From 1960s fashion technology pioneer to Export Commendation award winner; from stonewashed denim flares to occasionwear and back again - iconic New Zealand label Vamp’s founder has quite a rag trade story to tell.
Walter Patrick Hart was born in 1939 in Wellington - the eldest son of five children. His father was a barrister and solicitor at the New Zealand Treasury. His mother was what Walter describes as an 'haute couture' designer/dressmaker, very well known through the Wellington region - whose work intrigued her young son.
Walter wanted to be a panelbeater, but a colleague of his father’s - a government vocational minister - suggested he study what was then called 'clothing'. He accordingly studied at Wellington Technical College, nights and Saturdays - no weekday course in clothing was available at that time.
Initially entering the fashion industry as an apprentice cutter/tailor at tailoring and manufacturing company Theo Wilson, Walter completed the requisite 10,000 hours over five years. He is at pains to point out that at that time, within the 10,000 hours apprentices were taught tailoring, sewing, cutting and pressing. You were a clothing manufacturing apprentice and you learnt the lot."
At the end of the apprenticeship Walter was instructed to leave the garment industry by the surgeon at Wellington Hospital, as dust fibres and dye released in the manufacturing process were problematic for his health - his nose having been thrice-broken playing rugby. "If you break your nose one more time I will refuse to fix it," said the surgeon. He made a living working from home for a while, stovepiping jeans for his friends and cropping them a little to show the new Bodgie-style fluro socks and big shoes.
In 1963 Walter joined fashion manufacturing company Fashions Limited as a cutter. He was sent to Fashions Limited’s New Plymouth plant - with 180 staff plus three external factories - on the proviso that if he put in two years, he would be then be sent to London for specialised training. Fashions Limited were tired of bringing English tailors out to New Plymouth, only to find the imports didn’t like the quiet town and left before the investment in them had been realised.
At 25 Walter was duly send to London to study pattern making, the new technology of fusible interfacing and computerisation - just at its beginnings in the fashion industry - for a year. He worked at a massive factory in Luton employing many Italian and West Indian immigrants, who helped to manufacture the likes of sophisticated, beautiful coats and Goray skirts (the factory exported 11,000 per week to Europe).
On Walter’s return in 1966 he was tasked with applying the methods to the New Plymouth factory at Fashions Limited’s plant - not an easy job given that many of the people he was training were tailors of decades’ experience and seniority, fearful of losing their jobs. The tailors’ fears were never realised because the new processes required their experience - fusible interfacing or not, you still had to know how to put a garment together.
With the plant operating smoothly and the new technology in place, Walter had just returned to Wellington when Fashions Limited offered him a role in Auckland at their renamed company, Classic Fashions. They had purchased the Sportscraft label from Ross & Glendining and acquired Classic Fashions and wanted Walter to help with management of the new ventures.
In 1971, after three years working at Classic Fashions in Auckland, Walter left to manage the new Fotheringay Boutique. He worked with "clever, flamboyant" Sharman Maich to design, produce and manage Fotheringay's collections. Fotheringay had been set up by Colin Kay, owner of the House of Flackson, as a boutique above his Karangahape Road shop. "It was the first real boutique shop in New Zealand," recalls Walter.
The boutique and label were named after a Scottish heavy metal band with which Sharman had previously been touring in England. The shop’s decor was bohemian - heavy velvet drapes, dim lighting, black painted floors. Sharman played Jim Morrison and heavy metal bands on rotation and Fotheringay soon became the 'in' boutique.
Walter formed a small workroom on the premises to work on design, cut patterns and produce garments - floor length velvet coats and big full circle wool skirts in big checks.
The boutique was immediately successful, and four more Fotheringay boutiques were established in the Flacksons stores. To cope with the increased volume Walter set up a factory in Upper Queen Street and employed more staff. Sharman left to open a boutique in Victoria Street, called The Case is Altered, with Penny Maich. She was replaced as designer by Brigid Brock and later, Elisabeth Findlay.
At this time there were only a few boutiques in the country; notable were Elle Boutique in Hamilton, and Tigermoth and Hullabaloo in Auckland. Retailers all around the country wanted to stock Fotheringay, but Flackson wanted to retain the brand exclusively. To meet the demand, with input from the Fotheringay designers as well as Walter’s own design team, the Vamp label was established in 1973. Its logo - a woman penned in black sporting heavy makeup - was inspired by Sharman, who had beeen described by a label artist working with Walter as "She’s just a vamp, that girl!"
Vamp quickly established itself, its styling virtually the same as Fotheringay, but with a twist. The demand from stores around the country was so great that consignments were shipped sight unseen, and no garment was ever returned. "We were pretty famous in those days!" says Walter. He also launched a menswear label, SuperStud.
Vamp’s range of denim was a key part of their offering. Walter had seen stonewash starting to appear overseas and he worked with a small laundry, C&F, to develop a stonewashed jean range which was an immediate success. The C&F owners drove to Taupo to source trailer-loads of pumice integral to the process.
