A life-long love of dressing up led Trelise Cooper to create her namesake brand which has been popular for over three decades with women who also love to feel glamorous. As well as becoming known locally and internationally for her successful fashion endeavours, she has dedicated a great deal of her time to charitable work, recognising the importance of giving back to the community that has supported her.
From her earliest memories Trelise took a strong and active interest in what she wore. Although she didn't come from a home sewing background and never learnt to sew, Trelise started out in fashion in the early 1980s without formal training but with a knack for picking feminine garments that sold well. With the support of her husband, local textile wholesaler Jack Cooper of Cooper Watkinson Textiles, she opened her own boutique, Limited Editions by Trelise Cooper, at 20 High Street, Auckland in 1985 and quickly gained a strong following for her smart label.
Limited Edition's popularity was further enhanced when her garments were worn by the glamorous characters in local drama series Gloss, a soap opera set in the offices of a fictitious fashion magazine. Limited Editions garments were often prized pieces and in 2017 an elegant black velvet cocktail dress was included in the Walk the Walk exhibition.
In 1989, in the wake of the stockmarket crash Trelise closed Limited Editions and focused on being a full-time mother to her son, Jasper. Later, she worked at Classic Fashions as a designer before Wellington retailer Penny Barnett encouraged her to start a label under her own name. This decision, in 1997, set Trelise on a path that has seen her become a household name in New Zealand. Her eponymous flagship boutique was opened the next year in Parnell, Auckland and is still a favourite shopping destination for ladies who appreciate her eye for occasion dressing.
From the start the aesthetic of the Trelise Cooper label has been one of romance and femininity with the designer favouring luxurious fabrics, delicate lace and sparkling embellishments to create garments that are bold, eye-catching and flatter the female silhouette. Strong colours, signature prints, attention to detail and dramatic shapes make her garments stand out on the street and on the runway. Although she has simplified the style of the label in recent years she has remained true to her vision that fashion is the 'theatre of dreams'.
Trelise Cooper is also a savvy businesswoman and was quick to capitalise on her success introducing diffusion lines Luscious, Doll and Cooper Weekend to cater to a diverse clientele and developing export markets first into Australia and later expanding to other parts of the world including the United States and Europe. In 2001, Trelise Cooper won the NZ Export Award with 50% of the annual turnover of $8 million coming from export sales, a significant achievement for a designer clothing company from New Zealand.
Since the inception of New Zealand Fashion Week in 2001 Trelise Cooper’s collections have made regular high profile appearances on the runway, with shows that are big on production values, exuberantly colourful and styled in keeping with the luxurious aesthetic of her brand. In 2002 Trelise began her partnership with the Mercedes-Benz brand which has turned into a long standing relationship.
As demand for her designs developed she dropped, amended and added other diffusion lines; a lingerie label in 2005 and the incredibly popular Trelise Cooper Kids range in 2006, with the Trelise Cooper Kids’ Newmarket boutique winning the supreme award at the New Zealand Retail Interior Design Awards in 2007.
Expanding her reach even further, in 2006 she was producing Trelise Cooper sunglasses and reading glasses, along with Trelise Cooper Interiors, a range of soft furnishings. Her first signature fragrance 'Trelise' was released, as an eau de parfum and eau de toilette, in 2009. A collaboration with New Zealand Mint Jewellery in 2010 produced a whimsical range of sterling silver pieces titled 'Locket Full of Secrets'. Trelise Cooper Boardroom which caters for the wardrobe of the executive woman, and Coop by Trelise Cooper which is aimed at the youthful 18 – 25 age group were launched at New Zealand Fashion Week 2011. A successful collaboration with Ezibuy in late 2013 introduced an eclectic range of home wares under the Trelise Cooper brand.
Her position at the forefront of New Zealand fashion was acknowledged by Air New Zealand in late 2009 when Trelise won the contract to design new uniforms for the airline’s 5000 staff. It was a challenging project to accommodate the practical requirements of airline life, the varied body types of the staff and the expectations of the general public who expect our national carrier to represent New Zealand to the world. When her designs were unveiled in 2010 there was the inevitable criticism, but when they were finally released in 2011 they were mostly positively received. They are still in service today and in 2019 were selected for inclusion in the Moana Currents exhibition.
Trelise Cooper continues to review her business and her production, making changes to meet the constant challenges of the market. Joining the digital age she opened an online store in 2011, which has grown to become an integral and highly successful part of the current retail business. 2014 was to be was a particularly strong year for Trelise and saw her become the first New Zealand designer to receive the prestigious Mercedes-Benz Presents accolade at New Zealand Fashion Week. Previous recipients have included the likes of Badgley Mischka, Narciso Rodriguez, Carolina Herrera and closer to home, Australia’s Carla Zampatti. She was also inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame for Women Entrepreneurs in recognition of her success in business and her philanthropic endeavours.
Alongside her work in fashion, Trelise is involved with a number of charities. She is a patron of the Breast Cancer Research Trust and the Auckland Returned Services Association. She has built houses for Habitat for Humanity locally and internationally and supports the environment by designing and encouraging the use of re-usable eco shopping bags which are for sale in New Zealand supermarkets.
Trelise was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to fashion and the community in 2004 and a decade later was named a Dame Companion in the same order, an honour shared by her close friend and founder of New Zealand Fashion Week, Dame Pieter Stewart.
Currently there are over 300 stockists of Trelise Cooper throughout the world including Australia’s high end department store David Jones and flagship boutiques in New Zealand and Australia.
Her belief in the transformative power of dressing well and looking good has seen her dream of establishing a fashion label turn into an international success story. A prolific designer, Trelise Cooper continues to create exuberant and colourful garments such as the 'Shed-a-Tier dress' included in the Moana Currents exhibition.
Text by Evelyn Ebrey. Banner image of Trelise Cooper on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week, 2014. Image © Trelise Cooper.
First published November 2015, updated November 2019.