Kilt's tilt at being made in NZ pays off

LOCAL AND PROUD: Kilt Clothing business manager Carol Bennett, left, and owner Melissa Williams-Lamb, at the Napier-based head office.
LOCAL AND PROUD: Kilt Clothing business manager Carol Bennett, left, and owner Melissa Williams-Lamb, at the Napier-based head office.

Designer Melissa Williams-Lamb has her feet firmly planted on home soil and is adamant her garments will always be made by New Zealand hands.

The locally-made ethos is what attracts many women to buy and wear Kilt designs. And it's kept the business steady during some shaky times in the fashion industry.

A recent survey revealed 97 per cent of their customers considered buying locally when choosing where to shop, business manager Carol Bennett said.

The Kilt team listen to their customers in-store and comments posted on their Facebook page.

If customers keep saying that a particular dress is too long or should come in a different colour the Napier-based design team may make a few alterations and re-release the dress.

"It allows us to react to the market quickly," Bennett said.

It also ensures the quality of the garments made. Smaller lines are made by the four-person design team while larger runs are contracted out to New Zealand dressmaking factories.

To further promote their locally-made garments Kilt created New Zealand Made March, encouraging their customers and staff to try and restrict their buying to local products for the month.

"We make really good clothes here, it's sad that more people don't get clothes made here," Williams-Lamb said.

But local designers have found it hard to compete with growing international competition in recent years.

Kilt uses a different business model which Williams-Lamb said worked well for them.

They do not release collections or seasons. Instead, the design team at Kilt aims for a new item every week.

It keeps shopping exciting for the customer and gives the designers more freedom to try their ideas.

Thirteen of the 50 Kilt staff work at the Napier head office.

Kilt was born out of Williams-Lamb's home back in 2000. She managed the Wellington Paris Texas store during the day while creating garments "to fit New Zealand women really" in the evening.

She approached her employers about selling her clothing in-store and used customers' feedback to keep improving the garments.

In 2003 Williams-Lamb returned to her home town of Palmerston North and opened up her first store. It offered lower overheads, lower rents and family support.

She moved back in with her parents for a short time and worked two full-time jobs to prevent taking out a loan.

"It's such a gamble and I didn't know if it was going to go well," she said.

"We worked out that if we sold one pair of pants a week it would cover the rent . . . but then on the opening day we had a massive line out the front."

Money was tight while the brand found its feet. Fabric needed to be bought and Williams-Lamb needed to contract out the growing workload. The extra cash from wholesaling to Paris Texas helped keep them afloat in the early days.

A year later a second store opened in Napier. It seemed like "a nice place" to expand the business for someone who didn't want to live in Palmerston North "forever", she said. In seven years, 10 stores opened around the country.

"We've been really sensible about it and asked our customers where they want us. We haven't had any financial backing so it's just been about us growing when we can afford to grow."

With business ticking along nicely, the team are looking at opening another store in Dunedin in the coming year.

The Dominion Post