From her parents’ clothing factory to London and Paris, North Canterbury’s Arlene Tipler has been on a journey to collect the knowledge she needed to launch her own label. Words Shelley Robinson
Arlene Tipler doesn’t sleep much. By the time she switches off her laptop, it is usually the small hours.
But it’s okay, she grins, without a hint of the tiredness that by rights should be etched on her face – she has forecasted that in three years she will have more staff on board. But right now, it’s season three of her fashion label – in the midst of a global pandemic – and time to dig in deep.
It is something the designer and director of Drama the Label is certainly used to doing. She spent 20 years in a sort of self-imposed apprenticeship, working her way around the fashion world from age 25, from London to Paris to Canada, and then home to New Zealand once more.
“I worked really hard to get the experience so that I am in the place I can succeed in this challenging world of fashion,” she says.
To survive in the fast-paced European fashion industry, thick skin and sacrifices were required.
“There are so many talented people in Europe, so you are among the best of the best. You have to [be tough] because you could easily get knocked down with the competitiveness in the fashion houses. You have to have quite a lot of strength,” she says.
But Arlene went there with more experience than many. She was brought up amongst whirring sewing machines at her parents’ clothing manufacturing factory in Christchurch. By age 19 she had taken over the management of the factory and knew every nook and cranny of the fashion business.
“When I went to the UK that was invaluable, I could step into so many roles,” she says. And she did. She designed a menswear collection at French Connection, was a garment technician with Top Shop and also designed a womenswear brand for a company supplying to Germany and Paris.
All the while, she was gathering valuable knowledge she knew she would later need to create her own label. “The fashion industry in New Zealand is starkly different to the European scene,” she says. “There you have one role in a narrow part of the business. But in New Zealand, you have to be able to do everything from designing, establishing collections, sales, pattern-making – right through to merchandising.
“You have to have so much versatility; you can’t pigeon-hole yourself, and I think that’s an attribute of being a Kiwi, we are such hard workers and we have to put on so many different hats.”
After 11 years with Longbeach Apparel in Christchurch as a merchandising manager on her return from Europe, it was finally time for Arlene to action her plans.
Drama the Label is not her first venture. At 22, she left her parents’ factory to start her own streetwear and surf line, as well as making bespoke ball gowns and wedding dresses.
“I worked and worked. People were going off partying and I was working. And so I started bringing the parties to my rooftop studio in Cashel Mall at the weekend, so I could combine the two,” she says with a grin.
But this time around is very different. Not only is she running her business from her property in North Canterbury, but she is also mum to daughters Phoenix, 11, and Dakiah, 8. With husband Blu working in both Christchurch and Queenstown for their construction business Kobe Construction, to say Arlene is busy is quite an understatement. Fortunately, she can keep everything close to home. Her distribution centre, studio and design room is just metres away from their home on their rural property. So, once breakfast and school drop-off is done, it is straight back home to work with her staff.
Drama the Label has been growing steadily, with 33 stockists nationwide. Despite being unable to hop on a plane to shop for fabrics, she is still thriving, with her design book full of drawings, swatches and notes tucked under her arm. During Covid-19 lockdown, three more stores asked to stock her label and she is looking to hire a garment technician. That’s not to say lockdown hasn’t affected the business; her winter range took a hit. But Arlene is a planner. She knows what’s ahead and has prepared for it.
Where normally she would be standing in an overseas fabric market designing things in her head while sourcing new prints and materials, she is now working from her database of fabrics and leaning on the close relationships she has with her small boutique suppliers and manufacturers, as well as doing what she does best – designing by putting pen to paper.
Time with Arlene sees camaraderie emerge within minutes. Somewhat alarmingly, you could soon find yourself confessing to things you haven’t told others. She just has that way about her. It is no surprise, then, that her label feels the same – like one woman talking to another.
Arlene knows that perhaps you fret a bit too much about what to wear to a function or when you go out; it can be a ‘drama’.
“When I would take my girlfriends shopping for a weekend, it was really hard to find product that fitted really well, that was not too young, not too old, but still sexy, pretty and feminine,” she says.
There, the ethos of Drama was born: taking the stress out of what to wear.
“I just want ladies to be able to put on a garment, knowing they will feel and look good in it. If the girls are going out for lunch with friends, I want them to say, ‘I’ll put that top on because it’s not too high, not too low, it makes me feel good and that’s what I want.’”
She gestures towards the gorgeous mustard-coloured flowing dress she is wearing from her winter range.
“My own shape is not perfect, but with this dress, I feel like it is flattering. I feel comfortable and feminine.”
Arlene glances at her phone. There are many notifications pinging in from emails and social media. It is also nearing time for her to pick up the girls from school. You almost physically see her change gears as she starts mentally working out what comes next. But first, she is off to pop in to say hello to one of her local stockists.
Though it is the afternoon already, Arlene’s day still has lots of hours ahead for her to fill with design-related tasks. After she has sent a myriad emails and finished sketching designs and planning the next collection, the sketchbook, laptop and phone will be put down once more. But that is the way of it when you are building from the ground up what has been 20 years in the making.
For now, at least.