Up bustling Cuba Street is a clothing business catering for men, but run by women, which is celebrating twenty years selling high-quality locally made garments, often tailored specifically for clients.
Surviving in retail for twenty years is quite an achievement: doing it by designing, making and selling your own garments in the Wellington market is quite remarkable.
Mandatory is now a well recognised fashion label for the discerning male; its founders, Clare Bowden and Fiona Edwards, who met on the Wellington Poytechnic (now Massey University) fashion course, shun mass production for both commercial and ethical reasons.
More and more customers are seeking transparency in the supply chain of goods they purchase, and Mandatory trades on being local and bespoke, not foreign and mass produced.
The business began in June 1997 when the pair, with $5,000 and a lot of volunteer labour, moved into premises at 108 Cuba Street formerly occupied by the menswear shop Xenon, which sold pirate shirts and tapestry waistcoats.
Their makeover gave it a copper floor with beige and red signage, Clare recalls. “We sold student collections on consignment alongside Sale or Return stock from Marvel Menswear in Auckland, plush knitwear with velour yarn in bold block colours.”
Providing fresh designs every week for the rack and taking orders to custom fit the clothing was part of Mandatory’s style from the start.
Cuba Street, which had always been at the centre of the fashion and clothing manufacturing industry in Wellington, boomed as Wellington’s cultural, artistic, music and creative scene exploded in the late 90s. Cuba was a bit out there then, and it still is.
Clare started out managing the manufacturing workroom and moved to the shop floor during the global financial crisis of the early 2000s. These days she buys cloth and co-designs the range, coordinates the manufacturing schedule and works alongSide the managers of the workroom and the shop.
She says doing business now is harder than it was in 1997, and not just because they are over the initial burst of enthusiasm and zeal of a start-up.
“There’s more competition now. The global financial crisis had a huge impact. People are worried about job security.
“People are not as lavish in their choices as perhaps they were; they are more deliberate, more considered about their spending.”
So, what kind of clothing does Mandatory offer, and how has it enabled them to survive and thrive in a notoriously difficult industry?
Mandatory differs from most modern menswear stores in that it offers custom-fitted and custom-made garments for the same price as stock.
“Guys can shop according to their taste regardless of their shape, and trust that the garments will fit well and lasta long time.”
It’s a model that makes economic sense when using quality materials, and is one of the reasons Mandatory has earned a loyal following over the past two decades.
“We use the ends of runs from Italy and the USA, and sometimes from Japan, to source our fabric. An end of run for a major manufacturer is a tidy supply for us. And we upcycle our own ends to a children’s craft group to make patchwork garments.”
They respect and follow Vivienne Westwood’s mantra: “buy less, choose well and make it last.”
“We offer what guys like, and make it to fit them individually. And so we don’t overproduce all sizes in all colours in a small market.”
It makes commercial sense as well as being environmentally sound – and customers like it because they keep on coming back. “We are helping guys to shop well,” she says.
Clare explains the key to their success as “the ability to supply actual demand”. This way waste is reduced and costs are managed: “This has seen us last the distance. Garments designed, fitted, made well and sold for purpose are worn often and last longer while looking better than their massproduced, cheap counterparts.”
Clients are 30 to 60, and “often they are aging with us,” Clare says.
The environmental consciousness is quite explicit. The shop sells leather alternatives like the Matt and Nat brand, which makes manly vegan bags and luggage with linings made from recycled plastic bottles.
After 20 years Clare looks back. “We have an identifiable design style, and our clothing lasts a long time.”
Mandatory’s blog profiles the staff – all women, all creative, and all committed to the business. A couple of the machinists, who hand-make every garment, have been with Clare and Fiona for more than 20 years.
In 1997 Clare was in her late 20s. In another 20 years she’ll be of pensionable age, but she says she will still be at Mandatory.
“Sometimes it surprises me that I am still here, but I have incredible clients, decent, respectful, interesting men with amazing careers, a pleasure to be around.”