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A safe space for men to go shopping.
A safe space for men to go shopping.

PartnersMarch 10, 2019

The revival of an NZ menswear icon

A safe space for men to go shopping.
A safe space for men to go shopping.

Barkers CEO Jamie Whiting writes about turning around an iconic NZ business – and a new mission to make it sustainable.

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine under the title The New Barkers

In 2008 it’s fair to say I was burnt out. I had started working at Hallensteins straight out of high school, and stayed for just shy of 20 years. In that time I’d had almost every job going, from retail to product across both Hallies and Glassons. We were on the cusp of a major push into Australia when the GFC hit, which scrambled planning for us as much as it did for everyone.

It seemed like a sign: take some time off and think about what you really want out of life. One day I walked into my boss’ office and resigned, without anything resembling a plan about what came next.

My wife and I had just had our first child, and after she was born we moved to Korea where we had relatives living. After a few months of idyllic family life and major culture shock I was offered a job at Max, the womenswear store. I wasn’t quite sure about getting straight back into apparel but I felt the urge to do something. I loved the brand, so I took it on. Around the same time I was asked to do some consulting for Barkers. It was almost 10 years ago as I write this that I first headed out to the company’s old head offices in Albany to sit in on a product review.

What I found wasn’t pretty. The colour, the style, the quality – it all felt tired and below where it should have been. I said as much and went on my way without a thought. So it was a surprise when, a couple of months later, I had a call from the Barkers ownership group asking if I would consider running the business.

I loved the job I had, but something about the opportunity was very compelling. I would take a shareholding, which had been on my list for whatever the next big challenge was. The brand was iconic, with a history as rich and renowned as any in New Zealand menswear. Most of all, there was a lot to do: I could see so much work that was screaming to be completed – hard work, but very fulfilling work too.

Most of all, the challenge of it appealed. I was a Barkers customer and fan, and the brand was always ahead of the curve, always had its own distinct feel. Everyone remembers the ’90s and the trackies (and we’ve just reissued a bunch of archive garments), but browse the catalogues from the ’80s and you’ll see amazing pastels and great shapes. Staff photos from the ’70s show a sense of swaggering style before New Zealand really had a menswear scene to speak of.

Vintage Barkers catalogue images

Yet since Ray Barker sold out in the early 2000s it had clearly lost its way. In the late 2000s garments were uninspired and fitouts incredibly bland. One thing it did have was some great people out in the shops, but the head office was a distant place which barely communicated with them.

I said yes, and set out on the biggest adventure of my life.

Almost immediately, I realised we were in deeper than I thought. The company had forgotten its past, even seemed embarrassed by it. It didn’t even sell the famous trackpants anymore. One of the first things I did was seek out Ray Barker, the founder and namesake, and spend time with him learning about how the brand was born. About the first shop on High Street in downtown Auckland. About the days when Mr Asia was one of his biggest customers and staff hung with the Doobie Brothers when they were on tour. Friday nights were huge for central city retail back then, and every one became a party.  

What we had been became the bedrock of what we would become. We moved our office from the suburbs to the city centre, a few hundred metres away from where it all began. The old silos were broken down, and a new team built out of true believers from the former business and new recruits who shared a sense of mission.

There was so much we wanted to do, but resources were extremely limited. The company was short of cash, to the point where some weeks it seemed like we would be able to pay staff or rent, but not both. Around that time I stopped taking a wage for a few months, trusting that the money would come back once we turned the ship around.

Given the financial constraints, our huge ambitions had to be shrunk to the available resources. The one thing we could control was product – the first true range we got to work on was Winter 2011. We rolled out better fabrics, slimmer cuts and brighter colours, and started to see things turn around. It was the first small validation that we were on the right track – but things were still perilously tight.

As that range was heading into stores, we made our first big strategic move. Mad Men had premiered a couple of years before, and the slim lapels and silhouettes of the ’60s Manhattan advertising world’s suits were starting to slip into view when we travelled to New York and London to seek inspiration. We made the decision to go all in, seeking out a new supplier of high quality, pure merino suits in striking cuts.

They landed in February 2012, and we saw an immediate result. Watching sales was almost like a speedo on a dashboard with the accelerator steadily depressing: they just magically lifted, and stayed there. Being in store, we saw a different kind of customer come in, the kind of person who would have naturally shopped at Barkers in the ’90s, but that we hadn’t seen for years. It was the first major signal we were on the right track.

