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Sweet Cybèle

With daring slashes and loud inserts‚ Cybèle Wiren’s clothes aren’t exactly polite. But their creator most certainly is. And as our latest export winner‚ that could be a very good thing. By Gena Tuffery

Magazine layout

Photograph by Andrew Smith

With daring slashes and loud inserts‚ Cybèle Wiren’s clothes aren’t exactly polite. But their creator most certainly is. And as our latest export winner‚ that could be a very good thing. By Gena Tuffery

Sitting across from me in the Air New Zealand Fashion Week Lounge is one of those interchangeable soap star faces. Which is apparently all you need to give a qualified opinion on New Zealand fashion.

“Deborah Sweeney did a good show,” the voice of many a voiceover tells an interviewer. “And Cybèle. But of course she did, she’s an over-achiever.”

Sitting on an oversized beanbag waiting for Cybèle Wiren, I read over her list of over-achievements. Most recently, Air New Zealand Fashion Export Awards 2008 winner of the Development category—a loud vote of confidence given the objective of increasing the country’s overall exports.

Then there are the five Fashion Week shows in six years of label life. Two Australian ones, too. A couple of invited guest shows in Japan and China. Exports to Australia, Dubai, Japan and, as of a week before this Fashion Week, Hong Kong.

Deep breath.

Export sales have doubled in the last year. Premises have moved and enlarged from Avondale to K Road. Yes, it would seem that Cybèle—both label and Wiren—are doing all right.

Still, the designer’s not a kid. In fact, in December the 32-year-old will have one of her own. But you need to be a grown-up to make Japan your fastest-growing export market—the power of Harajuku hankerings can’t be denied, and nor can designer diplomacy.

Wiren plays the diplomat well. After slowly quick-sanding into the beanbag beside me, she even gives a demonstration. We’re discussing the last-gasp—five hours before showtime—addition of panel-patched leggings to yesterday’s show, when the ubiquitous Kiwi actress calls across the table.

“Yeah, what’s with the leggings?” she wants to know. “How long are they going to go hang around for?”

“What else is there?” Wiren asks politely.

“Some tailoring?”

Sweet, silent smile.

Wiren is not here to make enemies, not here to stir controversy either, even when talking about New Zealand’s most controversial designer, Lucie Boshier. Although distracted by Boshier’s show on the plasma screens wallpapering the Air New Zealand Lounge, Wiren’s not that distracted. “That’s outrageous,” she comments as human birds of paradise stalk down Boshier’s runway.

“Outrageous good or bad?” I ask.

“Outrageously outrageous.”

Yes, our latest export awards winner could well be our most tactful. But when you live in a country with a Minister of Foreign Affairs known to say things like “We place our country at risk by bringing in thousands of people whose views are formed by alien cultures,” maybe you should be glad.

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I started making things and approached a couple of stores. Getting the order was the impetus to go and make that order—you wouldn’t really do it otherwise. Then their deadlines become your deadlines. Then you get your Cybèle labels woven. And then you know it’s serious

If Wiren has anything to teach Winston about doing business in a country where professional courtships often outlast private marriages, it’s this: get support on the ground. “Each market needs a solid plan and solid representation,” says Wiren. “It’s important to get people who understand your brand to represent you.”

And you can’t just leave them to it and phone in every now and then. “The visiting is important,” she reckons. “Even more so in Asia. But because we’re so far away it can be hard to do.”

Enter the export Development award and its $15,000 travel prize. With Cybèle called out alongside long-time exporter NOM*D, the winner of the Growth category at this year’s awards, and following previous big-name winners like Kate Sylvester and Karen Walker, the prize is a good indicator that Cybèle will go far in more ways than one.

Pieter Stewart, managing director of Fashion Week and one of the Export Awards judges, thinks so anyway. Stewart says there are many reasons why Cybèle won. For example? “Steady and focused growth since she began, and a sound business structure and promotional strategy.

“Throughout Air New Zealand Fashion Week she has retained an agent to move into the Asian and Middle Eastern regions. There is also strong interest in her brand in the US, so this export award should help springboard her into these markets.”

