In the 1980s New Zealand’s location in the Pacific was beginning to colour our self awareness and aesthetic with artists and designers re-interpreting their cultural heritage to reflected a more local expression. The foundations of Workshop were birthed in this context and the label's early designs, logos, and shop interiors borrowed regional imagery and the expertise of local visual artists.
In 1981 the government sanctioned a tour of South Africa's Springboks rugby team, an action which led to violent protests at Auckland’s premier rugby stadium in response to South Africa’s apartheid system. Less than a decade earlier a different New Zealand government sent two frigates to the Mururoa Atoll in protest against the French government and its nuclear experimentation in that region.
Chris Cherry’s background is in production and manufacturing and his first industry job as a 19-year-old required a trans-Tasman relocation. He was sent to Auckland from his native Melbourne to facilitate training for The Clothing Company’s Auckland outpost, a subsidiary of a high-volume Australian manufacturer. Whilst in New Zealand, Chris met June Robinson who was a trained cutter and pattern-maker and after several shifts between Auckland and Melbourne they returned to Auckland to open Street Life at 17 Swanson Street. The shop became known for stocking both their own labels and imported brands. "There was never really a plan. We just bought some sewing machines and took out the lease on the store," remembers Chris. Pattern maker Christine Moon also joined the business, which they called RCM Clothing Company.
In 1982, the shop moved from Swanson Street to 5 High Street, and the Workshop label was added to their offering. The shop became known for their own labels and the imported brands they stocked to compliment them. It was initially targeted at women but soon after launching Chris noticed that an increasing number of young men were drawn to Workshop jumpsuits, army pants and shirts, interested in a more relaxed less nuanced style of dressing. In response Workshop produced clothes that refrained from being overtly gendered and this repositioned the brand as a street or urbanwear label, a relatively novel concept in New Zealand in the 1980s. An anorak was produced soon after this shift in focus. Inspired by a real vintage American army coat Chris found whilst travelling in the Harajuku district of Japan. It has been through countless iterations and has become synonymous with the label.
Indeed the Japanese aesthetic embodied by designers Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto had a huge impact on the Workshop look and was the inspiration behind Chris’ early dedication to natural fibres and fabrics. Hand dyed or raw linen, drill and denim was hard to source in Auckland in the 1980s until Chris befriended textiles importer Roger Wall who provided fabrics used by the Japanese designers themselves. These natural fabrics inspired another quintessential Workshop garment, the oversized linen shirt, worn by both men and women.
Screen-print onto these natural textiles was a natural progression The patterning, usually commissioned from local artists, gave Workshop garments a distinctive edge within the local market. A tuatara and weta motif was an early print designed by Ngila Dickson and a stylised frangipane border was based on a print by John Pule.
Later, when t-shirts were incorporated into the Workshop collection, John Reynolds made a number of designs of which 'Ta ra ra boom decay' was the most politically charged acting as a protest against nuclear bombing in the Mururoa Atoll. Other artists who have worked in collaboration with the brand include Paul Hartigan, Luise Fong, John Reynolds. Partnerships continue to be significant in the development and extension of the Workshop aesthetic by providing a visual language of place.
As Workshop grew in scale and reputation the profile of the Street Life label diminished. This was due in part to the departures of Christine Moon and June Robinson after which the designing of both men’s and womenswear fell to Chris. Also, Chris had become romantically involved with Helen Cherry whose position at Zambesi caused something of a conflict of interests.
Helen left Zambesi after four and a half years eventually joining the Workshop crew where she assumed the role of designing the womenswear. After producing several collections under the Street Life label however she felt it no longer sat well with the garments. "[The clothing] was becoming more and more … my handwriting, my style… We were becoming more sophisticated, the fabrics were more specialised."
Chris and Helen decided to drop the Street Life title completely and rebrand the label as Helen Cherry. The new name suited the developing aesthetic and provided a fresh and focused start to the womenswear side of the company. Since its 1997 inauguration, Helen Cherry has developed a reputation for its unique patterns, luxurious fabrics and careful tailoring. "When I design I am always working from a very personal point of view; I am always thinking about the perfect wardrobe for the busy, modern woman," Helen says.
The launch of Helen Cherry coincided with the opening of a new Workshop store, further up High Street at number 16, on the corner of Vulcan Lane in Auckland. The lavish fit-out and double-storeyed space gave the Cherrys greater visibility with discrete spaces for the two brands and room to increase their international imports. As in earlier days these labels were selected based on their complimentary nature to the in-house labels in terms of style and pricepoint. The international labels also offered a different fashion perspective and the combination established a formidable model for the retail arm of the Cherry’s business.
Workshop fashion shows operate as vehicles of aesthetic and philosophic communication and the Cherrys have purposefully nurtured this by refraining from participating in shows where they didn’t have artistic control.
The 1993 Corbans Fashion Collections allowed them final say on both choreography and selection of models. "Up until then fashion shows had cued music and … models who would come out again and again. Instead we just launched all these models … at the same time" says Chris. The catwalk was a mélange of customers and friends, professional and inexperienced models, and dancers from the contemporary dance company Limbs.
It was at this event that the diffusion range Workshop Denim also made its debut. The ethos of the new denim line was suburban and raw and it has become a cornerstone of the Workshop brand. Having seen the denim constructed on antique shuttle looms in Kaihara, Japan, Chris fused it with a New Zealandness that made Workshop Denim idiosyncratic and locally useful. "We found ourselves asking: what are our jeans? They are not an American thing, they are not a ‘50s thing, they’re not that 19th century gold-mining thing, we are a New Zealand, a Pacific thing."
The Workshop menswear show at the 1998 Mercedes-Benz Australian Fashion Week was similarly distinctive and incorporated tā moko commissioned from the Māori tātau artist Te Rangitu Netana. The soundtrack of live Pacific drumming reinforced a cohesive and sophisticated response to the Workshop designs and by extension the locale. More recently in 2014 the show included actual artwork by its collaborators. New York-based artist Max Gimblett and Napier painter Martin Poppelwell worked together on ceramics which were used as inspiration for the decoration on the Workshop clothing, some of which was directly hand-painted. In celebration of the artists and the uniqueness of the project Max Gimblett’s skull and quatrefoil prints were available for sale at the gala night, showcasing the artistic progression from inspiration to execution.
The local currency of the Workshop aesthetic has had great strength in the New Zealand retail market. Unlike other designers the Cherrys decided to focus on national expansion after a brief venture into the American market via New York and the Australian market (which saw the Cherrys battle legal difficulties because of naming rights).
Instead of chasing a fluctuating overseas market, in the 2000s the Cherrys invested in large and impressive Workshop stores in Morrow Street, Newmarket and later MacKelvie Street, Ponsonby. Their Wellington and Christchurch stores were relocated and Workshop retailing took off. "Our strength is retailing," says Helen, "it’s what we do best … our brands are strong, we have fantastic imports, let’s just stick to our knitting."
Supported by a loyal clientele, Workshop remains a key figure in New Zealand’s fashion history. The Cherrys combined skill-set together with a commitment to quality of design has enabled them to work to the tune of their own song. With a focus on quality of "cut, cloth and construction", Workshop designs are classic yet fresh, and their wearability enduring.