Kate Sylvester

Investment in New Zealand a priority for this fashion business

  • Kate Sylvester

    A glimpse inside the new Kate Sylvester store at Britomart.

Partners in life and also in business, Wayne Conway and Kate Sylvester’s fashion empire began in central Auckland in 1993, with their label, ‘Sister’.

“We started in a small boutique in Kitchener Street,” says Wayne.  “Business grew really quickly.  In fact after only two years of trading, we started exporting to Australia.”

New Zealand in 1993 was in recession, with stores closing and the retail industry struggling. But Sister not only survived, it increased its turnover year on year.  Wayne is clear about why their label worked in the difficult trading environment.

“We were like a breath of fresh air.  The early 1990s was a time when New Zealanders were starting to know and understand our identity – what it means to be a New Zealander.  We started celebrating who we are, rather than always looking overseas for inspiration.

“Other brands such as Workshop and Zambesi were also starting to make their mark on the New Zealand fashion scene so we were in good company and things started to pick up.  It was important that our clothing reflected ‘us’, and not Europe, and people loved it,” says Wayne.

In 1996, the couple headed across the Tasman to sell their range, getting picked up by a couple of small retailers.  A few years later they returned to Australia to appear at Australian Fashion Week in a group show with other New Zealand designers.  While they were enjoying success selling their label into major Australian department stores, Wayne and Kate hit a major snag.  Sister wasn’t registered in Australia and another company was trading with a similar name, so the couple was forced to change their identity.  According to Wayne, it “was the best thing that could have happened”.

“Sister had a connotation of young, of street.   Naming the label ‘Kate Sylvester’ fitted.  We have always had a clear signature – Kate has always been our success,” he says.

Over the last 10 years, Kate and Wayne have concentrated on growing their retail business.  “We made the decision to invest in our own stores and now have four in New Zealand, a flagship store in Sydney and one about to open in Christchurch,” says Wayne.

The investment in local retail has come at a time when a number of multi-brand retailers are struggling and the impact of buying online is being keenly felt, but Wayne is clear on the reasons for their continued success.

“We are doing things well.  We make very careful decisions about pricing and product and pay close attention to detail and to quality.  Our loyal buyers purchase a Kate Sylvester garment for what it delivers – quality with a timeless, quirky design.   But things are always changing and we need to be able to respond to those changes when they happen,” he says.  Kate Sylvester is currently in “growth mode”, with a massive 25 percent increase in sales over the last financial year. Markhams principal Rob Hargrave has been working with Wayne and Kate since the “early days”.

“Early on, we needed finance to progress the business and that meant presenting accurate, structured financial reports, which we didn’t have,” says Wayne.  “A friend recommended we speak to Rob, and the result was we got the material we needed to confidently approach financiers and institutions.  We really stepped up the business,” he says.

For Kate Sylvester, Markhams handles a variety of financial matters including annual accounts, monthly management accounts, as well as quarterly reports.

“Rob has other retail clients he works with.  Therefore he understands the retail environment and we can compare ourselves with others in terms of performance,” says Wayne.  “It gives us valuable benchmarking.”


Published Spring 2012.

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