United by their love for overseas travel, dressmakers Joy Gerbic and Colleen Frei eventually returned home to New Zealand to start their own fashion label, Pour Vous.
Joy grew up in Wellington where she attended Wellington Girls’ College. She took a short pattern making course at Wellington’s Druleigh College before moving to New Plymouth with her family.
Joy was determined to travel overseas. She made a plan to start her own business, designing garments to sell in her own shop. Joy realised she needed to improve her sewing skills so, when she was 20 years old, she moved to Auckland. "At that stage I could only sew one style of dress - it had a round neck with a split at the back and a gathered waistband."
Joy worked in Auckland as a machinist at Anthony Creations, Milne & Choyce and later, Tarrants. Her work at Tarrants was hugely influential on her style.
On her return to New Plymouth in 1953, Joy opened a small shop in New Plymouth. Rio Lita was a small, upstairs shop, which Joy decorated in a Mexican style. She sold one-off casual and eveningwear garments.
Joy’s business was welcomed by the New Plymouth community and before long she was asked to take part in a fashion show to raise money for Plunket. Joy had never been to a fashion show, let alone participated in one but the event was a success. She invited her friends and customers to model, and even took to the catwalk herself.
Joy stayed in New Plymouth a year longer than she planned, eventually selling the business after three years. She travelled to London where she briefly attended the Charing Cross School of Art in 1956. Joy worked in high fashion where she learnt to drape fabric on a model. But London was expensive so Joy travelled to Montreal in Canada to visit friends. Joy found work as a machinist for a French boutique, Celeste. On one holiday, she went with friends to the United States, taking a tour on a Greyhound bus.
After two years away, Joy returned to Auckland where she started working for Robin Weston. It was here that Joy met Colleen Frei and the pair hit it off immediately.
Colleen grew up in Auckland, later training in dressmaking at Bramleys. She worked for Colin Cole before starting at Robin Weston.
One thing that Colleen and Joy had in common was that they were not ready to settle down. Joy proposed a working holiday - "Let’s follow the sun". They handed in their notice and left for Queensland. They were working in the Hayman Islands when the idea of opening their own business came up. Once again they handed in their notice, moving to Melbourne to get more experience.
In Melbourne Joy and Colleen worked for an exclusive label that specialised in eveningwear. Before long they were ready to go out on their own. They found a workroom on 38 Airedale Street in Auckland, and by December 1958, Pour Vous model frocks was open for business.
Colleen and Joy decided to approach Smith & Caughey’s with some of their designs. 'Proper' cutting tables were initially too expensive so they cut out dresses on the floor of the workroom. But their extensive experience paid off. "The Smith & Caughey’s buyer was impressed that we’d sewn the zips in by hand. They asked us to make a dress for a fashion show," Joy recalls.
Before long, Pour Vous was being stocked in Smith & Caughey’s. The label was also stocked in Hayes in, Phyllis Kusab, James Smiths and Farrys. Flair in Whangarei was one of their biggest clients.
Needing more space, Pour Vous moved to the Hall of Commerce Building at 54 High Street in the early 1960s. They took over the Babs Radon workrooms when Barbara Herrick relocated her business to larger premises on Chancery Street. Joy describes the building as a "rabbit warren". They accessed their upstairs rooms by scrambling up and down a fire escape. There was a workroom/cutting room and another big room for finishers, and a kitchen.
In 1961, Colleen and Joy entered the New Zealand Gown of the Year competition with a figure-hugging sheath, 'Fleur d’Or'. Their design stood out among the flamboyant gowns on show but it was a full-skirted blue velvet and guipure lace gown that was proclaimed gown of the year. "New Zealand Gown of the Year voters rejected the unadorned modernity of Fleur d’Or in favour of old-fashioned romance," Claire Regnault wrote in The New Zealand Gown of the Year (2002). "Few of the 18,000 voters dared imagine themselves in a gown as bold and sexy as Fleur d’Or and consequently voted strapless full-skirted gowns into the first four places."
The 1961 Miss New Zealand contestant, Leone Main, did see herself wearing such a dress and she wore Fleur d’Or in the final judging event of Miss World in London. Despite not placing in the Gown of the Year competition, The Truth commented that "Fleur d’Or eventually proved its worth and achieved more worldwide fame than any other gown in the competition".
A Pour Vous garment did place in the Golden Shears Awards the following year. Impressed by the talents of their new designer, Annie Bonza, Joy and Colleen entered one of her designs into the awards - a black and white satin gown. Dressed in luxurious Pour Vous gowns, they attended the awards at the Auckland Town Hall "as an entourage".
At its height Pour Vous was employing 12 people, including two full-time beaders. When Annie Bonza left to work in Sydney, Carol Nollath joined Pour Vous as a designer. She made beautiful lace and organza ensembles for mother-of-the-bride and special occasion wear. Cynthia Bramley also worked for Pour Vous as a designer.
Two new labels were introduced - the junior label Dalida, and a range for mature women called Chez Couture designed by Mary Nola. A Hungarian refugee, Mrs Grizelia, worked from home sewing fabric flowers to match the gowns. Joy and Colleen purchased their fabric from wholesalers including Snow Raingers on Elliott Street.
In 1965, a heavily pregnant Joy left the business to start a family. Colleen continued to run Pour Vous with her husband and young children. They opened two Pour Vous retail stores in Takapuna and in the Strand Arcade but eventually closed the business in 1973.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Joy Gerbic and Colleen Frei in the Pour Vous workroom on Airedale Street, Auckland. Image © Joy Gerbic.
Last published February 2017.
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