The odd couple: Stefan Preston and Jyoti Morningstar

He took Bendon from a knickerwear manufacturer to a global lingerie brand; she holed up in a Wellington yoga studio before deciding it was time to join the ‘real world’. Felicity Monk asks how Stefan Preston made the leap from Stella McCartney to Jyoti Morningstar, and how Morningstar moved from teaching yoga to launching an ambitious fashion eco-label.

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Photograph by Chris Skelton

He took Bendon from a knickerwear manufacturer to a global lingerie brand; she holed up in a Wellington yoga studio before deciding it was time to join the ‘real world’. asks how Stefan Preston made the leap from Stella McCartney to Jyoti Morningstar, and how Morningstar moved from teaching yoga to launching an ambitious fashion eco-label

Fans of yoga clothing label We’ar may well have George W Bush to salute whenever they pull on a pair of its comfy cotton pants for a spot of downward dog. If not for the wily Bush’s resilience, Jyoti Morningstar might never have been motivated to found her boutique brand. In 2004, Morningstar was living in Wellington teaching yoga at her studio to like-minded souls when, within a matter of months, Bush, John Howard and Kerry Prendergast were all successfully re-elected.

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Shocked at this result—she had really believed the world was on the cusp of change—she decided to sell her studio and leave her “yoga bubble”. There was work to be done. “It made me realise the world was not as I thought it was,” Morningstar says. “I was really out of touch.”

Morningstar enrolled to do a Master of Arts in Development Studies at Auckland University but dropped out after a couple of months. She felt she needed to do work that was practical and hands on, something more immediate. “I wanted to set up a living thesis, a holistic business, to see if there was a way that I could bring the yogic principles of my own life into a business that would support the humans involved.” Morningstar set herself the task of creating a commercially viable clothing brand founded on core values of environmental sustainability, fair trade and, er, abundance. Huh? She firmly rejects the idea that being green means to go without. And if you do buy something, it shouldn’t have to be made “from scratchy hemp grown by some farmer out on the west coast. There is a hardship and a kind of scarcity associated with that. And it doesn’t actually align with my experience of nature, or of life, when it is working in a holistic way.”

Morningstar took her designs to Bali and began developing relationships with family-run production houses where she had the garments made. Using small production houses meant she could do limited runs, which suited her fledgling brand. It also enabled her to be in a position where she could observe first-hand the working conditions of employees. Morningstar would only deal with those who she knew paid the staff fair wages and provided good working conditions. Traceability would become a critical aspect of her business and she used organic cotton where she could.

In 2006, she launched We’ar (a wordplay on ‘we are’ and ‘wear’) and sold wholesale into selected stores in California, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada. It was a small operation but it was successful. Eventually she reached a point where she knew she needed to bring someone on board with a strong business background who could help further develop and grow the brand. The journey from her yoga bubble was leading her directly to the world of finance and big business.

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Icebreaker founder Jeremy Moon introduced Morningstar to Stefan Preston, the former chief executive of Bendon, who is now running his own business consultancy Ingenio. Preston was interested in working with small creative startup companies, though his priority was to take on projects that would allow him to spend time with his family.

Preston says he was immediately impressed with Morningstar’s authenticity and purpose, and shared her belief that eco-oriented businesses did not have to be sanctimonious and dull. “This is the great problem of eco-brands and why, I think, for the most part, they are really non-resonant and about as interesting as a bearded Coromandel farmer. The whole green movement is boring … why can’t an eco-business be about abundance and be sexy? I think that’s an interesting conversation.”

This is the great problem of eco-brands. The whole green movement is boring … why can’t an eco-business be about abundance and be sexy? I think that’s an interesting conversation

Preston borrowed books and learned about yoga. He was surprised to discover that it was more than simple poses and exercises—that it was a 30,000-year-old philosophy and a guide of how to live in the world. And it made sense. He believes the last 300 years has seen a departure from this yogic lifestyle and people have lived a greedy, wasteful existence assuming the world’s resources are infinite. “Now what we find is that our entire planet is basically a rubbish tip and that life is not sustainable. I think the principles that sit in yoga totally understand that in a non-dogmatic, non-religious, no-rules-based way. I think it is a very interesting foundation for a brand because it is way of being conscious from a planet and community perspective with abundance—and without telling people off. It’s a way of choosing to live a life that is better, more comfortable.”