That’s the plan. In addition to a scouting mission to New York Fashion Week and its satellite trade shows, there’s a scheduled Cybèle Week Out to Tokyo, with tickets to the promotional fun ride. “We want to form closer relationships with retailers and media as well as expand our customer base,” says Emma Hayes, Cybèle’s business and creative operations manager.

At least they don’t have to worry about brand recognition—it’s not just Japanese businessmen who like a bit of Cybèle. The international media is quite partial to the label as well.

While I presume Wiren doesn’t answer all controversial commentary with sweet silent smiles, it’s still fortunate that most doesn’t need answering. Comments like “One of the country’s most fêted new labels” (JC Report), for example, “It’s the sort of stuff Debbie Harry would be proud to rock” (Nylon) and “Worn by Kate Hudson” tend to speak for themselves.

Cybèle’s quite popular in Enzed as well, despite her lavish use of—another deep breath, please—colour. “The fashion industry attracts people who are bursting with their own sense of self-importance,” says NO magazine’s creative director, Delaney Tabron. “But if fashion wankers are at one end of the continuum, then Cybèle is at the other. Her work is timeless and conceptual, it makes even the most hardened fashion critic feel like a million bucks—and that’s why she got really big, really fast. She just seemed to appear from nowhere.”

Well, not nowhere: Colville, Coromandel. From a block of land featuring those two great creativity sparkers, no TV and no electricity. Here, Wiren released her first line: a range of woven car hangings sold in the local gallery.

Having a weaver for a father helped. Wiren’s dad ran a successful textile business from home in the 70s, using the big copper in the backyard and three large wooden looms to hand-dye, spin and weave textiles and blankets for export to Japan and America.

Having a mother who could tread a treadle sewing machine didn’t hurt either. After learning to sew and read patterns, Wiren was soon wearing her own complete outfits to primary school. Anything weird? “They’d all be weird now.”

Many Wirens are still walking the streets of Colville. Are they doing it in the slashed sleeves and bird-splayed skin-tight dresses from the latest Halcyon collection? “Not in huge numbers,” Wiren admits. “But my mum wears my stuff sometimes.”

Although that sounds like a small thing, there’s nothing inconsequential about getting people from different generations into the same gear. The impetus could be this: fashion has demographics, art does not. And since the Fly Now range of 2006–07, Cybèle fabrics have been fully framable.

“We design from the ground up now,” says Wiren, who sees her comprehensive creative process as a practicality. “When you get to be a certain-sized business you don’t want your brand to be sharing textiles.”

If fashion wankers are at one end of the continuum, then Cybèle is at the other. Her work is timeless and conceptual, it makes even the most hardened fashion critic feel like a million bucks—and that’s why she got really big, really fast. She just seemed to appear from nowhere

That size would be five full-time staff, plus a warehouse worth of outsourcees who “feel like family”. Although Wiren still does her own New Zealand sales over the workbench with Hayes, they’re leaning on a different bit of wood from the one they leaned on a year ago. For five years the Cybèle team worked from Wiren’s basement, an area that’s “big for a basement but small for a fashion headquarters”.

“It’s nice to have the separation now,” says Wiren. “It means my staff aren’t living there. It means the business can grow bigger.”

It’s time. Cybèle The Business has taken its baby steps. “Each small success was built on another small success,” says the designer. “I started making things and approached a couple of stores. Getting the order was the impetus to go and make that order—you wouldn’t really do it otherwise. Then their deadlines become your deadlines. Then you go and get your Cybèle labels woven. And then you know it’s serious.”

Seeking advice from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise tends to sober up the mood a bit too. NZTE helped fund and set up business development workshops through WHK Gosling Chapman, and one-on-one workshops with mentor Dianne Ludwig.

But there was one marketing tip Wiren didn’t need to be taught: there’s no better way to represent your clothing range than to wear it yourself. “I wear all my own clothes,” she says. “I don’t know why I’d wear anyone else’s. I want to represent what I do and it’s easy because I only make what I love.”

Including those last-minute panel-patched leggings. What’s with them, again? “There’s a diversity of opinion out there and I support that,” says Cybèle The Diplomat.

Meanwhile, Simply You editor Bridget Hope reports in the New Zealand Herald’s Fashion Week wrap-up: “Best buy: Cybèle’s multi-panel duo fabric leggings. A new take on what has become a wardrobe staple.”

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