Fashion model, fashion publisher, fashion designer and fashion icon, Paula Ryan says that while others experience reality through the written or spoken word, she has always been influenced by what life provides in a visual sense.
Raised at Weedons, in Canterbury, where her family owned a mixed cropping and sheep farm, Paula developed an interest in art as a student at Teschemakers, the private Catholic boarding school for girls she attended near Oamaru. She took art as a school subject, and by correspondence, achieving a high mark for art in School Certificate.
On leaving school, she trained as a graphic designer at UEB (United Empire Box), a large company involved in the creation of packaging of all kinds, from biscuit wrappers to corrugated outer packs.
In 1968, the 19-year-old Paula started her own business, Paula Ryan Graphic Design, in Christchurch. Specialising in packaging design, she also designed wine and beer labels for early New Zealand vineyards, logos and catalogues for various fashion companies and newspaper advertisements for Glassons.
During this time, Paula accepted a few modelling assignments through friends who were designers or photographers, among them Vinka Lucas, Euan Sarginson and Barbara Lee. "These assignments provided me with an appreciation of the clothing industry", she recalls, "which proved invaluable later on."
Paula appeared on the cover of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly in 1969 and, in the same year, won the national Rose of Tralee contest. Other beauty contest wins included South Island Jantzen Smile Girl, Queen of the Furrow and poster girl for New Zealand Breweries Bavarian Beer. In 1971, as Miss New Zealand Racing, she won a trip to London where she remained for two years.
"My stint in London, working as a house model for Samuel Sherman, a highly successful Jewish clothing company, became paramount in my development. The business was situated opposite Vogue House in Hanover Square, a building I frequented whenever our garments were chosen for editorials in Vogue."
On her return to Christchurch in 1974, Paula married Don Hope, owner of Co-ordination Advertising, and, with a start-up fund of $200, opened the Paula Ryan School of Elegance and Model Agency. The school’s best-known graduate, Kirsteen Britten (nee Price), was one of the first New Zealanders to become a successful model in New York.
In the absence of a dedicated New Zealand fashion magazine - Vogue New Zealand having folded in 1967 - Paula Ryan and Don Hope decided, in 1980, to produce a glossy retail fashion catalogue, to be distributed free within Christchurch via letterbox drop. Combining their talents and using their model and advertising agency resources, they worked out of an attic above the garage of their Fendalton home. The print run for the first catalogue - called Fashion - was 75,000. With the addition of special catalogues for Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, distribution rose to 300,000.
The favourable reception of the catalogues led the couple to believe there could be potential for a fully-fledged, editorially-based newsstand publication. The first issue of Fashion New Zealand went on sale in spring 1982. There were two issues a year. The number rose to four in 1986 (and a name change to Fashion Quarterly) and five in 1988.
Paula’s graphic design and modelling background more than equipped her for her new role as magazine editor. In addition to choosing and styling the clothes for fashion shoots, she designed the magazine layouts and employed other graphic designers to prepare the finished art for printing. She also involved herself in the printing process, helping to pioneer new technology. "We engaged Bascands Print in Christchurch who, in turn, purchased a web offset machine to undertake our print job. Until then, all web offset printing in long runs was confined to newspaper publishing on newsprint, not coated art paper which is what we wanted to use. Ink and paper compatibility became a focus and we learned through experimentation, working with the Germans who installed the machinery." Paula’s association with Bascands lasted many years. When Fashion Quarterly moved to Auckland in 1987, Bascands remained the printers of choice.
Paula’s insistence on quality extended to her choice of staff, photographers, models, shoot locations and clothing. Desmond Williams and Tony Drayton were two of her favourite photographers, Rachel Hunter and Charlotte Dawson, two of the models she featured regularly at the start of their modelling careers. 'Bringing Style To Life' was the magazine’s motto and all proposed content, written and visual, had to be assessed in this light.
By the late 1980s, Fashion Quarterly had become the country’s acknowledged fashion bible and Paula was perceived as the personification of its message and style. She appeared on television, radio and in print, and judged fashion events (including the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards) throughout New Zealand. For 20 years, she conducted fashion seminars up and down the country, often working alongside the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, helping to inspire women with cancer.
In 1990, ACP (Australian Consolidated Press) bought Fashion Quarterly. Paula stayed on as editor until 1996 and shortly thereafter founded Simply You, a glossy bi-annual style guide presented with the same attention to quality and detail that characterised Fashion Quarterly. A sister publication, Simply You Living, followed. Paula sold Simply You and Simply You Living to APN News & Media in 2007.
Approached by the marketing body Merino NZ in 1996 to promote New Zealand merino globally and nationally, Paula found herself in the clothing business. Her belief in the quality of New Zealand merino, and her frustration at not being able to buy wardrobe basics, such as the perfect classic t-shirt or black polo neck top, locally, led her to suggest to clothing manufacturers Lane Walker Rudkin that they fill the gap in the market. They agreed, dependent upon her design input and the use of her name on the label.
The initial Paula Ryan Simply You collection, using locally-milled merino and Italian MicroModal (to give the garments an element of stretch) featured simple but stylish pants and tops, mainly in black, with sleeve, neck, length and leg variations. Higher fashion items and an accessories range were added later. Paula’s design inspiration came from American contemporary lifestyle designer Donna Karan whose simplistic approach to dressing women on a day-to-day basis, she had long admired. When Lane Walker Rudkin was sold and asset-stripped in 2000, Paula took over the label and found a new manufacturer. Paula Ryan Simply You became simply Paula Ryan and remains so to this day.
Paula was joined in the new venture by her second husband Rob Dallimore whom she married in 2005, wearing a green Donna Karan dress purchased in New York. Rob, a menswear industry veteran, brought to his position as company CEO, a wealth of experience. After completing a manufacturing cadetship with Cambridge Clothing when he left school, he opened a menswear retail business (Lanigans) in Auckland which he operated for 24 years before returning to Cambridge Clothing as merchandise manager in 1997.
Since being appointed the 'face' of the Paula Ryan brand in 2014, New Zealand-born international model Kylie Bax has featured in all the company’s promotions and in the online Paula Style fashion and beauty magazine which accompanies each seasonal collection. The brand is currently sold in 40 stores throughout New Zealand and 60 in Australia. A new line, Layers, designed specifically for online selling, was recently introduced.
The day-to-day operation of Paula Apparel Ltd is run by a general manager but Paula, in her role of creative director, is still actively involved, concentrating on the final designs for the collections, in-store promotions with key retailers, and the online magazine. A Paula Ryan collection of home products, focusing on linens, is in the pipeline.
Paula Ryan’s services to fashion were recognised in 2009 when she was awarded the NZFM (Member of the NZ Order of Merit) in that year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 2011, she was honoured by the NZMPA (NZ Magazine Publishers Association) with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image of Paula Ryan wearing a silk ottoman suit with a satin collar and cuffs by Patrick Steel Couture, 1995. Image © Fashion Quarterly.