In 1986, when Jane Daniels made the decision to start her eponymous fashion label, the first thing she did was order 5000 labels for the yet-to-be-designed clothes. "Once I’d done that," she says, "I realised I really had made a commitment and there was no turning back."
From the outset, Jane’s aim was to create what has become her calling-card, effortlessly elegant pieces in luxurious fabrics. Armani was an early influence but over time, she says, she’s grown to love the quirkiness of the Japanese and Belgian designers. "I used to be the queen of the demi-tailored suit but not many women wear suits anymore. Today, I do more fluid silhouettes, draped shapes with some structure and softer tailoring. One thing I’ve never done and never will do is tizz or bling."
Almost without exception, Jane works with natural fabrics – cashmere, merino, silk, linen – and she’s always on the lookout for the perfect trim, particularly buttons which she considers most important. Every September for the past 29 years, she has flown to Paris to attend Premiere Vision, the world’s major fabric show and, during that time, has developed enduring professional and personal relationships with some of Europe’s best textile houses and mills.
Colour is fundamental to every Jane Daniels collection. Jane’s role as a travel ambassador for a company specialising in Ancient Kingdoms holidays has helped her explore a new world of colour. Her colour choices, always subtle, never garish, are often inspired by her travels to exotic places such as Turkey, Oman, Egypt, Zanzibar, Morocco or India. The painterly shades of the desert, the spice route, the Silk Road, ancient tiles, weathered stone and vegetable-dyed Persian carpets often find their way into Jane’s collections. Sometimes she will embellish the fabrics, which she has dyed in Europe to her specifications, using antique hand-carved printing blocks purchased on her travels.
British-born Jane moved from England to Auckland with her parents in 1961. From an early age, she began noting what people wore. "As a pre-teen, one of my biggest treats was to be taken by my mother to watch the fashion shows at Milne & Choyce and Smith & Caughey’s."
On a school holiday modelling course at the Academy of Elegance when she was 14, Jane caught the eye of the academy’s director Peggie Wilson who became her mentor. Her association with Peggie lasted for several years, as a model (for designers such as Colin Cole and Vinka Lucas) and as a compere for the fashion parades that Peggie co-ordinated. "Peggie picked that I had a flair for fashion," says Jane. "She encouraged me to enter an inter-collegiate fashion design competition run by retail fashion chain Estelle Rose." Jane’s entry, a burgundy velvet waistcoat, short culottes and lace blouse, came second. The following year, she entered all six sections of the competition, winning five of them plus the supreme award over-all.
After leaving school, Jane completed a Graphic Arts course at ATI (now AUT) where she majored in fashion illustration. Her first fashion designing job was at Nalla Fashions, an Auckland company specialising in fake fur jackets. She recalls the company wanting to expand its range to include other items of clothing and to give the brand a younger image. With her mother Bette, Jane also set up BJ Ties, a small accessories business making lacquered wooden bead necklaces and women’s ties.
In 1974, Jane won a national competition to dress the medal hostesses for the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. The garments she designed – a series of interchangeable red, white and blue bomber jackets, jumpsuits and capes, made up by Cantwell Creations and worn with white platforms – were the epitome of Seventies’ cool.
That same year, Jane travelled overseas where she studied part-time at London’s famous Natalie Bray pattern-making school and at the London College of Fashion. She supported herself with three jobs, one of which was producing fashion sketches for Peter Barron Dresses, a fashion house that sold its designs to Harrods.
On her return to Auckland, Jane was approached by John Throne, ex Thornton Hall, who had just bought Sherwood Fashions and was looking for a designer. "John gave me a completely free hand. At Sherwood, I was involved in all aspects of the business – designing, sampling, costing, selecting and importing fabrics, overseeing production. The ten years I spent there were invaluable." The Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards had separate categories for manufacturers back then, so Jane entered on behalf of the company. Sherwood Fashions won the Wool Award in 1978 and received nominations on three other occasions. In 1995, Jane was invited to join Moontide’s Tony Hart and Adele Palmer from Jag in Australia on the Awards’ judging panel.
Throughout her 15 years in office, as the Leader of the Opposition and then Prime Minister, Helen Clark’s working wardrobe was produced by Jane. One item, a black wool crepe palazzo pant, gained notoriety in the press when the Prime Minister wore it to a formal dinner for Queen Elizabeth II in Wellington in 2002. It was thought that a dress would have been more appropriate.
Television assignments included dressing Ilona Rogers for her role in the drama series Marlin Bay (1992), Kerry Smith for her part in the soap opera Gloss (1987–1990) and Maggie Barry for Maggie’s Garden Show (1992–2003).
Jane’s first business address when she left Sherwood Fashions and went solo in 1986, was a small former bakery in Hobson St, which she shared with a group of other professionals.
Over the years, she moved to progressively larger premises but always within the Auckland city area. The present Jane Daniels headquarters in Newton Rd house the design studio, sales showroom and administration.
Jane Daniels opened her first shop in Parnell, Auckland in 1999. This was followed by boutiques in Christchurch in 2005, Wellington in 2012 and Ponsonby, Auckland in 2014. Her collections are also available at selected fashion stores in New Zealand and Melbourne and, seasonally at special showings, in Sydney and Dunedin.
Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image of Jane Daniels, aged 19.
Last published July 2015.