New life for homegrown Kiwi clothing firms

STUFF
Kiwi workwear firms Cactus Outdoor and Albion Clothing are merging.

The purchase by Cactus Outdoor of Albion Clothing means the companies will have new investment for growth and manufacturing skills will be retained in New Zealand.

Majority shareholder and director of Cactus Outdoor, Ben Kepes, said the purchase gave sufficient scale and technology to grow the companies.

Christchurch-based Kepes said they were able to compete against cheap imports because of growing demand for locally and "ethically" manufactured apparel, and he already had significant interest from other brands looking to return all or part of their manufacturing here.

Cactus Outdoor machinists such as Patti Suthaspaporn have a more secure future after the purchase of Albion Clothing.
SUPPLIED
Cactus Outdoor machinists such as Patti Suthaspaporn have a more secure future after the purchase of Albion Clothing.

"There's a new wave of awareness and an increasing focus on social benefits in local manufacturing," Kepes said.

READ MORE:
Kiwi trio aim to make hemp apparel mainstream fashion 
Sustainable clothing store defies fast-fashion
The innovators driving New Zealand's slow-fashion revolution

An advantage for Cactus was its vertical integration - its employees designed and made garments, with about 80 per cent of product sold within New Zealand, and much of it from its shops in Thorndon Quay, Wellington, and in Fitzgerald Ave in Christchurch where both companies originated.

One of Albion's strengths was the contracts it had to supply the police and fire service and similar organisations overseas - it was one of the few remaining large-scale apparel manufacturers in New Zealand.

Both companies have a reputation for making some of the toughest workwear and outdoor products. One of Albions clothing brands was Dual.

"Albion has a big industrial business-to-business base we want to keep."

Kepes said many of the 100 workers were being paid the living wage, and they had diverse backgrounds.

"I'm a first generation child of refugees. My dad was Hungarian. So if we can play a small part in helping them step up that's awesome," Kepes said.

Seamstress Marama Wilson said she had been in the industry for about 20 years, punctuated by some years when she helped run a pub owned by her husband.

"We have a good bunch of women and we teach each other things. The skills level is pretty high. At the moment we've got four projects going among eight seamstresses.

"But we've had people come in with no experience. Or sometimes they have the experience and just need some knowledge.

Christchurch businessman, entrepreneur and tech commentator Ben Kepes has merged two Kiwi apparel manufacturers.
SUPPLIED
Christchurch businessman, entrepreneur and tech commentator Ben Kepes has merged two Kiwi apparel manufacturers.

​"I get a kick out of reading online feedback from customers who talk about how long their garments last," Wilson said.

Ron Ching, a supervisor, said there was renewed focus on locally-made clothing. The purchase by Cactus secured Albion's long term future with a new owner with fresh ideas, he said. 

"It's good for younger employees because they can see a future," Ching said.

Albion's founder in 1977, George Steele, died a few years ago and Kepes said he wanted to keep alive his legacy.

The Cactus Outdoor livery and clothing shop in Christchurch.
SUPPLIED
The Cactus Outdoor livery and clothing shop in Christchurch.

"We're committed to investing a seven figure sum to grow the business. We'll continue to operate them as two separate businesses," Kepes said.

"We already had a 20-year relationship with Albion. We've been staunch advocates of local manufacturing in spite of the reducing size of the domestic apparel sector," Kepes said.

Market trends, technological developments and a consumer focus on provenance were helping to retain domestic manufacturing, Kepes said.

Cactus, which has 20 staff in Christchurch, also offered contract manufacturing to other brands that wanted to offer their customers locally sourced and "ethically produced artisan" products.

A recently installed robotic fabric cutter was an example quicker, more efficient and safer cutting, he said.

Cactus Outdoor was established 26 years ago.

Ryan Jennings, executive director of Buy NZ Made said that the Cactus purchase of Albion was a clear win for New Zealand in hyper-competitive industries.

Stuff