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Creative cousins the Allisons keep it close to home

Cousins Celia and Caro Allison have a lot in common. A cartoonist and a fashion design respectively, they both trained at Wellington Polytechnic, live and work in Lyttelton, drive silver Toyota Caribs and are obsessive recyclers. But most of all, finds Amanda Cropp, they’re both deeply committed to keeping their products New Zealand-made

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Photographs by David Baird

The stairs leading up to Caro Allison’s Dual fashion label office are clad in damp denim and the designer jokes about her budget version of the red carpet treatment for visitors. However the fabric off-cuts provide a very effective non-slip surface on the wet steps and say a lot about her abhorrence of waste.

As further testimony, the factory bathroom is packed with about 100 plastic tubes from bolts of fabric—“We’re sending them back so they can be re-used”—and she was disappointed when a fabric recycler couldn’t take any more of her scraps.

Allison says sustainability is increasingly an issue with consumers and for a niche-market product like Dual, being locally made gives her a competitive edge. “If people are going to spend their hard-earned dollars, they want to feel good about what they’re spending it on, and the source is important.”

Machinists at Dual work in an old warehouse on Lyttelton’s Norwich Quay, and enjoy what is possibly one of the best factory views in the country. The company’s 13 staff members were given the option of relocating to an industrial estate closer to the city, but they preferred to continue commuting through the tunnel from Christchurch.

Last year Allison cemented her ties to the hip port town by opening a retail shop on site and the clientele is certainly very different to the patrons of her first shop in Cuba Street.

Back then, she and fellow Wellington Polytech fashion school graduate Robyn Matheson made studded leather mini-skirts, which proved irresistible to light-fingered transvestites. “They’d march into the shop in their high heels, just take everything off the racks and walk out without paying. We chained everything up and they still managed to take stuff.”

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Studded leather mini-skirts proved irresistible to light-fingered transvestites. ‘They’d march into the shop in high heels, just take everything off the racks and walk out without paying. We chained everything up and they still managed to take stuff’

Allison shifted to Lyttelton in the early 1990s, bought the cheapest cottage she could find near the business area and began making jeans. Customers would bring along dearly loved denims that were no longer in production and she’d recreate them.

As word of her hard-wearing denims spread, young skateboarders came knocking on her door requesting low-riding wide-leg skate pants. Allison’s resulting design, with a back yoke made from tough nylon fabric sourced from tent manufacturers, led to orders from chic city stores and the growing business took over her home.

“I had seven employees, and there was even a night shift. We started at 7am and went until 11 at night. They took over the living room and the bathroom being built downstairs. It got a little mad.”

So the move to Norwich Quay in 2003 was a sanity saver. By this stage Dual had morphed into a women’s label following an approach from Christchurch boutique Lynn Woods Studio, which wanted stylish, well-cut trousers for its female customers.

Allison was initially a bit sceptical about designing for such a different market. “I thought they were a bit old because I was used to dealing with 15- to 18-year-old kids. But as soon as I went to the shop and saw the calibre of their fabric and fashion, I went with them.” Caro’s label has since branched out into skirts, tops and coats, recently reintroduced menswear, and supplies 25 boutiques nationally as well as selling directly online.

Despite all this, Allison is still very much a pencil-and-paper gal. “I really don’t believe you can get good, upper-end tailoring on the computer, and if you do, you probably have to have used it for ten years, or you’ve started so young your mind is open to it.”

But she has embraced new technology in other ways, investing $45,000 in software that has dramatically reduced her workload. “The Gerber software enables me to do the grading between sizes in five minutes rather than eight months.” Sample paper patterns are digitised, and a plotter works out the most economical way of laying out the pattern pieces, minimising the amount of wastage (previously $400 to $600 worth of fabric a week).

Allison says this makes it economic for them to create one-offs ordered by customers who can choose the style and fabric of their garment. Moreover the turnaround time from concept to getting a new design onto the shelf is as little as ten days, something Allison says those manufacturing in China can’t match.

