How one label survived the GFC while other fashion houses closed their doors

Trelise Cooper | Photo: Belinda Rolland

Dame Trelise Cooper is enjoying her most profitable year yet.

By Cameron Bayley

Call it the blonde offensive. Pale ringlets may be New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper’s trademark coiffure, but it’s more than that.

“I think my hair makes people think that I’m frivolous and kind of wafty,” Cooper says with a laugh.

“And what they get when they start working with me is actually ‘Watch out, she knows what she’s doing!’. I think I’m underestimated.”

Cooper is sipping coffee in her boutique in Sydney’s well-to-do Woollahra during a visit to host a fashion show for CPA Australia.

It’s a bright morning, and she’s brought some of that outside glimmer in with her, wearing a dress of green and pink sparkly brocade – a trademark Trelise Cooper design. Chic, but fun.

“It’s feminine,” says Pieter Stewart, founder of New Zealand Fashion Week, when she describes Cooper’s aesthetic.

“She understands women’s bodies, she understands how things should fall and what makes it work on different types of body.”

The garments on the racks lining the store are, literally, dazzling – metallics, digital prints, sequins, tartan (and even sequined tartan).

"You don’t get to where I’ve got to without a great team behind you. People make your business." – Trelise Cooper 

Perhaps to let the clothes shine their brightest, the boutique has a demure, yet luxe interior – pale walls, gilt-framed mirrors, fashionably distressed armoires and soft, lamp lighting.

It’s not just Trelise Cooper’s designs that are busy. As well as her namesake label, Cooper has three more diffusion lines – Cooper, the weekend-wear sister of her main line; COOP, a youth-focused range; and Boardroom, for on-trend executive style.

But how does she know which hat she’s wearing at any one time?

“I can only really focus on what I can focus on that day. So if I decide it’s a Cooper day, that’s all I look at. I try not to get distracted by a Trelise,” she explains.

“Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, that gets my focus at that time.”

he focus is clearly paying dividends. After a restructure, the business that is Trelise Cooper has just reported its most profitable year yet.

And that’s despite the global financial crisis and the curve ball that e-tail has thrown to more boutique labels.

The online side of the business is booming and the restructure was a masterstroke.

"We had information that said ‘if you keep going like this it’s not gonna look good’. We had to look at the way we funded our debt – that was a big part of it – there was a whole raft of things we looked at,” Cooper explains.

All up, over about two years, as well as overhauling its processes, the business lost about 15 people.

“What it allowed us to do was take out a layer of huge salaries, and painful as that was, it was necessary. It’s meant a much more streamlined, tighter-controlled machine. This last financial year has been our most profitable ever,” she says.

It’s also given Cooper a comfort level over cash flow – a huge stumbling block for many in the fashion business, she explains, because of the huge lag between the inception and creation of a collection and the eventual income it brings.

These days, the Trelise Cooper stable counts 10 stores in Australia and New Zealand, and one in Kuwait.

There is also an online store and various distributors and stockists around the globe, selling her designs into Europe, Asia and the United States.

Her garments have been worn by celebrities as diverse as Sharon Stone, Reese Witherspoon, Miley Cyrus and even Michael Jackson’s children – the late singer would select the adult-sized items, and Cooper’s team would customise the outfits.

The designer was recently invited to submit items for the Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of New Zealand (although Catherine opted to wear outfits by another New Zealand-born designer, the UK-based Emilia Wickstead, during her trip).

Trelise believes the perfect dress can be transformative | Photo: Penny Lane

Trelise believes the perfect dress can be transformative
Photo: Penny Lane

When pushed about the secret to her success, Cooper says: “I think I have a street-smart savvy, and I go on gut instinct.”

She’s all about listening to your inner mentor. “I think it’s about constantly having your GPS, your intuition, on full alert,” the designer explains.

“Any time that I have the sense that something’s not right, I investigate it. We get given that internal gut instinct, that GPS, and I don’t think enough people listen to it. I think that’s the difference [between me and] someone who’s perhaps been trained to think in a particular way.

I haven’t had any formal training in anything, but I’ve trained myself at my University of Trelise and made mistakes, lots and lots of them. But no judgement, you don’t make it again and mop up as quickly as you can.”

Stewart has witnessed this approach. “There’s not an ego, or any sort of envy of anything, it’s just sort of ‘Get on and do what I’m doing and do it well’,” she says of Cooper.

“She has huge energy. I don’t know how she does it.”

However, even a GPS can malfunction, and Cooper admits there was one huge aspect of her business where she almost took the wrong road.

It was her husband, Jack, who had to take the wheel and steer the brand online.

“I was like: ‘My customer loves to come in, feel the textures, see the colour, have the experience’. He said: ‘I think you’re wrong about that’. In order to appease him I said OK.”

She lured Jack out of retirement to run the online side of things two years ago.

“Now it’s our largest store. We’ve got some very high turnover bricks-and-mortar stores, and yet the online outstrips them. I’ve had to eat masses of humble pie, every day,” Cooper says.

She says it was the simultaneous rise of online shopping coupled with the onset of the global financial crisis which dealt a blow to the fashion industry.

For her, the impact was bigger in Australia than in New Zealand, and many of her stockists fell by the wayside.

“They left big holes in turnover. [But] this industry has these cyclical changes, and you have to get on board with them quickly and recognise it’s changing, and put things in place to ride the change,” she explains.

