Barbara Herrick's (nee Lewis) mother Alison had worked in the fashion industry as a knitwear designer, first in Melbourne and later when the family settled in Auckland. Alison passed this interest in fashion onto her daughter and when she was 16 years old Barbara began attending Druleigh College, a dressmaking school in Auckland's Vulcan Lane.
Dior's 'New Look' was then sweeping international fashion circles and Auckland's streets were no exception. Although Barbara was of the opinion that the 'New Look' with its flowing skirts and high heels, was a danger to young women travelling around the city on buses and trams, her Druleigh training focused on pattern-making, cutting, construction and finishing techniques which emphasised the structure and careful tailoring required to create the dramatic post-war style.
In 1946 Barbara married a young soldier, and the couple began their family, welcoming their son Van in 1948. Over these years Barbara worked as a dressmaker, establishing a home-based business to accommodate the needs of her young family. This marriage did not last, and by the early 1950s Barbara turned to dressmaking and her design skills as a way of supporting herself and her young child. Around 1951 Emma Knuckey, who was in the early years of her own label, approached Barbara with an employment opportunity to assist with the design and cutting of Emma Knuckey's range – an opportunity which enabled Barbara to work from home and continue caring for her young son.
Barbara married again in 1952, this time to Don Penberthy – an engineer who was supportive of his wife's talent for design. Together the couple realised Barbara's vision of creating her own fashion label. The first workroom was located on High Street, within reach of key retail outlets, but it soon became apparent that a larger workroom was required. By 1963 the business had shifted to 22 Chancery Street, and now employed 24 staff.
From its outset Babs Radon reflected Barbara's wish to bring a fresher, younger look to women who, much like herself – independent and industrious – were seeking modern fashionable clothing. For Barbara, fashion represented confidence and self-esteem, qualities which attracted clientele with similar values. In Barbara's words: "I wanted to make beautiful clothes for women to feel good in."
In spite of the modern simplicity of her gowns, one of Barbara's earliest public successes came from her involvement in the inaugural New Zealand Gown of the Year contest in 1958. While Barbara's entry 'Moon Glow' did not win the competition, which was determined by popular vote, the gown exposed the Babs Radon brand to a wide audience and placed the young designer in a prominent position in an emerging national fashion consciousness.
In the early 1960s, fashion parades played an important role in the promotion of a designer. There was an active network of fashion promoters who arranged competitive fashion shows such as the Golden Shears and the New Zealand Wool Awards. These two competitions played a significant role in Barbara's career with her first competitive recognition coming as a commendation in the 1962 Golden Shears.
The New Zealand Wool Awards were an even more significant accolade, with the winner receiving national publicity. The interest in the 1963 Wool Awards was intensified by the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, then on tour in New Zealand, who presented Barbara with the Supreme Award amidst much media interest.
In 1967, Barbara opened another retail outlet in Auckland as part of the 246 Queen Street development. The boutique was the first Babs Radon retail outlet since its earliest days in Mt Eden, providing garments from past ranges as well as the newest lines direct from the Chancery Street workroom.
By the 1970s youth styles had become a firm driver within the New Zealand fashion scene, and the careful tailoring and structure central to Babs Radon was giving way to a looser, more fluid line. In the late 1970s Barbara decided to retire the Babs Radon label allowing it to remain as it had been known – an icon of New Zealand style and elegance.
Text by Lucy Hammonds from Babs Radon, a publication by MTG Hawkes Bay. Banner image of Barbara Herrick (right) and Anne McClurg modelling the winning garment in the 1963 Wool Awards. Image © Barbara Herrick.
Last published August 2014.