The launch of Helen Cherry is a 20-year tale beginning with high school home economics and ending with a glittering presentation in a multi-storied space in Auckland’s fashion district.
Like many designers, Helen Cherry lent her name to the label the moment the designs felt more 'her' than anyone else. After designing under the Street Life title, begun by Chris Cherry and June Robinson in 1983, Helen realised she would "design a collection with the Street Life label on it but the clothes had evolved away from the cool, funky Street Life image".
And so in 1997 Helen Cherry was launched in tandem with the opening of a flagship Workshop store on a prominent corner on Vulcan Lane and High Street. If Street Life was the quirky teenager then Helen's new look was the cool, older sister: it was sophisticated, constructed in luxurious fabrics, had careful tailoring and custom-sourced prints. "My silhouette is often tailored and clean … while detail is important, it’s subtle … it’s about designing styles that make a woman feel confident, beautiful and ageless." The ground floor of the new store was dedicated to the new label and although sales ensured it was an instant success Helen found the transition challenging. "I think I quite liked the anonymity of being behind the Street Life brand and not having my name out there."
Indeed it was the first time Helen had such an exposed designing role having previously worked for established labels since graduating from Wellington Polytechnic in 1980. Armed with her diploma Helen returned to the job market in Auckland where her first position entailed cutting silk for Anne Barlow, a made-to-order silk crepe-de-chine seamstress for 'Remuera ladies'.
After several months Helen relocated to Hamilton to take up the position of pattern-maker at Elle Boutique. This turned out to be short-term as the company went into liquidation. She moved back to Auckland where she was interviewed by Elisabeth Findlay for a pattern-making job at Zambesi. At this time Elisabeth and Neville Findlay were operating the business from their home in Grafton. Helen felt an instant rapport with them. "It was my dream job," she says. "I’d come in every morning at breakfast time … the kids would be getting ready for kindergarten and school. It was a real family environment and I enjoyed all of that intimacy."
After several years at Zambesi, Helen was promoted to work more closely with Liz Findlay and to accompany her on work trips to Japan, assist with design, and look after the business during the school holidays. She enjoyed this high level of involvement and it was a crucial appointment in terms of the wealth of experience gained in running a fashion business. In 1986 however she resigned, citing her romantic involvement with Chris Cherry, designer of Street Life and Workshop as a "conflict of interest". She says it was quite an emotional time "because I’d been with Zambesi from the beginning, watched the kids grow up and all that kind of stuff".
Soon after leaving Zambesi, Helen joined Chris at RCM Clothing, the parent company to Workshop and Street Life. Helen oversaw Street Life (the womenswear label) while Chris designed for Workshop (the menswear label). In 1993 they added a denim diffusion line to the RCM family, launching Workshop Denim for both men and women at Corbans Fashion Collections. This was an annual live event which showcased New Zealand fashion to industry professionals and later to the public by way of a television show and print publication. The Cherrys imbued their presentation with a freshness and unique quality by using non-professional models, instead sending friends, customers and dancers down the runway, posing and interacting with one another in a flurry of energy.
As Street Life became more and more Helen Cherry’s "own handwriting" it was clear the time had come to retire the old label. "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." The shift also made sense on a practical level as 'Street Life' was already a licensed name in Australia and in order to export there garments carried a Workshop label; in Helen's words "the brand was very confused". In order to consolidate the labels the Street Life store closed and a huge new space, custom fitted to incorporate Helen Cherry, Workshop and Workshop Denim, opened in September 1997.
The new label, which combined design strength with exceptional tailoring, quickly drew a loyal following of newcomers as well as customers from Workshop’s already well established client-base. Helen's use of sumptuous fabrics, procured from some of the most elite textile fairs in Europe, also gave the clothing a luxe point of difference from the Workshop and Workshop Denim brands.
In 1999 Helen Cherry was invited to show at the Mercedes Benz Australian Fashion Week, one of only six New Zealand labels to attend. The Australian show was seen by buyers for Barney’s department store in New York who ordered a collection of dresses for the stores. Based on the strength of the labels on the runway the Cherrys also continued to expand their retail operations in Wellington and Christchurch and opened another big Workshop store on Morrow Street in Newmarket. Operating almost like a collective these shops stock not only the Workshop family of labels but also international brands including See By Chloe, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler, labels carefully selected to complement their own offering and provide customers with a broader shopping experience. This is a strategy that has delivered success across their five retail stores and an online store.
The Workshop Spring Summer 2015 fashion show at popular Auckland bar Golden Dawn was a beautiful fusion of the Helen Cherry and Workshop labels in one cohesive catwalk extravaganza. For this season Helen Cherry proposed gently falling dresses in delicate yet bold prints, well-tailored trousers and blazers; the quintessential Helen Cherry collection. The garments sat easily with Workshop clothing, unsurprisingly perhaps considering the closeness of its designers who share an intrinsic emphasis on simplicity of cut, quality of cloth and attention to detail.
Even in its early days Helen Cherry clothing had a maturity and focus beyond its years, testament to Helen’s honed design skills and serious business nous gained whilst operating under numerous pseudonyms in the rag-trade. But it is her reverence for the building blocks of garment-making that will ensure the label maintains its revered position amongst its peers. "I could see that pattern-making was the key to design and that if you were working in the pattern-making department you were in the design department – and ultimately that’s where I wanted to be." Indeed, that is where she has landed.
Text by Alice Tyler. Banner image by Karen Inderbitzen-Waller and Delphine Avril Planqueel, 2018.
Published June 2019.