A fashion co-op that spreads the risk between designers gives brands back their confidence

With 30 years in the fashion industry under her belt, Pearl designer Cris Roberts has seen a fair few trends come and go. Yet her passion for beautiful things and her pursuit of timeless fashion is celebrated in her new Osborne Lane "co-op" store.

United by a complementary aesthetic, Roberts and fellow designers Liz Mitchell, Amy Miller and Sally Govorko of Harlowe have embarked on a reinvented retail structure that aims to reduce the risk and debt stress the recession has forced on so many fashion businesses.

Both Roberts and her fellow designers' products are generally locally made and produced in small runs, something that is becoming unique in our economic climate as brands look offshore for cheaper production.

Localised, artisanal design and production lends itself perfectly to Roberts' innovative business model, whereby she sells her Pearl designs alongside capsule collections from Mitchell, Miller and Harlowe on consignment, much like the format of an art gallery.

Once a garment is sold the designer immediately receives payment for the goods - so immediate, in fact, that some of her designers have separate eftpos machines within the store. Roberts acts as the leaseholder for the space but the business is a shared responsibility.

"They are taking as much of a risk as me by making the clothes. That's their investment as I pay them for their garments when I sell them."

This takes the strain off Roberts, who doesn't have to invest in thousands of dollars of stock, and off the designers who immediately receive the money and don't have to wait months for payment.

The designers are then responsible for repaying Roberts the commission for their sold garments, much like an art dealer. This motivates the designers to create fresh product if a certain style isn't moving, and they don't need to invest a small fortune in stock that hasn't been trialled on the market.

"People used to do this in the 80s but it got a bit hard to manage. But in the current economic climate, I don't see how people can survive in a retail store without having someone else help out with the stock."

Roberts has done something similar before, sharing her since-closed Teed St store with another brand, but she found their brands weren't complementary enough. She opened a little store in O'Connell St in the CBD last October as a trial run of the project, and waited for the perfect location to arise. Quaint Osborne Lane, dotted with neighbours such as Sanderson Gallery, Bolt of Cloth, Pocket and Knock, Knock antiques, was ideal. The store has an industrial feel with brick walls, steel beams and marble floors, and offers expansive changing rooms and floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

To complement the space and the clothing, Pearl also sells beautiful antiques imported by one of Roberts' customers, Sharon Kempthorne, on the same consignment system.

Roberts describes the arrangement as "active retail", where the designers create small runs and there is a constant stream of new product. Not only does the stock not get stale but people are excited to see the store evolve from week to week.

"It's like a support network. It's about growing people's faith in themselves again, and the business."

Each designer's strength fills gaps within the customer base so it's not competitive. "Customers come in and buy three or four pieces from several designers. It's been a huge responsibility being all Pearl for eight or nine years, with everyone suggesting that I make this and that, and it makes you go out of your mind trying to please everyone.

"I tried to do knitwear, for example, but it's just not my forte. But Amy is so talented at it and is an expert with quality and cut, and fills our gap for knitwear."

Looking towards designing her summer collection, Roberts notes she'll be keeping it little and tight, and will let her fellow designers bring in things that complement it - almost like a large, integrated collection.

"I'm designing a collection that will fit in with Amy's knitwear and Liz keeps me posted on what she's doing. Amy uses a certain fabric and I'll use that fabric too, and I'll often lend Amy a pattern of mine. It's really friendly."

This friendliness makes Pearl an exciting place to observe. You'll see Roberts and her staff in the store chatting away and styling customers. Designers are constantly popping in to drop off new styles and discuss their upcoming collections. In the changing retail market, the Pearl collaboration offers a personal touch - bringing together a more individualised approach to design and styling from women who have a wealth of industry experience. In this tough time for retail, just by sharing the load a little more Roberts and her collective can continue to work in the business they've always loved.

? Pearl, Shop 5, 2/8 Osborne St, Newmarket, (09) 523 2228 pearlculture.co.nz


By Sophie Donovan