Hay­ley Rhind thought she was just buy­ing a farm. But then she started a cloth­ing busi­ness

BE­NEA­GLE, THE FARM where Hay­ley Rhind, hus­band Matt and their two chil­dren have set­tled, is a mere 20-minute care­ful drive from Blen­heim, but it’s a spot of bu­colic beauty.

Blen­heim’s bun­ga­lows give way to vine­yards, then to the Wither Hills, and then the sealed curves of the road con­cede to gravel. “Some rocks and cab­bage trees” is the cue to turn off to Be­nea­gle. The drive — a farm track, re­ally — has been freshly graded, the farm equiv­a­lent of lay­ing out the red car­pet. It winds and un­du­lates past manuka and matagouri, rocks and reeds, past cat­tle stops and “watch for chil­dren” warn­ing signs. It’s a beau­ti­ful but stress­ful sweat-in­duc­ing drive, grad­ing not­with­stand­ing.

But not for the Rhinds. “I think I could drive it with my eyes closed,” says Hay­ley. “I don’t know how long it takes me to drive to the gate, but I reckon I knock about a minute off my time each year. Count­down did de­liver the gro­ceries once but said they’re not com­ing back. That’s a bit of shame.”

Farm life in gum­boots and jeans among dogs, horses, cat­tle, sheep and pet lambs, is a touch in­con­gru­ous with Hay­ley’s other role as founder, de­signer and di­rec­tor of White Chalk, her New Zealand-made cloth­ing la­bel. But Hay­ley’s turned her hand to many jobs over the years (pos­sum mon­i­tor­ing for the An­i­mal Health Board, flax seed sales rep, farm worker) so she knows well the value of hard work and hun­ker­ing down for the long term.

As the daugh­ter of mar­ket gar­den­ers on the out­skirts of Christchurch, Hay­ley and her brother Nathan (a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer, but now also full time at White Chalk), bagged horse car­rots to sell by the road. They were earn­ing spend­ing money for the fam­ily hol­i­days, al­ways taken in the win­ter — the only down­time for most farm­ers. Their par­ents granted them a lit­tle land planted in onions, and any prof­its were theirs in re­turn for work­ing the plot. “That taught us that when there’s a good mar­ket, you make lots of money. But if there’s a year with dis­ease in which onion prices aren’t so good, you don’t make much. It also taught us that if you work hard enough for long enough, you get the re­wards,” she says.

Now 33, Hay­ley’s the first to ad­mit the past three years have been a whirl­wind of work — per­haps over­work. With some fam­ily help, she and Matt bought Be­nea­gle, 1000 hectares of rolling hill coun­try, mov­ing in April 2015 when Jed was a baby. At the same time, Hay­ley’s other new baby, White Chalk, was tak­ing off, some­thing Hay­ley hadn’t planned for at all. “I was sup­posed to be work­ing on the farm as the ‘boy’, but White Chalk was so busy it made more sense for me to con­cen­trate on that.”

White Chalk orig­i­nated from ne­ces­sity. “My friends were get­ting to the stage where they were buy­ing de­signer clothes, but Matt and I were sav­ing hard for the farm. Nathan, and his nowwife Ginny, was liv­ing in Hoi An, Viet­nam, which is full of tai­lors. I asked Ginny, ‘If I draw up some pic­tures for you, could you get me some clothes made?’ So I drew some de­signs and sent them over. It was like Christ­mas when they came back.

“Then my friends started ask­ing if they could get the clothes too. Ginny and I talked about start­ing a busi­ness and sell­ing stuff on Face­book. I would de­sign and sell, she would or­ga­nize the fab­rics, the fac­tory and the ship­ping, and we would split the prof­its.” That’s still roughly how the com­pany is or­ga­nized, with Hay­ley hold­ing half of the shares, and Ginny and Nathan the rest.

“Be­cause I’d been a sales rep, I de­cided to go on a sell­ing trip, think­ing if we got some re­tail­ers we could make a bit more money. We did a lit­tle photo shoot to make a cat­a­logue and I sent it out to a few shops around the coun­try think­ing if we heard from a few, that would be quite good. A heap came back say­ing they’d love to see more.

“I went to see them, think­ing if we got five shops I’d be quite happy. We ended up with about 25 shops, in­clud­ing one that did a huge or­der on the spot. I was act­ing cool, but it was ter­ri­fy­ing — we still had to work out how to fill the or­ders. But it gave me the con­fi­dence we were do­ing the right thing.”

Ginny swung into ac­tion, or­ga­niz­ing the fac­tory to fill the or­der. Hay­ley joined Ginny and they vis­ited a mas­sive fab­ric mar­ket in Guangzhou, where they still go for fab­rics. “Be­fore we went that first time, I’d spent hours and hours de­sign­ing the col­lec­tion, work­ing out that I wanted a pink flo­ral for this one and a blue stripe for that, etc. But that meant we spent hours try­ing to find what I’d en­vis­aged, but couldn’t. So we chucked out all the work I’d done and went back the next day just look­ing for prints I liked. Now I go with no idea what I’m go­ing to do with the fab­rics; I come home with the sam­ples and when my cre­ative juices are flow­ing I de­sign the col­lec­tion. It’s fab­ric first for me.”

