Teen model, magazine publisher, fashionista . . . Paula Ryan is the last word on New Zealand chic. She tells Kim Knight why she's now teaming up with Kylie Bax.
The mangrove swamp outside Paula Ryan's office has gone monochromatic silver in the thin winter sun. Even the universe is complying with the dress code.
Ryan is the fashionista synonymous with block colours, basic essentials and single-syllable descriptors. Black and white; style and chic.
At 65, she is not about to reinvent herself - but she has commandeered fresh blood, with the announcement of former Kiwi supermodel Kylie Bax as the first "face of Paula Ryan".
And that's what Ryan would like to talk about today. How Bax's agent approached her and why she fits the brand, how much Bax reminds her of her own daughter and how the model would like, one day, to design something quite clever like a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress.
But it's seven years since Ryan's last big sit-down interview. She is now officially old enough to collect the pension; to qualify for a free Super Gold Card coffee at McDonald's. Ryan was the founder of Fashion Quarterly, her eponymous label, and a second magazine, Simply You. She toured the country touting her minimalist elegance at sellout seminars and was famous for a second wedding where all the guests were instructed to wear white.
Her business nous has been lauded - the magazines were sold at the height of their respective successes; that second husband, handily, had a background in clothing and now does chief executive duties for the company. And Ryan? What's life like for the woman once labelled the patron saint of fashion victims? What's it like to be growing older in an industry where everyone wants to be ageless?
"Everybody has a number," says Ryan. "An extinction number. And I have no idea what mine is. My mother's was 94, but I think she lived a healthier life than I do. Their G and T's in the evening were pretty much it. So, yes, I have no idea what my number is, and, whatever, you know?"
In a meeting room that belies its industrial Avondale, Auckland, setting, Ryan sits on a Perspex chair at a Perspex table and lets her coffee go cold in a Perspex cup. Drive past the Tyres 4 U and office furniture supply warehouses and press the buzzer to a world of cowhide floor coverings, white orchids and larger-than-life photos of Bax modelling Ryan's summer collection.
It's a glamorous marriage of two provincial girls made good. Ryan is the rural Cantabrian who began building her empire in the heady 80s when cigarette companies still sponsored fashion design competitions.
Bax, 39, is from horsey Waikato stock. Born in Thames, her curriculum vitae runs to Armani, Vuitton, Versace, et al. A few months ago, in a secret shoot with former Australian Olympic swimmer-turned-photographer Simon Upton, she posed on the Coromandel, at Matarangi Beach, where Ryan "goes for weekends".
The contrast, Ryan insists, is huge. Here, in the office, she wears Prada wedged sneakers that a quick Google check reveals cost about $800 new.
At the beach, she insists, "There's the ‘no makeup Paula', wearing a man's shirt and a pair of leggings and bare feet."
Ryan is not retired but neither, she says, is she in the office every day.
"There are people who may say I'm not easy to work for . . . I've always believed in hiring people who are better than you at various roles and praising them for their contribution. I just leave them and trust them, and my expectations have always been quite high."
At least some of that preceding sentence is true. In 2004, Ryan's trust was broken by a conman who fleeced her for $300,000. "But I learnt from that too."
The two most difficult times in her life, she says, were her divorce from first husband (Don Hope) and "having a really respected employee . . . stealing money that I had put aside".
The cash was intended for the launch of Simply You.
"And he took the lot . . . I could have been signing bills to pay an American Express card off, not knowing it was paying his off."
She spent big on lawyers "to ensure he didn't do it to someone else . . . he ended up in prison".
Ryan might have become an actor. She won all the drama prizes at school but says she didn't know where to go for further training, so pursued a career in graphic design.
"You do shorthand," she says, looking across the table. "I started with letraset!"
She modelled part-time, doing occasional jobs for a photographer who nicknamed her Turnips, on account of her country upbringing. One stint, as the poster girl for an NZ Breweries Bavarian beer, paid $100 an hour. In 1970, she says, "that was an insane amount of money".
"All I had to do was wear my hair long, wear the outfit and go to these functions. And then as soon as people started drinking too much, someone would collect me and I was gone."
Fast forward: She won a trip to Europe as Miss Racing New Zealand (she was a last-minute ring-in when the Canterbury club realised it had forgotten to hold a regional competition). She watched the moon landing from a sleeping bag in front of a giant television screen in Trafalgar Square. She worked as a house model for a large London department store and, media clippings record, returned to New Zealand in 1974. Don Hope, her first husband, was in advertising. The pair hit on the idea of a colour fashion brochure delivered first in Christchurch, then to other major centres. As she told one journalist: "It was a licence to print money."
