Hi­lary Stich­bury meets the pow­er­house be­hind one of New Zealand’s best-known brands


Hi­lary Stich­bury meets the pow­er­house be­hind one of New Zealand’s best-known brands

He­len Cherry’s first brush with fash­ion was at 6 years old, with a deep rose baby-cord dress her mother made her for a wed­ding. “It had a white lace Peter Pan col­lar and cuffs,” she says. “I had white Bea­tle boots to go with it. I loved that dress.” He­len’s mother owned a hair sa­lon near their home in Avon­dale, and she de­signed and made sa­lon uni­forms for all her staff. “Pur­ple hot­pants, match­ing vests with printed pussy-bow blouses and high boots,” He­len laughs, her voice low and but­tery. “Fash­ion was just part of our life, as lim­ited as it was, be­ing in the sub­urbs. For me that was where it started.”

She knew early on what she wanted to do with her life and in a school pro­file, at 10 years old, be­side the word “Am­bi­tion” she wrote:

“Fash­ion De­signer”.

From there things moved fast. Within the next decade she grad­u­ated from fash­ion school and landed a po­si­tion at Zambesi, where she stayed for four years.

One af­ter­noon she went with her boyfriend to visit Work­shop, where she met the owner Chris Cherry, de­signer of the Work­shop brand.

“I didn’t re­alise they were an item at the time,” says Chris. “He kept try­ing to shoo me away from He­len. He wanted to talk busi­ness, and I was more in­ter­ested in this young fash­ion grad­u­ate with the masses of wild, curly hair.”

Sev­eral years later, He­len and Chris be­came a cou­ple. Soon after, He­len went to work for Work­shop de­sign­ing wom­enswear brand Streetlife, which she did for eleven years. Over time her sen­si­bil­ity sharp­ened and veered away from Streetlife’s ca­sual one, and Chris sug­gested she put her own name on the brand. “It took me three years to con­vince her,” says Chris. “She wouldn’t do it.”

“I en­joyed the anonymity I had with Streetlife. I’m very pri­vate,” He­len ad­mits, her eyes fixed on a sin­gle point to her right as she speaks. She is con­sid­er­ing ev­ery word. “For me it’s about the craft of mak­ing clothes. It’s not about see­ing my name in lights.” More a quiet achiever than a fash­ion rock­star, she would rather let her clothes speak for her.

Next month, it will be 20 years since her epony­mous brand was launched, at the newly opened Work­shop store in Vul­can Lane.

The col­lec­tion hung, soft, blow-away silk pieces be­side sharply tai­lored sep­a­rates in finely wo­ven wools, its so­phis­ti­cated-girl meets rockchic ethos of­fer­ing wear­ers a way to show they were fash­ion flu­ent, but not fash­ion led.

That first col­lec­tion sold well. Then the fol­low­ing year the brand was picked up by megade­part­ment store Bar­neys, ar­guably, then and now, the most pres­ti­gious depart­ment store in the United States.

“I was stand­ing by the fax ma­chine when the or­der came through,” He­len says. When she saw the Bar­neys let­ter­head curling off the ma­chine, it hit her that the Bar­neys deal was real. “It was an amaz­ing mo­ment. Def­i­nitely a ca­reer high­light,” she says.

Twenty years is an im­pres­sive achieve­ment in an in­dus­try that sees so many young de­sign­ers launch, only to nose­dive within a few sea­sons. Now 56, He­len says “I feel lucky I’ve been able to do it for this long and it’s still work­ing. I love what I do.”

The pol­ished-with-an-edge He­len Cherry DNA is still strong, ren­dered with the con­fi­dence of 31 years’ de­sign­ing. “It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence thing,” she says. “I feel more def­i­nite about what works and what doesn’t.”

Fash­ion in­sider Sam Sax­ton-Beer who worked ex­ten­sively with the brand at Denizen magazine, is drawn to the un­der­cover rock ’n’ roll edge He­len brings to clas­sic pieces.

“I wore a shim­mery long-sleeved metal­lic top by He­len re­cently, and some­one said it re­minded them of one of [An­thony] Vac­carello’s new Saint Lau­rent looks, which is about as badass as you get in my books,” says Sax­ton-Beer. “Two decades seems like two life­times in the world of fash­ion. He­len has man­aged to tra­verse the ex­treme peaks and ugly troughs of high fash­ion whilst re­main­ing fresh, rel­e­vant, sexy and fem­i­nine.”

He­len’s had her share of lows too. “What feels like a bril­liant idea can be a com­mer­cial dis­as­ter,” she says. “A few years ago I de­cided cu­lottes were the new pant sil­hou­ette. I was very ex­cited about it, only to find our cus­tomers did not re­spond well.” “It can feel very per­sonal when a style doesn’t work,” she ad­mits. “But in many ways the fail­ures are the most in­ter­est­ing part. They mo­ti­vate you to move for­ward.”

She has ne­go­ti­ated the risky busi­ness of fash­ion, fraught with fu­ture pre­dict­ing, for­ward spend­ing, and putting the fruits of her cre­ative process out there for public dis­sec­tion twice a year, and emerged a pil­lar of New Zealand fash­ion.

But the He­len Cherry brand is miss­ing from the lineup at New Zealand Fash­ion Week, set to open on Au­gust 28. Ac­ci­den­tal fash­ion mav­er­icks, He­len and Chris fol­low their gut in­stinct, which of­ten leads them in their own di­rec­tion.

The last time they weighed in at Fash­ion Week was 2011, stag­ing a mas­sive event at Auck­land Town Hall for the He­len Cherry and Work­shop brands, set to a remix of Kate Bush track

Run­ning Up That Hill. It was the per­fect blend of He­len’s sexy, fem­i­nine sen­si­bil­ity and Chris’ hard­core rock one.

“It still re­mains a high­light for us,” He­len says. “We would pre­fer to do noth­ing, or do

For me it’s about the craft of mak­ing clothes. It’s not about see­ing my name in lights. He­len Cherry

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