Hey, gidday mates! While I was in New Zealand recently I sat down to chat business with my old friend Harry Were, who is one truly talented individual. I first met Harry in Auckland in 2007, but we became close friends a couple of years later when I was traveling to Paris regularly for the men’s shows, and she was working as an au pair for a tyrannical Parisian. (We bonded over being sad loners in a beautiful city.) Over the last couple of years, she’s made a name for herself designing incredible hand-knitted sweaters, and despite her painstakingly slow-fashion approach, her work is so popular that she manages to sell out of each piece almost immediately. Below, we talk the dilemmas associated with a business that relies on human-labor in the form of retired ladies, and more.
How do you find these ladies who knit for you?
I place ads in newspapers in small towns where there are lots of retired people, and I usually get a few callbacks. The difficult bit is finding people who can knit very neatly and who can finish things quite quickly (I mean within a couple of weeks rather than a couple of months). The ladies who knit for me are all so sweet, and have a sense of humor which is nice. The whole process is quite slow… From the design, pattern making and adjusting, to the yarn selection, and either posting it to the knitters or delivering it. One jumper takes a lot of time. Some of the jumpers take over 40 hours of knitting, which is why they cost as much as they do. People don’t realize how long it takes if they’ve never knitted before.
It’s the absolute opposite of fast fashion!
Yeah. It’s very slow.
What are the difficulties of operating a company that deals with a product as labor-intensive as hand knitted sweaters?
It’s pretty hard because the older knitters are getting older. The pay is difficult too. I pay per garment as opposed to hourly. If I paid my knitters hourly nobody could afford the end product. Everyone’s knitting style is different, too, so I have one knitter on each product. I tried giving a jumper pattern to four different ladies so I could get them faster, but they all came back looking completely different. So that was tricky, and I guess because it’s people (instead of machines) knitting my things, it takes a lot of time. Even when I go and drop off the wool and everything I spend a lot of time drinking cups of tea and talking to them. The relationships I have with the people who knit for me are very important.
Do you think people care about the fact that something is handmade and that it took a real, live, person 40-plus hours to make?
Probably now more-so than five years ago, but the average person probably doesn’t care, they just look at the price tag, which is sad. And that’s why people like me can’t pay people hourly to do this kind of work, because everybody’s so used to paying $50 for something from a fast fashion company.
But on the plus side, you have a big Instagram audience, and your stuff sells out pretty fricken quickly, right?
Yeah, it’s been selling out. Not immediately though!
That’s pretty cool!
Yeah, it’s pretty cool (laughs).
So it takes a long time to produce, but a short time to sell.
Any plans for world domination?
No, I don’t want to dominate the world. I would like to live overseas again and learn from people that I really admire. New Zealand inspires me, but there’s something about being in different countries and cultures. It really stimulates me and I learn a lot from people.
The first time I interviewed you was about five years ago when you were working as a nanny for a horrible woman in Paris. What did you learn from that experience?
Not to be a nanny in Paris! I do think about that sometimes. It was quite traumatic, but it was a learning experience at the same time. I wouldn’t want to do that again or for anybody else to go through what I went through. I did love the kids, though.
I’ve often found that I’m the most creative when I’m going through personal hardship. I’m not necessarily the most efficient or anything like that, but I have some good ideas.
When I was there in Paris in that little room I did have heaps of creative ideas, but it was frustrating because I had no money to create the ideas that were coming out of my head. So I used to write these long emails, I’ve never written before in my life. When I read them now they don’t sound like me, but that’s how I was releasing my creativity I think.
Do you have a constant stream of ideas?
Yes. Mainly clothing or textiles. More recently I’ve had ideas for objects – useful ones.
Are they all good?
No. That’s the one advantage of not having much money I guess — I can sit on an idea. If I had the money to do it all, I’d probably make all this stuff and some of it would be average. My Dad gave me a loan of $2000 to start off with my knits, I’ve used that money to produce the first lot of knits. Because the cost price is high, I then have to wait for things to sell, so it’s good that they’ve sold so far. Now I can produce more. I don’t have lots of funds just sitting there.
It’s not a growth business model in the long term is it.
But with investment and a business plan and maybe some machine knits in the mix who knows what you might be able to do.
Yeah. We might be able to do something (laughs).
Watch this space!
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