about garments being made locally and the importance of this?

Mary-Ellen: Unfortunately, I do not think there is enough awareness. I do not oppose manufacturing in China -  some companies really have no choice.  But locally made is essential to maintaining and supporting the multitude of talented people whose skills we must preserve. How do we get awareness out there? Partly through our fashion schools. There may be lots of graduates who want to be bloggers and influencers, but we are lacking pattern makers and machinists coming through the ranks. Pattern making is itself an interpretative and artistic process. I don’t think many people realise that. 

What is one thing you think New Zealanders should know when it comes to their clothing?

Mary-Ellen: I think NZ consumers can be overwhelmed by the amount of product on the market and want the next fad. But instead of buying 20 things which will be thrown out at the end of the season buy 1 beautiful piece that will last, something that you can hand down. Less is more.

Since launching Shen in 2012, Mary-Ellen Prendergast has been steadily carving out her niche in the New Zealand market. Over seven collections, the designer has continued to refine the Shen aesthetic – impeccable tailoring and fluency in the form, fit and fabrication of garments. She consistently produces sophisticated, timeless and highly wearable ranges inspired by everything from ballerinas and spaghetti westerns to cherished travel memories and personal triumphs.

The name Shen epitomises the designer’s inspirations and intentions. In ancient Egyptian, Shen means encircle and in hieroglyphics a shen ring represented eternal protection. In modern Chinese Mandarin, its meanings include awareness and consciousness. For Mary-Ellen, it means all these things, and more.

“Without such a life-changing experience I may not have had the drive to start my own label,” she says. “I’d like Shen to embody the personal values I bring to my design and reflect the qualities and aspirations of the women who buy Shen.”

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