Photographs by Stephen Goodenough
Talk about turning the corner: a major illness turned hairdresser Rebecca Herring into an artist and then a fashion designer. Amanda Cropp tracks her unexpected journey
Tiny, blonde and softly spoken, Rebecca Herring looks at risk of blowing away if she steps outside into the southerly blast pounding her Christchurch office with an unseasonable hail storm.
While there is some basis to that physical fragility, Herring's creative strengths have turned a painting hobby into Art Style, a fashion and homeware business that provides employment for 27 people, supplies 80 stockists nationwide and has Australian buyers knocking at the door.
Pretty impressive for someone who left school at 15, had no formal design training, no experience in the fashion industry and is by her own admission "no good with numbers".
Added to that, her foray into fashion came about through a near-fatal illness. Six years ago Herring was running a home-based hairdressing salon when she was diagnosed with a twisted bowel. "Only a very small percentage survive it," says Herring. "You generally only have eight hours to live, and it was three weeks before they operated on me, so it was a very scary time."
The 43-year-old began painting during her four-month convalescence. A visiting hair products supplier was so impressed that she helped place some of Herring's works in the Majuba Gallery in Hanmer Springs, where several pieces sold before the exhibition opened. Her hobby, it seemed, could become a business.
Herring came up with the name Art Style because she spent half her working week painting and the other half styling hair, but eventually a niggling back problem and a general loss of enthusiasm for her old trade was all the push she needed to become a full-time artist.
A cousin suggested she print motifs from her paintings onto t-shirts, and six weeks later her first chandelier design hit the shops. Herring practiced her screenprinting at home in the garage and laundry, while sister-in-law Shirl Taylor took over the spare bedroom to process and pack orders.
Fired by the popularity of those t-shirts and keen to try something new—"I get bored easily"—the label quickly expanded into a full fashion range. "I had a wardrobe full of clothes but I never had anything to wear, and I thought there was this huge gap in the market for garments to work together from season to season."
All those years listening to hairdressing clients provided plenty of inspiration. "It was the best source of knowledge I could have. For 23 years I listened to women telling me what they hated about their bodies, what they actually liked, and what they liked and didn't like showing off"
And all those years listening to hairdressing clients offloading their personal problems provided plenty of inspiration. "It was the best source of knowledge I could ever have. For 23 years I had listened to women telling me what they hated about their bodies, what they actually liked about their bodies, and what they liked and didn't like showing off."
When she was younger Herring sewed many of her own clothes, but these days she relies on a professional pattern maker to turn her sketches into garments with a style she describes as "vintage contemporary".
Her approach to clothing design owes a lot to her painting. "You're thinking of the application of colour, the techniques, the textures, the way it reflects back at you." She confesses to being very picky about colour and has been known to send samples of colours mixed up on her paint palette to her fabric dyers to ensure they produce just the right shade.
Much of her own art is now commissioned work, but it has had to take a bit of a back seat lately. "I used to paint four days a week; now I'm lucky to get one day a fortnight." Nevertheless a quick browse around the cramped company showroom demonstrates the close links between Herring's art and her clothing, jewellery and homeware. Crosses are a constant theme: "I always see a cross as a plus sign, a positive." And tea towels bearing images from her paintings are steady sellers. "If people can't afford a piece of art work, they can buy a tea towel. I don't want anybody to miss out if they want to buy a bit of inspiration."
The diamond pattern on a red merino-blend cardigan was lifted directly from a nearby painting of a deeply buttoned quilt: Herring simply sent a photocopy of the picture to the New Zealand mill that weaves her signature designs into jacquard fabrics and asked to have it reproduced.
Her design philosophy is to create pieces that can be mixed and matched from one season to the next. "You know what it's like when you go into a shop and you get totally overwhelmed. But if you can walk in and say, 'What's Art Style doing this collection? Great, this will work with this,' then they can go away without having spent a huge amount with something they know will keep working for them.
"I listen very closely to what my stockists are saying, what their customers are asking for, and what's going to sit well in their store."
Art Style jewellery designs echo the themes in each new clothing collection, and Herring's clever adjustable necklaces can also be worn as belts under the bust, at the waist or around the hips. Her experiments with resin have produced some interesting new techniques and textured effects, with bracelets made from lacey fabrics embedded in moulded resin.
Others have taken note. Art Style has already instigated legal action over a replica of its striped jacquard fabric. Herring may be a relative newcomer to the fashion scene, but she isn't about to roll over and let other players "with very deep pockets" swipe her work. "I don't mind hard work and I love seeing something through from concept to completion, but there are a lot of people who jump that and their look is very diluted. Every business needs a soul and the soul of Art Style is the artwork. It tells its own story and it's very distressing to have it copied. There are people in the industry who see a good idea and they just take it."
Herring may be a relative newcomer, but she isn't about to let others swipe her work. "I love seeing something through from concept to completion, but there are people who jump that and their look is very diluted. Every business needs a soul and the soul of Art Style is the artwork. It's very distressing to have it copied. There are people in the industry who see a good idea and they just take it"
She won't discuss the size of her business, either. "I don't want to draw too much attention, it's such a nasty industry." She prefers to fly under the radar, sharing a utilitarian tilt-slab building beside a suburban automotive repair shop with husband Mark's lighting business, and quietly doing her own thing. "I don't follow fashion, I follow passion."
Unlike many up-and-coming designers, she has no ambitions to show at Fashion Week. "Why would I want to spend all that money? I'd rather put it into my stockists and customers. I have great respect for all the designers that go, but it's not the Art Style way."
Nor does Art Style follow the customary practice of showing collections six to eight months before the season, taking orders, getting the garments made and then delivering them.
"Once it's delivered most stockists can't reorder. We're different. We don't indent and never have. We go in hard and fast about two months before winter is in store and show our range. We actually produce everything before it has been shown, so we take a huge gamble, but we can keep supplying our stockists throughout the season. So instead of putting an enormous amount of money into indent stock, they put a set amount into their original order and then feed off what works for their store.
"They can keep re-ordering, so we have anywhere from six to eight collections a year now because if we sell through, we're quick to market a new collection."
Herring is fiercely proud of the fact that all her products are made here, even though that has meant some sacrifices. For example, Art Style had to limit its linen range to pillowcases, because sheets could not be supplied locally at an affordable price.
But Herring is still not remotely tempted to outsource to China, pointing out that on top of Art Style's seven direct employees, the company generates work for another 20 contractors and outworkers. "People say, 'Why don't you go offshore?', but why would I? With the [current] economy it's hard to keep the price structure where it is, but I get a thrill seeing people in business, getting work and feeling valued. I'm not driven by the money."
Conscious of her relative beginner status in the industry, Herring makes a point of surrounding herself with people who have the skills she lacks. Her production manager has 23 years' experience in fashion and acts as a mentor, the in-house accountant is an ex-merchant banker, and Mark acts as a sounding board over business matters. "I'll never be good at numbers and I had to admit very early on with Art Style that I couldn't count."
Quite apart from the daily challenges of surviving in a highly competitive market amid a recession, Herring still has to watch her health, and although not exactly grateful for the illness that almost killed her, she does appreciate the changes it wrought in her life.
"A client said to me, 'Not everything bad comes to hurt us,' and she's so right. If I'd never had that massive detour, I'd never be doing what I am now."