Like its namesake, the 1981 hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls, the Dreamgirls fashion label had a long successful run. By 1990, the label, which made its debut in the early 1980s, retailed in 50 stores throughout New Zealand and 15 in Australia.
Forum Fashions, the company that started Dreamgirls, already had three labels in production – Forum Fashions, Chris Curtis and Paris Pants – when they hired Lynette Watkins (later Polley) in 1983. Lynette, who had just completed the two-year fulltime course in Apparel Technology and Administration at the Auckland Technical Institute, was singled out by course supervisor Manfred Seadon as one of the students in her class most likely to succeed in the rag-trade.
Lynette’s initial plan, on joining Forum Fashions, was to learn the manufacturing side of the business but it wasn’t long before the company’s owners, Bob and Lorraine Mountfort, recognised her design potential. The Dreamgirls label – target market, the stylish working woman with money to spend - was born, with Lynette in the designing role.
The Mountforts also opened a Dreamgirls boutique in Auckland’s Queen Street. Their acquisition of a street-frontage space in the newly erected Mid-City Centre, a fashionable shopping destination in the affluent 1980s, was considered quite a coup. Trend-setting shoemakers Andrea Biani occupied the shop on the opposite side of the building’s entrance.
Shortly thereafter, the Mountforts sold the shop and the business separately, the latter to Ward Wells Ltd, set up in 1976 by Noel Ward and Bruce Wells, primarily as a CMT (cut, make and trim) operation manufacturing for the likes of Society Fashions, Derek Batts, Glassons and Paulls. By the time it acquired Dreamgirls, the company had closed the CMT side of the business and produced only its own labels.
Lynette was part of the Dreamgirls deal. As she puts it: "Ward Wells bought the label and they bought me." There were no redundancy packages in those days so in the event of a business being sold, considerate employers often did their best to ensure their staff retained their jobs under new ownership.
At Ward Wells, Lynette was given full responsibility for Dreamgirls. She designed and produced the ranges and sold them into stores. She attributes her business and marketing skills to the excellent administrative training she received at ATI. In addition to covering all aspects of clothing, the ATI syllabus had a strong business focus which enhanced a graduate’s chance of future success.
On one of her business trips to London, Lynette, by way of an acquaintance, met up with a young English designer called Denise L’Estrange-Corbet. When Denise moved to New Zealand, Ward Wells employed her as a pattern-cutter. In partnership with Francis Hooper, she later founded the fashion label WORLD.
In 1988, Noel Ward and Bruce Wells came to an amicable parting of the ways. Noel kept the mass market, menswear and other brands while Bruce went on to establish Wells Apparel Ltd, taking with him the Dreamgirls label, Lynette and other staff members. By concentrating exclusively on Dreamgirls, the intention was to elevate the label to a higher level. "Lynette was an amazing talent and we worked well as a team," says Bruce. "We purchased fabric and made enough garments to meet our budget. Hours after we delivered the first styles, the phones started ringing and before long we sold all of the stock and we were repeating styles. We had a story to tell and were very clear with the subject matter but, most importantly, our belief in what we were doing was our strength."
Together, Bruce and Lynette travelled regularly to London, Paris, LA, New York and other fashion hot spots, people-watching and checking out style, fabric and colour trends. She says they never brought garments back and 'knocked them off', a then common practice amongst New Zealand manufacturers. She would sketch her ideas, a habit she acquired in childhood when she made drawings of clothes in a little book, and use them as a basis for her own original designs.
Aimed at the top end of the ready-to-wear market, the Dreamgirls look was one of timeless, easy elegance inspired in part by the design principles of American designer Donna Karan whom Lynette greatly admired. It was from Donna Karan that she borrowed the idea of incorporating cotton Lycra bodysuits into the Dreamgirls range. "Women loved them. They gave a slim line with none of the bunching you’d get with a tuck-in top or blouse."
Lynette’s pet love was dresses, for which the label became well-known, but she also designed urban separates – pants, skirts, jackets, coats, shirts, tops – colour-related pieces that worked together in various configurations. The colour palette tended to be subdued with an occasional strong yellow, red or blue surfacing among the pastels, neutrals and black.
Commenting on the diversity of Dreamgirls 1988 spring range in the Auckland Sun newspaper, Judith Baragwanath wrote that it could effortlessly stock an entire shop covering all day and evening activities for women from the early 20s through to the 50s. "And that includes women of all shapes and sizes."
Quality fabrics played an important part in every Dreamgirls collection. Many were sourced from textile houses in Germany and Italy, and the company imported a lot of silks. Lynette recalls there being a huge market for silk jackets. "One of our biggest sellers was a long-line silk jacket with shoulder pads, tapered at the hip."
Dreamgirls participated in the Corbans Fashion Collections and in the non-competitive section of the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards, Salute to New Zealand Fashion. The latter was introduced in 1984 to enable fashion manufacturers and designers to showcase their current collections to the wider New Zealand public. "Promotion was an important part of our plan," says Bruce Wells. "We knew we had the right product so we seeded it to the right television shows, television presenters and weather girls as well as advertising in magazines and exposing the brand wherever we thought it would be most beneficial."
Health problems at the end of the 1990s forced Lynette Polley to give up what she describes as her "dream job" and the label she nurtured for almost 15 years. After she left, Bruce Wells, with the support of his wife and three daughters, took over as designer and rebranded the label as Wells, effectively bringing the Dreamgirls era to an end. Citing apparel imports and higher costs, the Wells family sold the business in 2003.
Now living in Vancouver, Canada, Bruce Wells is CEO and partner of a global company that designs and manufactures snowboards, snowboard apparel and footwear. Lynette Polley resides in Invercargill where she devotes her time to philanthropic activities.
Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image of Dreamgirls designer Lynette Polley in 1989 wearing a Dreamgirls floral viscose dress and double-breasted linen jacket.
Last published June 2017.