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The fashion designer and the filmmaker: Isabel Harris and son Regan Hall at the family farm in Matakana. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

The family behind iconic NZ fashion brand Thornton Hall

Filmmaker Regan Hall inherited a bolt of creative talent from his mother, Isabel Harris, the genius behind 70s and 80s fashion labels Hullabaloo and Thornton Hall – plus a useful swatch of business acumen from father Brian Hall. But, as Maria Hoyle discovers, it’s love and loyalty that bind the family together.

Isabel Harris is holding up a dress to show me. It’s the dress you always wanted, but didn’t know it until now. A beige jersey knit, with a cute flower print, short sleeves and buttons down the front; it’s a simple, timeless design. Put that on the racks in Zara or Ruby tomorrow morning, and there’d be nothing but empty hangers by the end of the day. Yet this covetable item was made half a century ago.

The dress is circa 1970, from Hullabaloo on Auckland’s Victoria St, the shop Harris opened with longtime partner Brian Hall. It was their first boutique, an eruption of creative flair on a hitherto uneventful fashion landscape. They’d go on to have factories in Auckland, Paeroa and Tauranga, plus 12 stores in Auckland and two in Australia. At its peak, Thornton Hall – as the brand was later called, with only the Queen St boutique retaining the Hullabaloo name – had several hundred employees. In the 70s and 80s, the much-feted Harris was the New Zealand designer of the day.

She’s kept some Thornton Hall garments at her Auckland home (the couple also owns two farms, in Warkworth and Matakana, where they spend weekends); others are held by the New Zealand Fashion Museum. “This little dress was an absolute winner,” says Harris. “We took it to one of the big retailers and they said, ‘If you sell that, you’ll go broke.’ We couldn’t keep it on the shelves! There was nothing like that at the time. The colours, that oldy-worldy look I was into, that wasn’t in back then. I used old [trouser] fly buttons. Manufacturers had thousands of them as men had moved to using zips.”

The couple took on business partners in the early 90s and sold their shares in 1993. Within three years of the buyout, the company went under. “It was just so wrong. It had been going for 25 years,” she says. “It was like someone took our sailing ship and put it on the rocks.”

Harris’s eye for design, and for what would sell, is what had cemented the brand’s success. That, and Hall’s business acumen – although on occasion his pragmatism would cross swords with Harris’s tenacity. “A dress would be costing-up expensive and Brian would say, ‘You have to take some material out. Simplify it.’ And I’d say, ‘No! If I have to take a metre of bloody fabric out, it will kill it! It will sell because someone will put it on and love it.’”

Left: Harris fits a taffeta evening dress in the Thornton Hall showroom in the 1980s. Right: Harris receives an Eve Fashion Award in 1972 – pictured with model Maysie Bestall-Cohen (at left), who went on to establish a high-profile modelling agency and become a key figure in the annual Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards. Photos/From the collection of Isabel Harris

The pair met when Harris, a farmer’s daughter from Marlborough, moved to Auckland to work in the merchandising department of the store George Courts. English-born Hall was already working in the fashion industry; with partner John Thorne, he had taken over manufacturing licences of labels including Poppetwear and Career Girl from Desmond Reevely and Co when it closed in the mid-60s. Hall asked Harris to apply her eye for design to these labels.

While Harris herself can’t sew – “Just buttons!” she laughs – fashion has threaded its way down through the family. Her mother trained as a couturier, and now Isabel and Brian’s son Regan, who lives in London, directs fashion and beauty commercials for the likes of Dolce & Gabbana and Revlon. He’s done film and TV work, too. His 2012 debut Fast Girls, an athletics-themed drama, starred Lily James before she went on to Cinderella and Downton Abbey fame.

Judith Baragwanath (left) models one of Harris’ creations,1973.

But perhaps his proudest achievement is 3 Hours, a short film that’s of a different fabric entirely to the commercials he’s shot with the likes of Mario Testino, Halle Berry, Emma Watson and Rihanna. A true story about one day in Baghdad and the terrible fallout from the massacre by militia of nine children, the 2010 film won him multiple awards and has screened at more than 40 international festivals. “It’s almost an analogy for any religious conflict, whether it’s Catholic and Protestant or Hutu and Tutsi,” he says. “The fact it won [Best International Short Film at the 2010 Foyle Film Festival] in Northern Ireland was really poignant.”

