Silkbody, founded in Dunedin in 2002 by Emily Cooper and her father David, is an example of a thriving fashion enterprise - utilising New Zealand design and marketing skills and off-shore production - in the post-protectionist environment. It is also proof positive that you don't need bells and whistles to produce a successful clothing label.
Silkbody is the leading brand in the SilkLiving umbrella, alongside Silkbaby and Silksak. Silkbody specialises in the classic wardrobe fashion essentials most directional designers are too busy to bother about - the perfect travel pant, the indispensable singlet, the go-with-everything top in a variety of neckline and sleeve permutations. The knit fabric used in the collection, produced specifically for the collection in Jiangsu Province in China, is a luxurious lightweight blend of 13 percent merino, 15 percent cotton and 72 percent silk.
The silk story began when David Cooper purchased a silk sleeping-bag liner in Vietnam in the late 1990s. He was so impressed with the breathable, moisture-absorbent, thermo-regulating properties of the silk, he sought out the liner’s makers (a family of silk tailors in Hanoi) and bought more liners as gifts for friends at home. They proved to be so popular that he then began importing the silk liners into New Zealand and sold them through outdoor clothing and equipment stores nationwide under the name Silksak.
At this time, his daughter Emily graduated with a degree in Clothing & Textile Science from the University of Otago. She was also intrigued by the qualities of silk and proceeded to create a range of silk satin sheets, pillowcases and cushions under the name Silkliving.
In 2002, David joined Emily in the business. "We asked ourselves," says Emily, "what else we could do with silk?" The answer - silk knit underwear, with the appearance of outerwear, that could be worn as a base garment or on its own. After searching for and eventually finding the fabric that best suited their needs, Silkbody was launched. Starting out with tops in three styles and two colours - black and dark red - for men and women, the range has since expanded to include lounge pants, camisoles, cardigans, wrap dresses, swing skirts, leg-liners and other items, all defined by their easy fit and classic styling. The women's range is complemented by a menswear line and one for babies. "Basically, we went where the market prompted us to go," says Emily. "Our expansion was customer-led. Someone would ask 'Why don't you do ...?' and we would do it."
In 2017 the Coopers decided it was time to hand the baton forward. They had developed a brand with an international following but felt they had taken the business as far they could, and that the time had come for someone else to take it to the next level. Enter Laurian and Darryl Godwin from Wellington.
For some time, the Godwins had been searching for an opportunity that met their criteria of environmental and human rights issues. SilkLiving met these requirements completely. By its nature, sericulture (silk production) is neutral to the environment. The pesticide-free mulberry leaves on which the silkworms feed are a renewable and sustainable crop. Silk is also biodegradable.
The factories where all SilkLiving products are made – in China and Vietnam - are required to confirm to international social, ethical and labour standards. Six weeks of taking over the business Laurian visited the factories to ensure first-hand that they are being met.
At one stage, Silkbody was sold in 120 stores worldwide. Now, with the exception of four or five selected New Zealand stores, the range is now sold exclusively online. "This truly enables our global reach" says Laurian. "On any one day we could be sending orders to France, Chile, South Africa or Wales. We’ve even had orders from Afghanistan and the Honduras! Selling online enables us to showcase our full range to everyone, developing personal relationships with our customers via email. It also allows us to eliminate most of the packaging and merchandising that traditional Retail requires, which fits really well with our ecological sustainability values."
The Godwins opened a warehouse showroom from their Haining Street premises in Wellington. "We love the opportunity to showcase the luxurious feel of our silk fabrics to our customers – both local and destination visitors."
Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image © Silkbody.
First published August 2015, updated January 2019.