Peter Nola & Peppertree Fashions

1938-2015 (Peter Nola)

"Peter Nola gives the impression that he’s personally in love with every garment his business produces. He adores every stitch," wrote Rosemary McLeod in the 1980 edition of society tome The New Zealander. Thirty years later, that statement still rang true.

Peter spoke with an unrivalled passion about his many years in the ragtrade. "My time in fashion, which was all my life, really – I just loved it. Every minute of it,” he said. "It became an obsession, making women look beautiful."

And make women look beautiful he did – Peppertree Fashions, the apparel company he started in 1967 and ran for three decades, was immensely popular with female customers all over New Zealand and Australia, as well as customers as far-flung as Hong Kong, Nouméa, Tahiti and Norfolk Island. Major department stores like Kirkcaldie & Stains, Smith & Caughey, Sportsgirl and David Jones were just some of the retailers that the company had on its books.

"Peppertree was very exciting, very new and innovative," Peter told Apparel magazine in 2012. "When no one was doing frills and spills, I was doing them. When I started doing denim, the stores didn’t want to buy it – and then it became so popular that we couldn’t supply the demand!"

Peppertree tailored pantsuit with flared trousers, 1972. Model: Annabel Blackett.

Peppertree was one of those manufacturers which was focused on reproducing internationally sourced samples for the local market. "This was not hidden, but rather something that was actively promoted", wrote Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault in fashion history book The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design since 1940. This, for Peter, was where his success lay. "The travel I was doing at the time – to London and Paris and New York – meant I was ahead of most companies, because with my knowledge of the industry in those countries, the buyers would save me their best sellers," he said. "A lot of designers were creating what they thought was a top seller, but ours were actually top sellers. So we took the guesswork out of the business."

Peter was a close follower of designers like Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, routinely replicating their designs – with a twist for the New Zealand market. "In those days you could do versions of what the top people were doing and get away with it – there were no copyright rules enforced. So you could put three or four buttons on a garment instead of two buttons, just to make it a bit different," he said.

Interested in fashion since the time he was at school, Peter joined Society Fashions as a young man, training and working under Bill Hall. "I learnt a lot from Bill," he said. "At that stage you didn’t do an official apprenticeship – you worked and learnt the industry as you went along." This learning was later to be passed on to many of the staff who passed through Peppertree. Charles Parsons’ Brendon Austin and Mike Tololi, who founded successful fashion label Love Story, are just two prominent members of the ragtrade who cut their teeth at Peter's business. "We were like a teaching school to develop the rest of the business!" he laughed. "A lot of the top people in the industry now worked at Peppertree at some stage in their life."

Peter became well-known for his quarterly fashion breakfasts, for which buyers from all around the country, as well as Australia, would descend on Auckland. Around 15 models would display the latest fashions, while industry great Maysie Bestall-Cohen would coordinate and compere. In a 1986 edition of Fashion Quarterly, Cecilie Geary wrote of the most recent of these breakfasts, "This was his first big parade in two years and nothing, not even a 20 tonne concrete crane counterweight which crashed through the roof of the appointed venue – the Regent Hotel – two days before the show, was going to stop it going on. A few phone-calls, a quick switch to the Hyatt and everything progressed according to plan..."

Peter Nola at Peppertree headquarters, Auckland, 1986.

As well as dominating the New Zealand fashion landscape, Peter would later enter the arena of corporate apparel, claiming the largest share of the market by the end of the 1980s, according to The Dress Circle. "We made men’s and women’s jackets, pants and skirts for big banks like National Bank, ANZ Bank, Countrywide Bank … as well as airlines like Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and Ansett Australia," Peter said. "It became quite a big section of the industry." He also designed New Zealand's uniform for the Commonwealth Games in 1990.

Peter counts being presented with a greenstone trophy in 1997 for his achievements in the industry over a lifetime as one of his career highlights. "We also won numerous Benson & Hedges – so many that whole walls of my company were covered in Benson & Hedges awards!" He had great respect for his staff. "I had very clever people working for me who really cared about Peppertree. And I paid them well, so they put their heart and soul into what they did – and that was part of my success."

Peppertree Sport gathered skirt and off-the-shoulder cuff top. Fashion Quarterly 1987.

Peter said a successful fashion company had to have a point of difference - "and a magic that is unbelievable in their hearts". Its important to want to be very good at fashion, to the point where it becomes an obsession, he added. "Some nights I couldn’t sleep, I’d want to sketch things and create more styles!"

Despite leaving the industry for health reasons, his passion didn't wane. "There are some fabulous retailers and some really great looks around now," he said in 2012. "I’m in the stores all the time looking!" Peter passed away in 2015.

Text by Anna Loren, Apparel magazine, Dec-Jan 2012

Last published November 2013.

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