Wendy Ganley & Elle Boutique
1963–1976 (Elle Boutique)
Wendy Hall (nee Ganley) began her career in fashion early – designing clothes for her dolls with her best friend, the artist Barbara Tuck. This soon expanded into "twin wardrobes" and as teenagers the girls would travel with their mothers to Auckland to buy a special piece of fabric and to buy shoes from David Elman. They made their new creations with the help of Wendy’s dressmaker mother and the latest copy of Seventeen magazine.
Wendy took an academic course at high school; she had no idea what she wanted to do when she left. It was her love of colour, choosing fabric and making clothes that led her to a job working for Barbara Penberthy at Babs Radon in Auckland. "Barbara was a fabulous role model for me – a women with two children, running a family and a business. She worked with such elegance and it was a very special environment to have started my career, hand sewing in zips and neatening side seams with pinking shears."
Wendy considered herself fortunate to be able to help with the design and construction of the Babs Radon garments for the 1963 National Wool Awards competition when Barbara and her husband Don were presented to the Queen.
Later that year Wendy left Babs Radon to return to her family in Hamilton. She began designing and making garments in a small workroom in Frankton for her mother's friends. One of these friends, Elsie Young, asked Wendy to put on a Fashion parade at the Wintergarden for the Hamilton Orchid Society. "I had to get labels made for my garments in the fashion parade and Adèle (my middle name) was the quickest answer."
Wendy didn't comprehend the enormity of this event until many years later. A local retailer saw the parade and purchased 90% of her garments. This enabled her to move to a premise upstairs above a butcher’s shop in Victoria Street in Hamilton. There was a workroom in the back and the beginnings of what became Elle Boutique, at the front.
Fashion parades were extremely popular at this time. Wendy’s parades grew from small coffee lounge shows at lunchtime to small venues where they could have music. Eventually they graduated to Founders Theatre where local band Mandrake provided the music. "Mandrake’s Chris Thompson has since become hugely famous and would still say these were hard gigs to do as they had no breaks, the band just had to keep playing running from one song to the next. The models had no previous experience, weren't trained or dancers, but that was the fun and excitement of it all."
Wendy’s sisters, friends and staff were models. "I wanted the shows to be fun, no compere and not stiff and starchy, so we rehearsed and before a parade a shot of straight Vodka was often needed."
On occasion, Wendy worked with Murray Clarke menswear to put on the parades. "When we produced wine and cheese (sherry in a flagon and block cheese from the Waikato Dairy factory), the boyfriends came to the show as well."
Ann Fisher, the women’s editor at the Waikato Times loved that Elle was out of the ordinary and she was very supportive. Wendy describes Ann as giving her "the hand up that most young people don’t get these days". When Ann was told that she was favouring Elle Boutique over big advertisers in the fashion supplements, she simply stopped printing the suppliers’ names saying "if this is a fashion supplement it has to have interesting fashion".
Wendy describes this time as being such fun. She recalls going home at night to crochet snoods to sell in the boutique the next day and putting together colours because you liked the look of them, not caring if people would like or buy them.
Wendy opened her first Auckland boutique in 1966 in Wellesley Street West. "I decided to open in Auckland because we had developed a clientelle of ex-Hamiltonions and we were frequently packing the van and taking up clothes for fashion parades."
The first Auckland Elle was a very narrow premise with a circular staircase to the upstairs floor. Initially Wendy’s sister Sheryl ran the store; later with the help of Marilyn Sainty. Marilyn had worked at Elle as a junior and instantly demonstrated her talent for design. She was instrumental in creating the hats that were made to match the outfits. Marilyn left Hamilton to work in Sydney, where she started her label Starkers.
On her return to New Zealand in the early 1970s, Marilyn took over as designer for a year, which gave Wendy more time with her children. "Having a house as a workroom where the your babies could be part of your day and being able to do what you loved was a very special time." Wendy's daughters Aleida and Gemeli were born in 1971 and 1973, and Sheryl's son Scott was born in 1973. The children became part of the Elle workroom family.
The Auckland Elle Boutique moved to the top of Vulcan Lane in 1974. It was an old Vault with a small space upstairs and larger downstairs. The new store had a red front with a red awning over the window that was very visible from Queen Street. The upstairs was painted a glazed hot lolly pink and the downstairs colours of apple green and teal contrasted with the wooden slat dressing rooms. Liz and Neville Findlay also sold Elle in their Parnell boutique, Tart. They would travel to Hamilton to pick out stock.
Wendy’s husband Kerry joined her in the business in 1974 but after two years she left Elle when her marriage ended. She moved to Rotorua and started Wag Retail, later joining Derek Hall who had taken over the Jag Franchise from Walter Hart. Eventually the 12 Wag retail stores became the Jag Women’s and Jag Men’s Stores.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of an Elle Boutique sticker © Wendy Hall.
First published March 2014, updated June 2018.