‘We call ourselves slow-fast fashion’. Ellen Falconer meets the young label working across hemispheres and subverting the traditional Fashion Week model.
On a yacht moored in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour last Wednesday, a crowd of 50 fashionistas sipped gin cocktails and slipped their feet into towelling slides with the words ‘oh hej’ stitched across the top.
It had been raining all morning but the clouds parted as young linen label Hej Hej showcased its Spring ‘18 collection, ‘Cruise Control’, and made its Fashion Week debut. The clothing the models wore – relaxed, classic summery styles in white, pink, red and a nautical stripe, perfect for throwing on when the weather is too hot to think too hard about these things – was available to purchase the very next day at a pop-up store on Ponsonby Road.
So far so Fashion Week. But Hej Hej’s route into the fashion industry has been far from traditional.
Hej Hej (an informal Swedish greeting pronounced ‘hey hey’) was started by friends Kiki Judd and Alice Isles who met while studying in Dunedin. They got the idea of launching something together when they were both overseas – Isles in Hong Kong, Judd in Taipei – but it wasn’t until Judd moved to Shanghai and was making the most of the tailoring services at the local markets that they decided to set up a label of their own, utilising Isles’ background in fashion.
They created an Instagram account early, recognising the potential of the photo-sharing platform to reach their desired customer base. And while still in their first year in business, Judd and Isles made the bold move to use the industry’s biggest annual outing, Fashion Week, as a means of getting their name out there and meeting media and influencers rather than potential stockists.
The decision to focus on online sales instead of wholesaling was one they settled on at the beginning, Isles says. “We wanted to be exclusively online and that was something that we thought was new and different and the way that retail is moving.”
“We’re not closing doors to [wholesaling], but while we’re finding our feet and creating the brand, we’re holding the brand close to ourselves.”
In the same way that they design the clothes they themselves would wear, Judd and Isles approached their Instagram strategy from the perspective of their own use.
“We both like to look at brands on Instagram and explore and find new things and new people in all sorts of areas, so naturally we were probably drawn to that because of it, because it’s something that we were already using as a source of information,” Isles says.
“[That’s] especially [true for] finding small brands, because they’re never going to be at the top of a Google search and you’re not just going to come across them in a shopping mall,” Judd adds.
According to Isles, Instagram has been hugely important to building the Hej Hej brand, and is the most common way people have found them. When the doors to their four-day pop-up store opened last week, repeat customers were already waiting to see the new collection in person.
Hej Hej attributes its reasonably accessible price points (about $120 for a top or trousers; $220 for a dress or jumpsuit) to the fact that they are selling directly to customers themselves.
“There is no middle man. We are the middle man, so we go direct from supplier to customer and being in China as well means we can access all of the fabrics and everything there,” Judd says.
Judd and Isles also want Hej Hej to be known for providing good customer service, and pride themselves on their availability and responding quickly to messages.
“[Customers] have a relationship with us,” says Isles. “The pop-ups are great because you get to meet people in person, but we want people to feel like they are still getting a really great experience, even though it is just online.”
They have made good use of Instagram’s polling function, asking customers to vote on which colour they prefer, and factoring that into their design decisions.
“There’s a dress called the Eat, Sleep, Repeat dress that’s in indigo,” says Isles. “We cut that in our first season in two colours, ginger and pink, and it was one of those dresses that people continuously asked us, ‘Will you cut it again in this colour?’ or ‘Will you do it again in another colour?’ and that we did because we had so much feedback and we were like ‘cool, let’s do it in indigo and give it a go’.”
The indigo Eat, Sleep, Repeat dress was a big seller over the four days of the pop-up.
Using Instagram as their main selling vehicle has proven to be a wise financial decision for the new business.
“We’ve got no massive overheads at the moment because we don’t have any bricks and mortar shops,” says Isles, “and that’s a huge savings when you’re starting out. And it’s a fast marketing plan, isn’t it? You can get to your customer quicker.”
In part to keep their Instagram feed fresh for their followers, they release four collections a year, and it takes three months “from woah to go” to produce them.
“We call ourselves slow-fast fashion. We’re not like Zara or H&M, but our timelines are short and we’re really lucky we can be adaptable and work with our suppliers really closely and get things quite quickly.”
The short timeframe also means there is little room for production errors, but it works because they have found fabric suppliers and garment technicians they know are good, Judd says.
They have written up an ethical code of conduct for their suppliers outlining their requirements for fair and safe working conditions and it’s up to Shanghai-based Judd to ensure these standards are met.
When asked if their customers care about Hej Hej’s garments being made in China, Isles says it’s usually the first question they get, but that people seem to be more interested in their international business.
“We’re pretty open that all of our stuff is made in China,” says Judd, “and because I’m on the ground there I get to go and meet with people quite easily, which is a bit of a luxury in this industry.”
“It’s always a work in progress, but it’s something we committed to being responsible with, how we grow our company.”
“We’re a tiny company,” Isles adds. “I think people envision China as everything being in huuuge factories, but we’re working with a really small cottage industry, and talented people.”
As for how their business is conducted across hemispheres, the pair says they talk every day, and use WeChat, Facetime, Google Drive – “all the usual stuff”. Judd comes back to New Zealand every three months, and Isles makes the occasional trip to Shanghai too.
“Alice can start something in the morning New Zealand time and I can finish it in my time in China, so we actually think it works to our advantage in many ways. Although we’d like to be in the same place – and maybe one day we will be – for now I think it works quite well.”
For Hej Hej, opting to show and sell the spring collection during New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) paid off. It proved to them that trusting your instincts and doing something different is the right choice, Isles says. Despite not following the standard model, NZFW was hugely supportive of their decision and held their hand through the process.
NZFW’s business development manager Janey Evett says the organisation continues to evolve to try to meet the needs of the industry.
“The role of New Zealand Fashion Week is to provide the most relevant platform for the industry on which to grow their business,” she says.
“We were really proud to be able to help Kiki and Alice create their own special moment at the event. We know they have seen a huge increase in brand awareness as a result and they did have some buyers both local and international attend the show, which may provide commercial benefits down the track.”
Judd says it was important to be there representing the label, rather than trying to fit the brand into any preconceived notions of what a Fashion Week show should look like.
For now, it looks like plain sailing for the friends as they start working on the summer collection.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.