Barbara Lee is synonymous with fashion, especially in Christchurch. Under her undoubtedly stylish belt, she boasts a lengthy career in fashion that saw the opening of three stores, numerous show-stopping catwalks, wild success overseas, and a loyal client base comprised of eager Christchurch shoppers, New Zealand schools and corporate clients. Ella James looks back on a wonderful career with the icon herself.
It’s a near impossible question.
When your career in fashion is as expansive as that of Barbara Lee, a
fashionista who stepped into the limelight in the sixties – and
stayed there – asking for a ‘career highlight’ isn’t easy.
“You are quite right. It is impossible,” says Lee.
There were the three grand openings for her retail store Panache, she designed and manufactured a uniform for Air New Zealand that was worn by “national, international cabin crew, flight crew, airport and travel centre staff worldwide for almost 15 years; and she watched Miss New Zealand win the award for best gown in the Miss World competition wearing Lee’s Seychelles Dress. That’s a pretty good start.
While working as a receptionist, Lee’s fashion sketches caught the eye of a manufacturer walking past her desk, and, by the summer of 1968, her first brand, Granny’s, was born. Despite being a success in its own right, Lee retired the brand in 1973, went on an OE with her then-boyfriend William, and focused on her next label, Panache (1978).
Panache’s offering was just as the name suggests; bold, self-assured clothing with abundant charisma. With a High Street location and an on-site workroom, Panache was a favourite of fashionistas eager to get their hands on the must-have pieces or draw inspiration from the countless fashion shows – if there was one thing that Barbara Lee loved as much as fashion, it was planning and executing wonderfully dramatic events.
When asked about Panache, Lee talks fondly of the opening of each of its three locations, which were always accompanied with a fashion parade. “I love fashion shows and the joy, relief and the thrill that each store was finished and open on time.” For Lee, the beauty of the retail space was that “it was possible to display the collections to our fabulous clientele in the way we liked, with somewhat theatrical parades.”
Defining a standard working day for Barbara Lee during the Panache Period is no easy feat, but most days included a morning coffee in the on-site workroom with the entire team, including husband and business partner William. Here, they would “discuss anything and everything, and even a bit of business, on occasion”.
While working on a collection, tightly knit teamwork came into play more than ever. “Pam was in charge of sampling and Lizzy would be working on the patterns. We all loved creating a new collection,” and it showed. The results of their unwavering hard work were fun collections of clothes that “make us all smile”.
Always ahead of the game, Barbara Lee was quick to recognise the importance of visual merchandising. So, many days were spent working on the store’s window displays with shop manager, Jenny. These displays were undoubtedly part of Panache’s recipe to success.
Barbara Lee also used New Zealand Fashion Week as a platform on which to showcase her designs. “Jenny, Pam and I would generally do a show at New Zealand Fashion Week. We would move to an apartment in Auckland with tonnes of clothes and accessories. We would set up a temporary workroom with Pam’s sewing machines so that we could make adjustments to the clothes after the model’s fittings. What an adrenaline rush Fashion Week is!”
Back in Christchurch, the team flew their flag for working hard and playing hard. Lee recalls often finishing the day “with a cocktail at the very handy and fabulous Christchurch Temperance Society bar”. Owned by two local men, the bar was a popular spot with local businesses and there was even a cocktail named ‘The Barbara Lee’, which I’m sure tasted just as sweet and fresh as her designs.
As well as the successes, Lee still appreciates, and looks back fondly on, the challenges and set-backs that took tremendous strength to overcome.
“The fashion business is not for the faint-hearted,” Lee surmises. “You are only as good as your last collection” – remaining relevant was of gigantic importance.
A cash flow that included suppliers that needed to be paid promptly versus retailers who were often slow to cough up for their stock was always hard to balance.
With challenges that included the Christchurch earthquakes, a certain strength and determination was required. Fortunately, Lee has both in abundance. “The joy of making something that you’re really, really thrilled with [and] the customers who love wearing our clothes” made it all worthwhile.
Lee has benefitted from encouraging family and friends and a husband who “enjoyed the business side” to their relationship.
It is because of William that Lee believes the business took off and operated so very well. “Any success would have been somewhat a non-event if I was left to organise the business side of things,” she states. With William’s support, Lee was “able to work on the garment design, fabric choice, all of the interesting things, with the help of our remarkably talented production manager/sample machinist and our brilliant pattern cutter. How fabulous was that?”
Fashion is the “business where you are only rarely drinking Champagne”, so Lee is the first to applaud the young fashion businesses of today. “The challenges are very different from when we started, therefore the designers who have continued to flourish or the new designers who are succeeding in this new era all have my total admiration.”
She also notes how wonderful it would have been to study one of the design courses at ARA, because nothing like that was available when she started out.
More than 50 years since that first collection, Lee is dressing these future students. Many a New Zealand school student has Barbara to thank for their modern uniforms with Lee producing these for a number of New Zealand's leading schools – such as St Margaret’s and St Andrews’ College. She says it’s a privilege to be able to create a unique image for each one.