Regan’s in town partly to see his folks before doing some filming in Sydney – plus an 11th-hour gig shooting a TV commercial for the big new Westfield development in Auckland’s Newmarket.

Harris couldn’t be more proud of Regan or daughter Kristy, an environmental scientist for the Asia Development Bank, based in Manila. “I used to walk her through the bush on the farm and I’d go, ‘This is a pepper tree, this is a kauri, this is a rimu.’ Now if we walk through, she’ll give me the botanical names.”

Harris talks passionately about her family, but also about her time at Thornton Hall. There was, however, one downside to their success – other manufacturers copied them. In the end, they took legal action against Shanton Apparel for replicating one of Harris’s popular dresses, making it in a cheaper material at a fraction of the price. Their legal victory helped to create the Copyright Law of 1994.  “We are in the law books,” Harris says proudly. “We had to stand up, because it was getting ridiculous.”

Harris and partner Brian Hall at home in Auckland with nine-month-old Regan in 1977, at the peak of Hullabaloo’s success. Photo/Supplied

Isabel Harris, 73

“Regan was last home two years ago. He was involved in that ghastly television programme, what’s its name? Ash vs Evil Dead [an American comedy-horror series filmed in New Zealand. “It’s still running,” interjects Brian cheerily from the kitchen].

Regan was born at Mater Hospital [now Mercy Hospital] in 1976. We were flying high then, I was very busy so we had a nanny-housekeeper. We bought the property next door to our house in Epsom for Brian’s parents. Regan has a wonderful rapport with elderly people because he had a wonderful rapport with his grandmother. She spoiled him silly; she’d put sugar in his milk when I wasn’t looking.

Regan was a delightful child. Never a problem teenager. Never a problem anything. He had a very balanced upbringing. Mum and Dad used to come over and take him for a walk every day with our dog, a beautiful big black standard poodle; they’d go to One Tree Hill, to the swings. He had real quality time with them.

Regan started off at Parnell Primary, because Brian and I didn’t go to private schools, but later went to King’s prep; it was quite a strict discipline. It was a shock for him, but he was never troublesome. He then went on to King’s College.

He’s quite different to his sister, personality-wise. She pooh-poohs the whole fashion thing, because she’s trying to save the world. Those two are like me cut in half. I’ve always enjoyed the land; we’d spend most weekends at the farm, dealing with the animals, planting natives, breeding butterflies. So that side of me is very much Kristy. For Mother’s Day, Regan gave me one of the new sound systems you can talk to: Alexa. And Kristy? Three bags of organic compost all done up with a bow!

When Regan was about 15, he had to do work experience. He didn’t want to go into the fashion business as he’d seen the chaos at [my] work. I got him into a small ad agency. I said, ‘I don’t care what you get him to do: sweep the floors, get the tea.’ This agency did a promotional thing to advertise Motat on TV; there was a robotic dinosaur there at the time. Regan went along to see them filming. At 7pm, I said, ‘Regan’s still not home,’ so I had to jump in the car, and there he was still in the agency, with headphones on watching the monitor.

Hall at 16, hoping to become a film director one day.

When he’s back home, it’s just nice to have him around. Cook him some decent food. We usually go up to the farm. He lives in Trafalgar Square in London. From that to scrabbling around weeding and mulching, it’s quite different. When we visit him, we go shopping, out to dinner. The comedy club. He makes sure we go to good shows.

When I see Regan’s work… he has a good eye, a good feeling. In 3 Hours, some of the shots, like the plastic caught up in the wire flapping, the birds flying across… there are little special details. He is a thoughtful person, compassionate.

