Swazi founder champions New Zealand Made

GOOD FIT: Swazi founder Davey Hughes and new general manager Sharee Harper in the Levin factory.
GOOD FIT: Swazi founder Davey Hughes and new general manager Sharee Harper in the Levin factory.

Davey Hughes painted Levin railway station in a bright tartan when he launched Swazi Apparel 20 years ago marking the start of a colourful, entrepreneurial career.

The provincial town was a bit shocked at the time, but Hughes has remained steadfastly dedicated to providing local jobs and his strong advocacy for New Zealand Made has hit the headlines over the years.

Growing up in Wainuiomata, he relished exploring the bushclad ranges behind the valley where his love of hunting was fostered.

After travelling the globe for several years as a young man, he decided to focus on a career related to his passion for the outdoors by launching the outdoor clothing company in 1994.

"From my days as a possum trapper, there was comparatively little in the way of value-for-money outdoor clothing on the market. Finding something you really love and building a business around it, you will never have to go to ‘work' a day in your life because you love what you do," he said.

He and his former wife Margaret set up the business with one machinist during a buoyant national economy, focusing on the farming, hunting and outdoors market.

Establishing a name quite quickly, they secured a niche market.

"There was not a lot else happening. You had lot of traditional clothing but they got taken over by new fabrics and innovative ideas," he said.

At that stage they sourced materials from the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan and New Zealand.

"Way back then we still had a few people making fabric here."

They moved out of the leased railway station after about five years and bought their first plant behind the railway station before moving to their present 40,000 square foot factory and warehouse in Oxford St.

"We took the high road, focusing on quality. There is one hell of a lot of rain gear out there but nothing comes close to most of the clothes we make here in Levin.

"People are prepared to pay $700 for a top of the range raincoat compared with some cheap import."

Today they employ 50 staff and he remains passionately committed to coming up with innovative ideas.

Turning over around $6 million a year and producing around 120,000 garments a year, they sponsor rescue suits for the Palmerston North rescue helicopter service.

Two people dying on Mt Taranaki this year inspired him to design clothing to prevent hypothermia. The design is being kept under wraps but he expects to launch it within about 12 months.

"We sat down and said they should not have died. What can we do as a manufacturer to develop a product to keep people alive in those situations?"

A long-time outspoken advocate for New Zealand Made, he thought it was fantastic when central and local government supported New Zealand made products.

After 20 years at the helm of Swazi, he decided to step down and concentrate on design, appointing a new general manager, Sharee Harper.

A man of many talents, he released his first book Untamed two years ago - now on its fifth reprint. Well known for his trade-mark long blonde hair and striking Viking appearance, he has just completed a television series featuring " a bit of adventure, a bit of humour", expected to be screened next year.

In the meantime, his focus is on Swazi.

"What I relish is designing and making outdoor clothing. There are always people who come along and copy us but at the end of the day our legacy for the outdoor people is coming up with bloody good solutions for everyday outdoor use," he said.

Fairfax Media