At the same time we began a rolling rebrand, one which nodded at the past while looking to the future. We launched a print magazine, called 1972, the latest edition of which first published this story. Everything we could, we changed – the logo, the bags, the website, the swing-tags, the way we spoke to our customers. All painfully slowly, as time and money allowed, but every piece helped us move closer to the right direction. Every time a new product landed, with the new logo and new emphasis on style and quality, it felt great.

Despite the stirrings of momentum, we were still short on cash. This was a major barrier to the next item on the agenda: turning around our stores. Trying to find a way for them to match our new product was an inherently expensive exercise.

Opportunity knocked in Hamilton. Tainui had just built The Base – a big, striking mall on the outskirts of Hamilton. They saw what we were doing and wanted us in there, and we wanted to be there too.

The only catch was how to pay for a fitout. We settled on an amount which was generous from their side, but nowhere near enough to pay for a conventional store interior. Our workaround set the tone for much of the first few years: we got creative and made do with what we had.

Working off sketches from our design agency Switch and store designer Adrian Nanckevill, we made use of a bunch of recycled timber and interiors salvaged from dismantled New Zealand villas. We had staff raiding wrecker’s yards and second-hand stores, with the idea being to nod at an automotive theme, in tribute to both Hamilton’s petrolhead heritage, and Ray Barkers’ lifelong involvement with motor racing.

The budget was so tight that we had the senior executive down for the final push, double-bunked in motels and working 14 hour days on drills, hammers and paintbrushes. When ‘The Garage’, as we dubbed it, opened, the sense of achievement was overwhelming. The store was the first fully realised vision of what we wanted the brand to be.  

The idea took root: we would give every store its own unique identity, something which played on the geography and history of the area. There would be only good raw materials in there – no plastic or cheap imported fittings. We would work to find classic memorabilia and recondition old surfboards and pushbikes and guitar amps – whatever the theme was, we’d express it in the store.

Barkers High St was a milestone flagship when it opened

It made the fitouts that much more difficult, but far more meaningful to us. And to the customer: the new store in Hamilton traded above expectation from day one, providing further proof we were on the right track.

At the same time, we were working on rebuilding the product. When we began the new Barkers project, almost all the garments were sourced from New Zealand agents. Which is to say that they found factories in China to make our goods, and sold them to us.

This was a problem. It meant we were paying two sets of people, which inevitably compromised on quality. Worse, it meant we had no visibility on how the garments were made. This made me very uncomfortable, as I knew from experience that there were some first rate factories in China, which made quality garments in an ethical way. And some much less so. We decided we wanted to know more. To not just go to Hong Kong and find new, cheaper trade suppliers, but to mainland China – the world’s factory – and find the source.

This was far more easily said than done.

We were, comparatively, a tiny fish, from a tiny country. And we didn’t just want to buy from the manufacturers – we wanted to see how they worked, to walk the factory floor. The next few years were an endless battle, equally exhilarating and frustrating. We would make major breakthroughs, finding new places to make socks or shirts, while struggling mightily to get a t-shirt manufacturer we were happy with. Sometimes we would get somewhere great and they would laugh us out of the room because our orders were too small.

Other times we saw conditions which, while normal for China, weren’t where we wanted them to be.

Still, we kept doggedly at it. We ate a lot of fascinating food, had a lot of late nights with factory owners, travelled way off the beaten path. And in time we got this vital piece of the puzzle into place.

The next big breakthrough came in Wellington in 2013. By then we had rolled out a large number of new concept stores, and felt on a major roll. Still, none felt like it quite expressed all we aspired to be. The new stores were excellent, but mostly contained in the shells of where we had always been. Yet we were ambitious for Barkers – we wanted it to become a lifestyle brand, where men could get more of what they need.

The opportunity came on Lambton Quay. The area had long been a stronghold of the brand, thanks largely to Matty, the irrepressible manager down there. Yet for 10 straight years sales had flatlined. It was still a strong store, but a very tired one that didn’t offer a good impression of the brand. We were offered a space down the road, and got seriously interested. It was a better part of the street, and less of a long, narrow corridor. The only catch was its size: over 350sq m, more than twice as big as the typical store. This was a huge leap for us, yet we took a deep breath and leapt.