I’m proud he’s stood on his own feet from an early age. He was one of only two kids who got into film school in Christchurch. He went to Wellington, got a job waiting at a big restaurant, then got involved in editing work. I met Brian when I was about 22, we were very much handling things together; whereas Regan has always been on his own. He’s got a close-knit bunch of friends, though. [As for girlfriends] he wants someone with ambition to work with, as a team. The girls are all over him – he’s a good-looking guy! We’ve had talent scouts in England run up and say, ‘Would you be interested in doing something?’ I say to him, ‘You could have made your life a lot easier if you’d just sat there with a nice watch on your wrist [as a model].’

One of his friends in England lined him up with a girl, who said to him, ‘But you’re not seriously looking for someone.’ He put her in place, saying, ‘My parents have been together for 50 years and I’m looking for something [like that too].’

What would I wish most for my children? Just that they enjoy the ride, take time out for themselves. Our business had us by the throat. Although it was my passion, it was very stressful. Regan does appreciate his friends. He’s got good values. He found a picture of himself at 16 with his camera. He put it on Facebook, saying, ‘It’s important to stop sometimes when you are climbing the mountain; to turn around and look how far you’ve come.’ It’s a bloody tough industry.

We have always had a very open, good relationship. On my 60th birthday… we hadn’t long been in this property and decided to have the party here. I had it catered for, because I usually cook. We got a tent and set it up as a restaurant. I knew Regan wasn’t coming, he was in London.

In the morning, the phone rang and it was Regan. He said, ‘Hi Mum, I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.’ I said, ‘Thanks, hun. It’s a shame you can’t be here, but don’t worry. There’ll be more birthdays.’ Then the doorbell rang. I said to him, ‘Gotta go. I love you, I miss you!’ I open the door and there is Regan with a big bunch of flowers. First time in my life I’ve been speechless. Speechless. Wasn’t that amazing? It’s a joy just to have his company because he’s such a personable, genuine guy.”

In London on the set of Fast Girls, a 2012 British drama starring Lily James that was his feature-film debut.

Regan Hall, 43

“Mum is one of these people with a strange ability to be good at everything; cooking or designing or gardening. She has this magic touch. She started off in Blenheim as a window dresser and moved up to Auckland. A year or two later, she met my dad. He was selling dresses that weren’t all that spectacular and she told him, ‘Your dresses are crap, I can do a better job.’

I was roped in on school holidays and after school to give them a hand in the warehouse, so my idea of the fashion industry was bagging dresses and lifting fabric – the nuts and bolts of the rag trade. A lot of people think fashion is glamour and Vogue magazines, but that’s only 10% of what the industry is about. When I was about 16, my dad was wanting to retire and he asked me, ‘Any interest in going into the fashion business?’ and I was like, ‘Erm no, I’m into film.’

Baragwanath showcases the label’s latest look,1974.

Describe mum in three words? Giving. Industrious. Kind. Her personal attributes shine through more than her work-related ones. What is she most proud of about me? I have no idea. I think with Mum, it wouldn’t be work-related but more personal. I’ve learned from watching her trajectory over the years that despite being super-successful in business, Mum and Dad’s fashion legacy is in several boxes in the attic, and what defines them as people isn’t that success. It’s more to do with the strength of their relationship, the world they have created for themselves, and that includes the farm properties and planting trees, releasing birds and all that stuff. It’s nice to grow up with a strong connection to nature.

My mum and dad form a very tight unit, so when I speak on Skype I’m speaking to them both. They bring very different cards to the table. I’m a 50-50 blend of the two. I have Mum’s creative touch and empathy, and a little more of Dad’s business acumen.

What makes Mum most happy? She’s in her element in the garden. Her parents had a fractured relationship. She was the youngest girl, and she’d go out in the fields with her dog and play in the creek all day. It’s so funny that even at the height of her fashion career, it was the weekends when she was planting trees with the dog that she seemed most happy and at ease. It’s amazing now, she’s still carrying buckets and transforming properties.

Both my parents worked hard. Even when it came to overseas travel, they would do it in a whirlwind two weeks, without a moment to let their body clocks adjust. As a busy world traveller myself now, I make myself take time to relax. That’s advice that comes from them. They regret not taking time to smell the roses more often. My dad says that a lot to me.

I drove them to Auckland Airport two days ago – they’ll be visiting me in London, ironically. It’s nice to see them finally spoiling themselves. 

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.