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So last year Morningstar and Preston formed a joint venture and drew up a plan. They decided to pull back from wholesale and focus on retail. In February they launched online store and a concept store in Auckland, with Preston putting up the capital.

For Preston, We’ar is an experiment. He says it’s both “a passion project” and “a suicidal desire to be challenged” He points out that many aspects of the business are “extremely inefficient”, including operating out of Bali where deadlines are often viewed as guidelines. He also believes the nature of the brand does not lend itself to having a natural wholesale channel. “We’re probably doing a lot of stuff that I’m not 100 percent convinced of at times. But I think that’s part of the ride.

“When we worked on the commercial design it became clear to me that this wasn’t the most efficient business proposal I’d ever seen, and so I set about agreeing with myself that I would break the rules.”

And the pair were launching what is effectively a luxury brand in the midst of a troubled global economy. Preston knew he had his work cut out for him. His collaborators at Bendon were established names like Elle Macpherson and Stella McCartney. But the Stanford-educated businessman, responsible for almost doubling Bendon’s turnover during his five years in charge, is no gambling man—more of a calculated risk-taker. In addition to Ingenio, Preston serves on the advisory boards of Better By Design and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise’s Beachheads programme.

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Using his industry contacts, Preston gathered financial information from five successful New Zealand apparel startups that are now turning multimillion-dollar profits. He analysed each one and developed a range of “core truisms” for growing businesses from a small base. He says the biggest challenge is working out how to grow a business with a meaningful purpose—“there are truths in business that go beyond just the commerce”—in a way that doesn’t burn up capital.

“You often see with designers that they make a lot of bad decisions from a commercial perspective. If their business is successful, you find that the designer is being diluted out and is almost irrelevant to the business, which I don’t think is good because it is the designers who hold the truths of a brand.”

Ask Preston if he thinks We’ar will succeed and he is unequivocal. “There is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all. It’s just how much money it will take to succeed and that’s the bottom line really. It’s whether you are up for it if you need to be.”

The business partners are an odd pairing and happy to admit it. “Jyoti is pretty much everything I am not,” says Preston. “She is organic and I’m very structured.” But both say the relationship seems to be working. Together, Morningstar says, they cover many bases. “We are from such different backgrounds, so there is this lovely synergy which can come out of that where we can fill in each other’s gaps beautifully.”

Inevitably, the businessman and the yogic idealist sometimes collide. Conversations around the website content illustrate this perfectly. Morningstar wrote the copy. It is, in parts, esoteric, poetic and more than a little confusing. Mention this to the We’ar partners and it’s clear it has been a point of discussion. Preston refers to the site as one of their “yin–yang issues”. “Great communication is simple and we need to share our message with as many people as possible. So if we express ourselves awkwardly, or with words people don’t understand, or if they need to read certain books to appreciate it, it doesn’t make sense.” But this kind of tension in business, he admits, can be very positive. “That’s where the real creative ideas come out, in the tension and managing tension.”

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Morningstar describes their working relationship—and conflict—as a process of distillation. “You have to get right down to the core of the idea, of what you want the outcome to be,” she says. “With both of us being quite strong [personalities], not much gets through the gaps. And sometimes it results in hilarity and grumpiness.”

The two have big plans for We’ar. But all in good time. Both are committed to achieving careful, sustainable and measurable growth in a way that doesn’t compromise the brand’s core values. Says Preston: “Being patient and seeing how people react allows you to shape the brand in alignment with the discovery, rather than spending lots of money pushing it in a direction. Great brands are discovered.”

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