Starfish: An unexpected journey

Te Papa’s assistant archivist Gareth Watkins is going through Starfish’s archive, recently gifted to Te Papa. This final blog looks at the series of events that led to the fashion label’s closure in 2013.

The 2000s were a highpoint for Laurie Foon and the Starfish fashion label. In 2003 Laurie established the luxury label LAURIE FOON, there were showings at Australian Fashion Week, retail outlets were established in Christchurch and Auckland, Starfish was selling internationally, and the workroom was producing four unique collections a year.

Laurie Foon and Rena Kohere receiving the 2007 National Sustainable Business Awards

Digital copy of a photograph of Laurie Foon and Rena Kohere receiving the 2007 National Sustainable Business Awards, 2007. Starfish was the first fashion label to win a NZ Sustainable Business Award. Photographer unknown (CA001203/001/0001)

Changes in the industry

But, in 2007, at the same time that Laurie and Starfish were being widely applauded for environmentally sustainable practices and manufacturing locally, dramatic changes were taking place around them that would shrink the local clothing industry.

A moody photograph featuring a woman with a blue scarf tightly containing her hair and a dark dress walking through a desolate forest

Marketing image for the Grey Gardens (Winter 2007) Laurie Foon fashion collection, featuring the Fallen from Grace dress co-designed by Carleen Schollum. Courtesy of Starfish (CA001200/004/0004)

An internal Starfish memorandum from 2007 notes that:

“Many of our factories have lost 45% of their business to China. Some factories have gone from putting through 5000 units a week to 3000 units on a good week. Staff are leaving the industry for more reliable jobs where they are guaranteed full time work. Machining is also becoming a dying art, where in some factories the youngest staff member is 45.”

The memorandum goes on to note that 15 years ago, a local manufacturer had 180 staff and now they have only 30.

Canterbury earthquakes

Then came the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010/2011. Starfish Christchurch had moved from Manchester Street to Cashel Mall in 2009. At the time of the earthquakes the store amounted to a third of Starfish’s income.

The Cashel Mall store was so badly damaged that it had to close with staff being laid off a few weeks later. The emotional and financial toll was enormous.

The hardships culminated in 2013 when Starfish was placed into liquidation.

A Dominion Post report at the time quoted fellow designer Robyn Mathieson as saying, “It’s tougher than it has ever been. The issues that face us when we make locally is that we compete with Asian imports and online selling.”

Photograph of the inside of Starfish’s Wellington store, featuring a mid-century design and racks of clothing

Starfish’s Wellington store, November 2006. Courtesy of Grant Maiden Photography (CA001203/014/0004)

However Starfish wasn’t the only business casualty. A year earlier fashion designer Alexandra Owen closed her Wakefield Street store.

Owen told the Dominion Post, “I’ve tried to stay in Wellington, and New Zealand, and committed to using local suppliers for as long as I can but it’s been a challenge to make locally at a price that is competitive by the time it hits retail. There’s been a gutting of the independent boutique brands in the middle of the scale.”

Poignantly, Starfish’s last fashion collection was never fully realised. It was scheduled for the summer of 2013-2014 with a draft title of “In the (new) beginning”, but unfortunately the business had to close its doors partway through 2013.

The title of the fashion collection resonates strongly with me because I had my own ‘new beginning’ coming to Te Papa after my previous role was disestablished at another heritage institution.

To have to start your career afresh in middle age can be really challenging and so I drew strength from the way Laurie was able to move into another phase of her life post-Starfish (her passion for supporting sustainable business practices continues through her work at the Sustainable Business Network).

I also draw strength from the warmth and aroha that is displayed by the team at Te Papa, particularly archivist Jennifer Twist who enabled me to make a fresh start.

Close-up of a notebook with the words Remember this day written on it

Laurie Foon’s business notebook, about 1997. Photograph by Gareth Watkins. Te Papa (CA001202/002/0001)

As I end this journey with Starfish I am reminded of the importance of acknowledging the ending and beginning of things. I continue to be drawn back to a page in one of Laurie’s dairies with three simple but powerful words: ‘Remember This Day.’

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