How a young Auckland designer broke into the luxury fashion world

by Bianca Zander / 20 March, 2017
Photography/ Todd Eyre

How did a young Auckland designer’s luxury fashion brand go from zero to global hero so fast?

Designer Maggie Hewitt surrounded by her patterns.

Designer Maggie Hewitt surrounded by her patterns.

It’s the stuff of Millennial fairy tales. Nine short months ago, 22-year-old Maggie Hewitt was sitting in front of a clothes rack that held her debut collection and wondering what to do with it – how to “get some people in front of it”.

Now her eponymous label Maggie Marilyn has not only made the coveted front page of online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter’s The Edit as one of a host of new brands leading a rethink of – what else? – black (“Frills, cutouts, flares and pleats… Fashion’s favourite shade takes on cool new shapes”), but its third season has featured on vogue.com. She is the first New Zealander to be shortlisted for the prestigious 2017 LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) prize, which supports young designers with a €300,000 prize (the winner is announced 16 June) and the recognition of a judging panel featuring the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo.

Hewitt’s ascent to the pinnacle of the fashion industry is as rapid as the global heist pulled off a few years ago by Lorde. And just like Lorde, she appears to have hatched fully formed, without a trace of anxiety or self-doubt.

“I felt confident that I had my own voice and I knew what my aesthetic was to start my own brand, so I pretty much started it straight after graduation,” says Hewitt, who graduated from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fashion design at the end of 2015. “I didn’t, like, make the garments myself. I had sample machinists and a patternmaker. That’s something that comes quite easily to me, knowing how to construct garments and how to build a collection. You know, find makers to do that.”

For a recent graduate, her first collection was audacious – and wildly luxurious. A tailored silk-satin blazer with ruffle sleeves and raw edges, reminiscent of a Saint Laurent folly. Shirts and pants with applique flowers and preposterous frills, laser cut from ethically-sourced Indian silk tulle.

To achieve all this, she cleaned out her personal savings, adding, not at all sheepishly: “So I’m really lucky to have my parents as investors.”

Lucky, yes, but money and talent on their own don’t open doors. For that you need connections.

Hewitt’s debut collection contrasted with her autumn 2017 ready-to-wear collection. Ruffles, frills and statement sleeves still reign supreme, while the tailoring has been refined.

Hewitt’s debut collection contrasted with her autumn 2017 ready-to-wear collection. Ruffles, frills and statement sleeves still reign supreme, while the tailoring has been refined.

At upmarket Ponsonby concept store The Shelter, a family friend introduced her to fashion consultant Jo Knight, who had been batting off fashion graduates – and even some established designers – eager for her wisdom since returning two years ago from the UK. Knight previously ran high-end London fashion label Richard Nicoll for a decade (and in what is a devastating loss to Knight and the close-knit London fashion community, Nicoll passed away in October last year, at age 39, from a heart attack).

Knight and Hewitt had coffee. Knight thought Hewitt’s collection was beautiful but told her to go overseas and get some experience, pronto. Then she made an offer most fashion graduates would die for – to call up her London pals, Roksanda Ilincic and Christopher Kane, two of the world’s most creative and revered fashion designers, to see if they’d take Hewitt on.

Um, no thank you, said Hewitt. “It would have been amazing but I had already built the collection and invested money in it, and I wanted to do something with it.”

Knight fell in love with Hewitt’s audacity but tried to talk sense into her: “I said we’d need a significant amount of money, and maybe we’ll start in Australia and New Zealand.”

Hewitt wearing some of her own designs from the Maggie Marilyn collection.

Hewitt wearing some of her own designs from the Maggie Marilyn collection.

Hewitt (Marilyn is her middle name) hails from Kerikeri, the posh (and some would say, boring) bit of Northland, where her parents own the Mount Pokaka timber processing plant. She has three little sisters, and her precocious love of business was fostered by her father. “My dad is an amazing entrepreneur. He was open about things he was facing in his business, and he would ask my opinion when I was like, 10.”

A year ago, the family moved to Auckland and Hewitt was delighted to be able to move back home while she started her label. Home, and until recently, Maggie Marilyn HQ, is a large Herne Bay villa that resembles a five-star resort but apparently isn’t quite up to scratch. “My mum’s renovating,” says Hewitt, apologising for the whining skill-saws and copious dust sheets.

Shortly after they started working together, Knight sent the Maggie Marilyn lookbook, along with a “very casual” email, to her “dear colleagues” at Net-a-Porter, saying, “Look what I came across – isn’t it gorgeous?” to which the dear colleagues replied: “We’ll take it.”

Net-a-Porter has never in its history taken on a designer’s first collection but Knight put her 10-year reputation on the line to vouch for the label.

Pieces from her second season.

Pieces from her second season.

Meanwhile, Hewitt contracted five factories to make up to four hundred units of each item in the collection. Everything had to be locally made, to align with her ethical business practices. Was it hard to find garment manufacturers, given the local industry is in decline? “People always ask me that and it wasn’t. I found it really easy. If you have a significant amount of units, people pay attention but if you’re trying to only make 10s, 20s, 30s of things, the bigger New Zealand designers get pushed in front of you.”

For the launch, they needed the attention of the world’s fashion press, so Knight dialled her old PR buddy George MacPherson, in New York, who dialled Vogue, who… you get the picture.

Maggie Marilyn is made from ethically sourced, luxury fabrics and retails for up to NZ$1452 a piece. The observation that setting one’s sights so high would be out of reach for most first time designers is met by Hewitt with a charmingly naive shrug (or good PR training). “I can only go off my story, I feel like… just like the stars have aligned. I feel really lucky to have found Jo [Knight], I feel really lucky to have found our makers. I’m not responsible for it all.”

 


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