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Outsourcing was a complete disaster. You can’t keep control of the quality and inevitably it slips. I don’t want the stress. I realised if this was what it was like to outsource in Christchurch, what on earth was it going to be like in China?

While it’s now rare for a New Zealand fashion label to design and make its own garments in-house, Allison says it’s all about maintaining quality, and a brief foray into outsourcing locally was short-lived. “It was a complete disaster. You just can’t keep control of the quality and inevitably it slips. We had the owners in unpicking, and we were not that popular with them.

“It’s a lifestyle choice. I don’t want the stress. I realised if this was what it was like to outsource in Christchurch, what on earth was it going to be like in China?”

Even the packaging associated with manufacturing in China has given her reason enough to avoid going offshore. “You get this dress wrapped in plastic, on a plastic hanger in a polystyrene box like a coffin.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Allison’s cousin Celia, who she often bumps into while out and about. With her merchandise now selling in 250 stores in New Zealand and Australia and a big push into the UK market planned for this year, Celia Allison, creator of cartoon character Cecily and the Kiwiana-themed Moa Revival range of stationery, is sitting pretty in a glam studio overlooking Lyttelton port.

Her cartoons starring Cecily, the tertiary-educated, middle-class, thirtysomething single woman seeking a nice man, first appeared about ten years ago. They’re now syndicated in newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and published in two books.

As the name Cecily suggests, the character is vaguely autobiographical and, like her creator, has aged a little over the past decade, acquiring wrinkles and reading glasses. Allison says fans love that because most cartoon characters look the same year in, year out.

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When it comes to merchandise, Allison shows a definite preference for the practical over the ornamental, and was delighted when Cecily items made the finals in the kitchen section of the 2008 Australian Gift Awards.

Most of her products are made and printed locally, apart from the Cecily reading glasses and blank tea towels and t-shirts, which are imported from China. “I didn’t want to do things that are seriously rubbishy. I take the bus and try not to use my car, I’m an avid recycler, so to produce a whole lot of crap would seem wrong.”

Allison’s route to an artistic career was a roundabout one. She cut her teeth as a graphic designer laying out drivers’ licence questionnaires and brochures for the Ministry of Transport. It sounds a bit humdrum but Allison appreciated her public service experience. “I learned about taking a product from concept to finished result. Creatively I wasn’t terribly extended but it suited me really well.”

After completing a science degree, she headed off to Europe. In London Allison picked up some card designing but was depressingly unsuccessful at getting illustration work. “It was very competitive and soul-destroying and it knocked my confidence a bit.”

However, rubbing shoulders with self-employed creative types inspired a return home to do a diploma in design at Wellington Polytechnic and prompted her to compile a list of all the things she could make and sell. “So when I came back to New Zealand I was fired up with lots of ideas.”

Moa Revival was born. The detailed pencil drawings of flora and fauna reflect Allison’s love of tramping and the outdoors.

When it comes to marketing, Allison takes a ground-up approach. She throws parties where the guests (mostly women) wear cardboard Cecily glasses and get together for a few laughs, a few wines, and the chance to buy some Cecily merchandise.

Regular Cecily e-newsletters detailing developments in her love life are sent to several thousand subscribers along with special offers on ends of lines and gifts for those who recruit new members.

Early on, Allison traipsed the streets with a box of cards under her arm doing cold calls on retailers and that willingness to flog her stuff hasn’t faltered. “A lot of artists are a bit shy about selling their own work but it’s never worried me and I’m quite tenacious.” That tenacity, including her determination to outsource overseas as little as possible, has seen her through tough times. “My businesses, especially Moa Revival, did a real dive about five years ago and I thought I’d have to become a graphic designer again because the merchandise just wasn’t working. But there’s been a big swing towards buying New Zealand-made and my sales figures are better than they’ve ever been.”

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