Society Fashions

1923-2013 (Bill Hall)

Born in Wigan, Lancashire, Bill Hall served in the British Merchant Navy during World War Two. He came to New Zealand in the course of his duties and liked the country so much he returned in 1947 to live here permanently.

He worked in various jobs including mining on the West coast and as a barman in the Onehunga Working Men’s Club in Auckland. His first brush with fashion came when he was taken on as a sales rep by an Auckland milliner. From selling hats he moved on to selling coats, then dresses, his only income the commission he received on the garments he sold. Seeking more security, he went to work for an importing firm, re-entering the rag-trade in the late 1950s as sales manager for the fashion manufacturing firm Parisian. There he met designer Maurice Mihotich.

In 1961, Bill and Maurice went into partnership and started Society Fashions in an old house in Auckland’s Upper Queen Street. The cutters were installed in a bedroom, the buttonholer in the kitchen and the sitting room was transformed into a showroom. The partnership didn’t last long. Maurice left to found Miss Deb, leaving Bill the sole owner of the new enterprise.

The name Society Fashions was inspired by Bill and Maurice’s idea of social status. They wanted to appeal to teenagers and young women and the name referred to these women’s aspirations. This was the first era when young women’s clothes were different from those worn by their mothers, and Society, along with Miss Deb and Arthur and Nancy Delaney, who made the American teen label Jonathan Logan here under license, was one of the first New Zealand clothing manufacturers to perceive the potential in this market.

This Courreges-style dress by Society Fashions, 1966, takes its cue from what was happening overseas. The styling of the ad is perfect in every detail, right down to the chin-strap hat and cropped boots. Image © Robyn Hall.

Style direction always derived from overseas. Designs were usually re-interpreted for the New Zealand market, sometimes they were copied direct. Robyn Hall (then Smith), who joined the company as receptionist and house model in 1964, and later married Bill Hall, recalls the American magazine Seventeen as one source of inspiration but says that designs from Paris and London sold better. "Paris and Carnaby Street in London were full of these exciting new clothes and Bill was among the first to introduce them to New Zealand. In order to drum up publicity, he would dress me in the latest trend – Mondrian, Mary Quant, Courrèges, whatever – and have me walk up and down Queen Street, pretending to window-shop. The hope was that the New Zealand Herald or the Auckland Star would be taken by the look and publish a photo of me. And they did, from time to time."

Dress advertisement for Society Fashions, 1976.

Entering garments in fashion competitions was another way of attracting publicity. A New Zealand Fashion Showcase winner in 1970, Society Fashions won an Eve magazine award in 1971. The garments entered in the competitions often formed part of a larger themed group designed for retail. Robyn Hall remembers one called 'Ten Green Bottles' and another called 'Boggle Woggle'.

In 1970, Society Fashions won an Eve Magazine fashion award (a steel apple) for a Queen’s double-breasted coat and flared pants ensemble.

She also has memories of a look that was particularly successful when Society Fashions exported to Hong Kong (then a British colony) which they did on and off for a number of years. "It was called the Romantic Look, pale grey voile dresses with white collars and white guipure lace trims."

Although Bill Hall didn’t design the clothes he produced, he had a great eye for fashion and could pick a best-seller. As well as sending his designers overseas, he travelled widely himself. Gregarious and outgoing, he met regularly with people in-the- know, accessing insider information on what trends were moving and what was likely to be the 'next big thing'.

But while public reaction to the 'next big thing' tended to be favourable, finding retailers willing to stock it was something else again. According to Bill Hall, in conversation with the writer of this profile in 1986, one of the biggest frustrations he had to contend with over the years was retailer resistance to new ideas. He cited the mini as an example. "The thought of girls showing their legs horrified them and it wasn’t until Columbine came out with the first pantyhose that minis became easier for us to sell."

The return of the mini in 1982 saw the same old arguments trotted out, prompting a fed-up Bill Hall to open his own shop Queen’s – named for its location, Queens Arcade in Queen Street -  and sell his minis from there. The concept was to eliminate fashion store buyers, untrained to understand new trends, and to get stock early into store without going through an indent process.

The Queens collections in the 1980s reflected the sleek lines and bold shoulders of the period. Image © Robyn Hall.

Following the success of the flagship store, 20 more Queen’s shops were eventually established throughout the country. Some were 'shops within a shop' as in James Smiths in Wellington and H & J Smith in Invercargill. Others were stand-alone stores. In the 1980s, the company, now operating from a 14,000 square foot head office and factory in Henderson, began trading exclusively under the Queen’s label. The brand’s target age group had broadened by this time to encompass "older women with a young outlook".

Among the many talented people Bill Hall employed and mentored over the years were David Nathan, Mark Champtaloup, Mel Davies, Mike Saunders, Laurinda Sutcliffe and Peter Nola, all of whom went on to have successful fashion businesses of their own. Peter (Attic 80 and Peppertree) once described his former boss as a "very, very good businessman" and said he would have made an excellent Minister of Finance.

Society Fashions was the first New Zealand apparel company to computerise office procedure. Bill worked in-house with a US programmer for several months to write a program called SEAMS which covered customer orders, fabric utilisation by cloth and colour, production and delivery details. At that stage (1970s), this was used only in the manufacturing side of the business. Bill was also an early adaptor of retail programs and had these established for all Queen’s stores to cover sales, stock control and re-ordering. He also introduced in-season trading, a term referring to quick deliveries without having to take a range on the road and capture indent orders. The computer systems gave sell-throughs and retailers were automatically restocked within their budgets.

In addition to fashion, Bill Hall had another passion - game-fishing. Te Ariku Nui, the 15 metre Salthouse-designed boat, customised to his specifications for blue water game-fishing, was his pride and joy. In the late 1980s, he put Te Ariku Nui into charter in Australia and Tonga, leaving his wife Robyn to run the business. He continued to charter the boat until he was almost 80, building a second reputation in the game-fishing industry where he was highly regarded in New Zealand and internationally. He carried on game-fishing up to the time of his death, at the age of 90, in 2013.

By the time of Bill’s departure, Society Fashions had undergone a name change to High Society and the name Queen’s had also been dropped. With Robyn Hall in charge, further changes were made. Over time, she introduced new labels, Mosaic and Ann-Maree Chambers (later discontinued), Catalyst, Obi, an androgynous Japanese-inspired brand hence the name, and Chocolat with Jane Mabee. By the early 90s she was exporting to Australia. At its height, the company’s exports to Australia were in excess of $6 million per annum.

By 2016, Robyn was no longer involved with High Society on a daily basis but she retained the role of managing director. "Bill’s legacy is the knowledge, passion and integrity he imparted to me and all the others he mentored in the fashion industry," she said at the time. "The fact that the business is still operating successfully  after 55 years and steadfastly remains New Zealand-manufactured is a source of great pride."

In 2020, Robyn Hall made the decision to retire and close the business. One of New Zealand’s seminal 'youth' brands, High Society, or Society Fashions as it was called originally, outlived its major competitors Miss Deb, Peppertree and Thornton Hall by several years.

Text by Cecilie Geary. Banner image of Bill and Robyn Hall in the 1960s © Robyn Hall.

First published April 2016, updated September 2020.

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