Around this time, Walter partnered with Derek Hall - the owner of denim garment manufacturer Hall Manufacturing in Rotorua - to propose to Jag that they become the Jag franchise holder for New Zealand. Jag agreed - the first time anywhere in the world they did a franchise deal - a stipulation being that Walter must build a flagship store to a very detailed and luxurious Victoriana specification. He borrowed money from his father and three months later opened in the Victoria Arcade in Victoria Street in central Auckland.
The opening was fashion dynamite. With fitting rooms full, women changed clothes (the likes of washed-down, super tight denim with deep gold stitch detail, applique, tapestry and overdye) in the arcade itself. The store had to close within five days of its opening so that Walter could replenish the stock. He paid his father back shortly after Jag opened.
After two successful years, Walter sold his share of the Jag business back to Derek Hall and his wife Wendy Ganley. Jag were moving up market into the Adele Palmer arena and the shift pitted the merchandise directly against Walter’s own Vamp label.
Walter’s business continued to grow so his brother Tony moved from Wellington to Auckland to assist. The brothers formed a separate company, Harbro, and using the Vamp model started supplying price-pointed garments to Woolworths and Shanton. This expanded into swimwear, and in 1981 Moontide was born. The new label shifted into its own premises, and under Tony's management, it grew to be a global brand.
Meantime Walter differentiated his jeanswear from the dressier end of his production, forming new sportswear label VSSP. He moved the business to new Newmarket premises, where Barry Wadman joined with the Rage and Vertice menswear labels. Barry had been left with a lot of factory space when menswear label Barkers went vertical and started manufacturing offshore - one of Rage’s factories had been supplying 42,000 shirts to Barkers each year.
When Vamp sales manager Wayne Brown left in 1990 to start his own label, Susie Walker joined the company as sales and marketing manager. Walter quickly noticed Susie’s "wonderful creative talent". Susie had been CEO of swimwear label Expozay in the USA and Australia. Walter decided to launch in Australia in 1993 but there was one glitch - a dubious lingerie manufacturer already had the Vamp brand there. Walter declined to accept the brand holder’s exorbitant offer and rebranded Vamp with a label he already had acquired from Barry - Vertice.
In 1996 when competitor label Hero joined Dress for Less and went vertical, Hart Manufacturing developed the label Epic to fill the gap in the market. Epic was closed down when Dress for Less closed and Hero’s founders launched new Vamp competitor Verge.
In 1997, Walter reached one of the pinnacles of his career - a New Zealand Department of Trade and Industry export commendation award for achieving AUD$4.2m in exports. Walter says that it was a thrill for his staff and admits that he was proud to be recognised for his achievements by the business community. On hearing the fashion side of the industry described as a 'twilight industry', he joined with Jack Cooper and Paul Blomfield (adding financial support alongside fellow industry heavyweights) and started the Fashion Industry New Zealand - not-for-profit organisation to provide representation and support for the industry.
At its largest in 2004, Hart Manufacturing employed 65 staff (110 others indirectly at external factories), sold into 230 stores in Australasia and 100 in New Zealand, produced 160,000 garments in New Zealand annually, and exported 50% of its production to Australia. Two additional labels had been successfully added to the stable: ART-TEASE (an art-based embellished t-shirt collection) and LUXE, a special occasion brand that evolved from the company’s participation in New Zealand Fashion Week.
In 2006 Susie Walker left the company to take up a position as USA export manager for streetwear label Huffer. "Susie could foresee that all the big international retailers were going to enter Australia, and online shopping was on the rise. We anticipated that smaller boutiques would go into demise," Walter recalls. He describes his own realisation that the market in Australia was dropping off rapidly, and that he was going to have to pull the business back when it had hitherto always gone forwards, as a low point.
In 2012 a dear friend of Walter’s was diagnosed with cancer. He decided then, at 70 years old, that he wouldn’t do another range. "I had reached a point in my life where I was looking for a bit more freedom, I wanted to be semi-retired."
Ah-hah! moment aside, this was a typically calculated business decision. "We thought it out really careful and decided that there was no real future for a New Zealand manufacturing company of the size of ours - we were still 50% made in New Zealand at that point."
The labels were put on the market and have subsequently been retailed at Farmers by Ben Nathan. Walter quietly wound down the business. He waited for a year to do so, until all his staff had jobs to go to - it’s a point of pride that the Hart Manufacturing reputation meant they were quick to be re-employed. He gave the machinists their machines and many of them now have home-based businesses.
Walter's desired retirement was only partial - four of his staff have stayed on as part of the reconfigured importing and distribution business that he started. He finds the new incarnation of his business genuinely interesting. In this instance, you can’t take the man out of the rag trade.
Text by Julie Roulston. Banner image of Walter Hart and models, 1970s. Image © Walter Hart.
Last published February 2016.