“It’s never going to change back.” Hence the introduction of her Boardroom and COOP lines which target different customers and widen her market presence.

Building a successful brand has also made her an attractive prospect for external parties, which have offered the business other income streams, such as jewellery, fragrances and especially her home-wares range, available through online retailer EziBuy.

“They approached me, and I get a royalty off that. I have to give some time, not a massive amount of time, but it’s pure profit. In fact I have to actually sell about A$3 million worth of clothing to make that sort of profit.”

Cooper launched her fashion design business in 1985 in a small shop in Auckland.

Trelise hosted an exclusive showing for CPA Australia at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in June

Trelise hosted an exclusive showing for CPA Australia at

Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in June

“It’s been a real wild ride, a fabulous ride and I have loved every minute of it. There have definitely been challenges, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way, but I don’t feel like three decades have gone by,” she ruminates.

She married quite young, at 17, and was in a building business with her first husband before starting her own personnel agency.

However, a love of fashion, a penchant for visualisation, plus meeting and marrying her current husband, Jack, who was first in denim and then fabric imports, became the impetus to move into something more rewarding.

“In those days, talking about having a dream was actually a new thing,” says Cooper.

The idea of writing down your dreams – “in full technicolour and detail” – and then hiding them away may not be taught at Harvard, but for Cooper it had credence, and still does.

“They’ve actually scientifically examined this, and there is a scientific reason that your brain accepts it. When you write it down, it takes it from subjective to objective.”

It’s hard to argue with her over this. The proof is in, well, the Woollahra boutique.

Cooper had always loved clothes but never envisaged a career in it.

However, a spiritual guru inspired her to work towards making it all happen.

“I started with one store and a workroom, just using outworkers and contractors, but I quickly learnt that my work would be put aside for a bigger person, so I got my own workroom plus my own magnificent patternmakers and sewing people,” she says.

Business struggled a bit, and after the 1987 stock-market crash Cooper took time out to travel the world with Jack and her son, Jasper.

On her return, she worked with another fashion group to which she had licensed her label but soon decided it was time to take back control.

Cooper has worked for many years with some very successful companies, the likes of MAC and L’Oréal – and solid sponsorships have always been an integral part of her business strategy.

“We have 22 significant brand partners that we’ve had for a long time. I’ve had both Mercedes and La Mer from the beginning. With the global financial crisis, there were no sponsors to be had anywhere [but] we kept all of ours,” she says proudly.

So how does she earn such loyalty? “I have a true belief that it’s partnership not sponsorship, and it’s win-win,” says Cooper.

This means allocating tickets for her Fashion Week shows (she does back-to-back shows, one for media and industry, followed by one for her own sponsors and retail guests), and also running events through the year for each company which backs her. 

Trelise's focus is clearly paying dividends | Photo: Belinda Rolland

Trelise's focus is clearly paying dividends | Photo: Belinda Rolland

“They’ll invite their top clients and we host the show. We have beautiful canapés, wine, put on a show – and that’s how they actually treat their customers. What that means is that we get a whole raft of people in who wouldn’t necessarily visit our stores" she says.

"To me, that’s how sponsorship works, but surprisingly, not a lot of fashion designers get that. They’re ‘Give me the money, honey, and I’m off’, so they don’t get [the funding] the next year.”

But Cooper wouldn’t be satisfied with her Trelise Cooper brand if there wasn’t a hefty dose of community involvement as well.

“That’s the only way I want to live my life, in the service of others and giving back to the community – and that very much comes from my father and mother,” she says.

Cooper is involved with Habitat for Humanity, which builds housing in disadvantaged communities (she organised a group of women, including Stewart, to go to Chiang Mai in Thailand to construct a house) and sponsors Tomorrow’s Foundation, a children’s charity in India.

“I’d be broken-hearted if I couldn’t participate and give back,” Cooper says. “It makes for a really huge life.”

It’s little surprise then that at the start of this year the designer was made a dame in the New Zealand New Year’s Honours (she became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004).

“To be really honest, I did not want to accept it, I didn’t feel worthy. And I also didn’t want any more separation between me and my public profile, so I really struggled. [But] it’s actually made me more accessible to a whole lot more people. I’ve had the busiest year because of it,” she says.

And her nickname has been adjusted, too – from TC to DTC.

Fellow New Zealand dame, Pieter Stewart, says that the secret to Cooper’s rise is simple: “She evolves and she meets the market. Knowing her customer is the main thing.”

As a designer Cooper knows that, just like her written-down dreams, the perfect dress can be transformative.

And she’ll keep doing whatever it takes to make her garments the ones women choose to take into the fitting room.

“There’s no slow deliberating,” she says with a shake of those deceptive curls. “I think you’ve got to be dynamic. Fleet-footed.”

What Trelise Cooper has learned

You don’t get to where I’ve got to without a great team behind you. People make your business.

There has to be a fit with a values culture. I think I’ve learnt to be much quicker about those people that don’t fit and kind of become the rotten apple – they actually need to go really fast.

Information allows for informed decisions and for me that’s everything. If I’ve got measurement, if I’ve got knowledge, I can make an informed decision.

“Nothing wrong with it – everything right with it.” I train all my staff to use this. I can look at something and go: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it”, and that’s me saying it’s ordinary. I go for: “Everything right with it.”

This article is from the October 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.