The publication became Fashion Quarterly - at one point, it reportedly sold more copies per capita than the French Marie Claire. She did some promotional work for New Zealand Merino and garment manufacturer Lane Walker Rudkin asked her to put her name to a range of high-quality "essential" items made from the locally milled product. When the company was asset-stripped, Ryan took back her intellectual property.
There are now about 200 pieces in the Paula Ryan collection - 70 per cent are black; 100 per cent are individually checked on a lightbox to ensure no fabric or construction faults. As long as they are hand washed, the "essentials" part of the collection, she says, should last 10 years apiece.
"Men buy clothes out of necessity," says Ryan. "For women, it's a hobby. Women have no fresh air in their wardrobes. We could take a lesson from men, in terms of they only own what they need. We own that and the rest. Much of what we have are mistakes, or impulse purchases that have no part in a wardrobe at all."
Ryan donates her excess to charity. "Sometimes, you might have to cut the label off. I might have the odd purchase that I've bought in an outlet store. It's a Valentino or a Prada or something that I got at 90 per cent off the last sale price, and if you leave Prada on it . . ."
Well, she explains, that could be intimidating for a potential purchaser.
There are rules to the Ryan wardrobe. She favours monochrome. If forced to wear a colour, what would she choose? "Sand." Denim is workwear only. "A lot of people wear denim and they have no idea what they look like from behind . . ."
And only the young, says Ryan, can get away with badly made garments.
"As you get older, you don't have the body you had. Without question, unless you've tampered with them, you've got wrinkles. They don't make you ill and nobody died of them, but you've got them. So clothes are less forgiving. If they are sharp and well cut and are of beautiful fabrics, you're going to look better when you enter a room." About 20 years ago, Ryan told Metro magazine "she might" consider a facelift at 60. Did she? She says she asked a "dear friend", a surgeon, for his opinion.
"He said, ‘if I was any woman, I'd never go under the knife unless I had to'. And that stuck with me, and as I get older, I realise how unimportant physical perfection is in the scheme of things. You don't think of your friends and family in those terms, do you?"
Ryan remarried in 2005. It was fortuitous, she says, because she had been wondering how to juggle the publishing and clothing companies and Rob Dallimore, a blind date set up by former All Black Peter Whiting and his wife, was in the garment industry.
"We both resisted for a long time. When you're single, and I'd been single for 16 years, people - friends - take it upon themselves to try and set you up. It's well meaning but not usually successful . . ."
Their first dinner was at Auckland's Cibo restaurant. It was not instantaneous or miraculous, says Ryan. "It was a relationship that calmly grew over a period of time."
So now Dallimore is the company CEO (on the morning of this interview, he's also the man charged with trying to get tickets to the upcoming Adam Lambert-fronted Queen concert) and Ryan is its creative director. She says she's not a designer - she magpies other people's ideas, working a collar spotted in a Vogue magazine onto a merino knit or simplifying the graphic from a T-shirt she spotted in Cambodia.
On the day of this interview, the label had just launched online into Singapore, and more Asian forays are planned. Merino is a mainstay but Ryan is also working with a local company that has developed one of the world's most exclusive luxury fabrics - cervelt - created from the natural down fibre collected from a deer's winter coat.
"New Zealand is a small country. We're miles from anywhere else so if we're offering something globally, we need to be offering something they can't get from anywhere else."
She says the addition of Bax to the team "is going to give the brand an injection of life for the younger market . . . we're not talking teenagers but that young woman who is getting into the corporate arena, she's finding her feet professionally, she's into simple but good quality."
It's the first time Bax has been so completely aligned with a local brand. "There isn't much more of an elite fashion label in New Zealand," she told the Sunday Star-Times last week, on a break from shooting Ryan's winter 2015 collection against a backdrop of expensive antiques in Grey Lynn, Auckland.
"I think she depicts who I am at the moment . . . a woman of the world, a businesswoman, a mother. I love fashion that makes sense."
Bax says New Zealand is a great place to raise her two children and a return to her home country was always in the grand plan. Recently separated from husband Spiros Poros, she says: "I just move forward. Moving forward is basically what I am doing. Moving in the right direction . . . it's an exciting time for me. I will be New Zealand based but I will take on the world . . . fashionably!"
- Sunday Star Times
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