The chal­lenges didn’t stop when that first or­der ar­rived. “It was a learn­ing curve. The or­der ar­rived so late we had to re-pack­age it and send it out to re­tail­ers with­out time to check the clothes. It was a night­mare. The re­tail­ers were call­ing say­ing the sizes were wrong, there were qual­ity is­sues, that they ‘loved the look but it’s not right’. I was close to chuck­ing it all in, but a few of the stock­ists were par­tic­u­larly sup­port­ive, telling me I was onto a good thing but needed a new fac­tory.

“In the end, it be­came a pos­i­tive thing be­cause I gained such a good re­la­tion­ship with my stock­ists. If ev­ery­thing had gone well, we would have said, ‘thank you, see you next time’. This way, I got to prob­lem-solve with them. We stood by our prod­ucts and 100 per cent re­funded any re­turns.”

‘ It’s the life­style. We’re our own bosses and nei­ther of us is very good at be­ing told what to do’

With a few col­lec­tions un­der her belt — and a new fac­tory per­form­ing bet­ter — Hay­ley de­cided to in­tro­duce some New Zealand merino to the range, so searched for a New Zealand man­u­fac­turer. In a cli­mate where ev­ery­one is shut­ting down, it was fruit­less un­til she was re­ferred to For­ward Fash­ion, right in Blen­heim.

At the same time, Ginny and Nathan were keen to re­turn to New Zealand. They joked about pro­duc­ing the whole range at Fash­ion For­ward. The jokes turned se­ri­ous, and the first New Zealand-made col­lec­tion of White Chalk was launched in Au­gust 2017. “The lo­gis­tics of pro­duc­ing down the road is just amaz­ing. The only down­side is we’re grow­ing so fast, keep­ing pro­duc­tion up with de­mand is a chal­lenge. We could dou­ble our sales if we could clone the fac­tory.”

Sales are al­ready healthy for a busi­ness that’s only just reached its third an­niver­sary. The first year they sold 4000 units, the next they sold 10,000 and this past year White Chalk racked up 30,000. Hay­ley won’t talk profit, but says they broke even in their first year — some­thing few new busi­nesses can boast — and now have an an­nual turnover of $1 mil­lion, with White Chalk in 40 out­lets na­tion­wide plus her own shop in Blen­heim.

Hay­ley’s the first to say White Chalk isn’t high fash­ion. She’s not a trained de­signer (although her diploma in agribusi­ness must help with the busi­ness side), she doesn’t read fash­ion mag­a­zines, and doesn’t even like shop­ping. But she knows how to de­sign pretty, com­fort­able clothes, which are brought to life by a Welling­ton­based pat­tern-maker, sewn up at Fash­ion For­ward and re­leased each sea­son to her wait­ing cus­tomers.

“We do pre-or­ders when we re­lease a col­lec­tion. We put the col­lec­tion up on Face­book on a Mon­day night, but it’s not in shops un­til Wednes­day. We don’t pro­duce very many of each style and I know of women who set alarms for the pre-or­ders so they don’t miss out.”

With Ginny now in New Zealand run­ning the re­tail/cus­tomer ser­vice side of White Chalk, Nathan tak­ing care of process plan­ning, pho­tog­ra­phy, the web­site and any­thing tech­ni­cal, and two sales reps sell­ing, Hay­ley’s hop­ing to spend more time back on the farm as “the boy”.

It’s what she wanted af­ter all – farm life. “It’s the life­style. We’re our own bosses and nei­ther of us is very good at be­ing told what to do. Our kids have free­dom in the big­gest play­ground and we get to work in an amaz­ing en­vi­ron­ment. When it’s freez­ing and we’re out work­ing, you sort of think, ‘a nine-to-five job in an of­fice may not be too bad’. But I couldn’t do that. And Matt – he wouldn’t last a day.”

In­deed, Matt has the look of some­one far more suited to the out­doors than a three-piece. He stays well away from the fash­ion busi­ness. “I only get in­volved to un­load ma­te­rial,” he says. A dou­ble garage on the farm is chock-full of stored fab­ric.

Hay­ley and Matt knew each other as teenagers, then re­con­nected over Face­book when Hay­ley was away trav­el­ing, get­ting to­gether in their early 20s when she re­turned. Ten years later, through pos­sum mon­i­tor­ing, kids, the stress of a new farm, a mas­sive mort­gage and a gal­lop­ing cloth­ing busi­ness, “we’re still mar­ried”, says Hay­ley.

“It’s been such a whirl­wind. White Chalk tak­ing off was not on any­one’s radar. I’ve been a ner­vous wreck for the past three years. If some­one had told us what it would be like, I don’t think we would have done it. But Matt’s put in the wa­ter sys­tems and fences, and is more on top of the farm. The sales reps mean I’m not trav­el­ing much, and I know the busi­ness now. I feel like we’ve come out the other side.”

Hay­ley and Matt Rhind moved to Be­nea­gle, south of Blen­heim, three years ago. They run sheep and beef and a grow­ing gar­ment busi­ness along with their chil­dren, Mil­lie (8) and Jed (4), on 1000 hectares of rolling hill coun­try.

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