We did it to show what the future of Barkers looked like. A specialist suiting area where you could sip an espresso. A range of Baxter skincare products, Converse footwear and records from local legend Slowboat. A barber’s chair where you get a fresh fade and something cold while it happened.

In short, a new kind of men’s lifestyle experience. It was a smash hit, with Wellingtonians instantly understanding what it was we were trying to do. The store suddenly took off, and now sales have more than doubled. It gave us the confidence to do something even bigger in Auckland – a flagship on High St, where it all began. It’s 450 sqm, with bespoke suiting, a six chair barber and barista. The grandest expression yet of where we are heading.

Musicians playing in store was a key part of breathing life into our new environments (image: supplied)

All this might make the last 10 years look like plain sailing. Yet they were anything but. Quite apart from all the late nights and hard work which went into rebuilding the business, there was one moment where we inarguably bit off more than we could chew.

It began not long after we’d opened the new Lambton Quay store. We were on a roll, and felt invincible. Life has a way of taking you down a peg or two when that happens. 

Topshop started with a conversation between ourselves and Karen Walker, who had the franchise for New Zealand. She was looking for someone to grow it here into the kind of huge standalone stores which had made it a mega-growth fast fashion pioneer in the UK and Europe. We were seriously interested. We felt that we had learned a lot about retail over the previous five years, and the idea of working with New Zealand fashion royalty in Karen was hard to pass up.

We put together an agreement, flew to the UK multiple times and eventually found a perfect site – 1500sq m on the corner of Queen St, ready to bring one of the world’s signature apparel brands of the 21st century to New Zealand.

Opening day was like little else I’ve experienced in the rag trade. Queues snaked round the block, and the place was more like a venue than a store. Better yet, the queues stayed there for weeks afterwards – people travelled up to shop, shopped like it was on the bucket list. It stayed that way for the first year, and we booked ambitious expansion plans into Wellington and Christchurch. Little did we know, trouble was already coming.

The problem was that Topshop was a Northern Hemisphere brand, and thus most of the range was out of season. Once the initial buzz wore off, people began to get frustrated that they couldn’t always get a good jersey in winter. That eventually bit the Australian operation, which went into receivership, and from there the writing was on the wall: without Australia supporting Southern Hemisphere product ranges, there was no chance for New Zealand. A little over a year ago, we reluctantly shut it down.

It was no one’s fault, we had a great team who worked incredibly hard – and working with Karen and Mikhail was truly brilliant. It was heartbreaking, but a valuable lesson for us: if you’re going to go into business, you want to control the whole operation.

That’s why I’m so excited about our acquisition of Max late last year. It’s another iconic New Zealand brand, the mirror image of Barkers, but for women. It has many of the same opportunities Barkers had when we first came into it a decade ago, and I can’t wait to build a team to take the lessons we learned into a new realm. A critical difference with Topshop is this: we control the whole operation.

Working on Topshop was also a somewhat sobering reminder of what I’d thought about when assessing our suppliers all those years ago when we founded Barkers. That I didn’t like not knowing where the garments were made. The whole concept of fast fashion, with all its attendant waste and lack of emphasis on quality and longevity, had started to grate on me.

This was in part because of a book I read in January of 2017, before Topshop melted down, but when the writing was on the wall. Let My People go Surfing is the story of Patagonia, written by its founder, Yvon Chouinard.

It’s about the way he built a giant outdoors brand while emphasising quality and sustainability at every turn. I was given a copy by Roy Dillon, one of our directors, and started reading it on a beautiful Coromandel day. That evening, I finally put it down, having devoured it in one sitting.

It spoke to me in ways few books ever have – articulating a purpose for business and clothing that I had been dreaming on without quite knowing it. It was a kind of awakening, for me – a sense of discovery, of knowing what the next challenge was.

Put simply, the idea is this: that the first decade at Barkers was about reviving a classic Kiwi brand. The second will be about making that brand as sustainable, ethical and environmentally low-impact as we can. It’s a project which is now nearly two years old, and one which has consumed much of that time with questions which are a kind of business philosophy.

It’s been as hard and draining as anything I’ve ever done, but the breakthroughs are profound.  I’m going to write a follow-up in six months’ time, when we launch the new Barkers. This story has been about the first 10 years; that will be about the next decade.

This content was created in paid partnership with Barkers as part of 1972 magazine, which The Spinoff produces. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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