What NOM*d creator Margi Robertson has learned in lockdown

The internationally recognised designer has been forced to fashion a new normal.
The internationally recognised designer has been forced to fashion a new normal. Photo credit: Supplied / Getty Images.

My house, my bubble: As New Zealanders stay home to fight COVID-19, Fiona Connor is talking to well-known Kiwis about what's helping to pass the time, while learning more about their craft and passions.  

Back in the 60s and 70s, Margi Robertson was known as a dedicated 'follower of fashion'. 

Throughout her teenage years growing up in Dunedin, she collected every fashion and music magazine she could get her hands on, and had a mother who taught her to appreciate fabrics and how to sew. 

Unlike many teenage obsessions, this love lasted into adulthood. 

In 1975, Margi's husband sold the couple's classic British MGB GT car, and with the money they opened a small boutique store in Moray Place stocking interesting Kiwi brands. 

As their reputation grew they moved to increasingly larger stores, before making their first foray into their own knitwear brand in 1986. 

The rest, as Robertson says, is history. 

Today fashion house NOM*d is regarded as one of Aotearoa's most iconic brands. In store, Roberton's own popular designs rub shoulders with a selection of carefully curated international and domestic labels. 

She's fortunate to travel to Paris twice a year where she chooses garments suited to their Dunedin and Christchurch stores.

A look inside NOM*d HQ.
A look inside NOM*d HQ. Photo credit: Supplied.

Still just as passionate about her career choice to this day, Robertson says she can't think of doing anything else. 

But like many Kiwi business-owners, she's been forced to rethink strategies to keep up with the restrictions due to the level 4 and 3 lockdowns. 

Here she tells Newshub how she's adapted to change both personally and as an entrepreneur, some of the highlights throughout her 34 years as the fashion houses' director, and what she will never take for granted again. 

Tell me about your bubble and how it changed in level 3? 

MR: We live literally in town on a hill that gives us an amazing view of the harbour and Dunedin city. It normally has an apartment type feel, two levels and the presence of city life, traffic, construction, helicopters arriving at Dunedin hospital et al. 

At level 4 we only got the noise of the helicopters, apart from that silence, but the bird life was incredible. We usually have wood pigeons and Tuis, but the new birds to cheekily fly down to our garden en masse were fantails, they are so friendly. The walks up into Maori Hill and Balmacewen suburbs and walking through quite dense and sometimes slippery slopes bordering the Leith was unknown territory of waterfalls and babbling brooks. We have nature in our backyard! 

Moving into level 3 there's definitely more traffic, so we have started walking down harbourside where there are walking and cycle tracks which has been a new experience for me too. So far my biggest walk has been 12500 steps, I am hoping to bring that to 15000 before level 2.

How have you been feeling during this time as we've transitioned between restrictions? 

MR: Level 4 was a weird time when I knew I had work to do but could not access any of our spaces. Calmness and frustration would be two emotions that crossed each other every day. It was wonderful to go out walking with my son and be able to talk about life, past, present and future, and realise how lovely our neighbourhood was - walking, rather than driving, the town belt on our doorstep.

Being able to bring back the workroom at level 3 and process hundreds of web sales has been a huge task, and has taken literally four days for two full-time staff. We now have the ability also to receive our new winter garments and process them in readiness for being able to operate at level 2, along with distribution to our wholesale clients who also have retail stores. 

In the 2018 New Year Honours, Robertson was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to the fashion industry.
In the 2018 New Year Honours, Robertson was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to the fashion industry. Photo credit: Getty Images.

What were some struggles that you faced before COVID-19 as an NZ fashion label, and how did they get harder? 

MR: It's always challenging keeping in tune with the timing of seasonal collections, looking to see what your competitors are doing and ensuring we are up with the play on lots of levels. We have all had to take a forced step back over the last month but also be looking to the future. 

Ironically the delivery of winter garments is actually happening within the season it belongs to, rather than totally out of season. It makes me think of the times back in the 70s, 80s and 90s when we retailed our garments in the relevant time periods. More recently it seems to have become a race to see who is out there first, like first in first served.

We are fortunate that we have such a loyal and appreciative fan base, that our clients and customers know our brand and wait for our timing, whenever that is. The other huge realisation is how important the digital world has become in these times. Being able to communicate via all sorts of channels via Zoom, Instagram and Facebook is the saviour in these isolation times. Having our website has kept us sane and proud that our customers have not forgotten us and support us. It's a great feeling.

How can Kiwis help our local businesses bounce back from this? 

MR: Of course, Kiwis supporting locals is the key - not going online and purchasing from outside of New Zealand, as well as being patient and modest.

Models showcasing designs by NOM*d at New Zealand Fashion Week 2015.
Models showcasing designs by NOM*d at New Zealand Fashion Week 2015. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Has there been a pivotal moment over the last 35 years where you've felt a real sense of pride for what you've accomplished?

MR: We are constantly asked why we didn't move from Dunedin northwards because of the ease of manufacturing, the costs of freight and media are based there. But we have had some serendipitous moments when it really didn't matter where we were based and in lots of ways being independent in Dunedin worked for us.

In 1996 I met with the buyer from Liberty of London when we were both on a judging panel in Christchurch. She immediately started buying from our collection and was a pivotal force in working with Trade NZ on presenting New Zealand brands at London Fashion week in 1998.

It made NOM*d look at designing and producing woven garments to compliment our knitwear, and it was the best thing we have ever done. 

These days the knitwear compliments our woven garments and I feel so proud to have worked with so many talented collaborators in the years since then. And I still meet up with Angela Quaintrell when I travel to Paris, even though she is not the buyer at Liberty any more, we've maintained our friendship. That event in London made us global and we achieved sales in Europe and Japan. It was so exciting to have retailers outside of New Zealand and Australia appreciate our collections and see our work sitting alongside European and Japanese brands I love. 

What have you missed the most during this time?

MR: I've missed people, not only our staff but also many of our kindred spirits. Okay, I can talk on the phone etc but it's not quite like having that chat in the flesh. If I do happen to pass them on our street walks or in the supermarket the conversation is at least an hour! Or more! And the ability to hug of course.

What was the first takeaway you enjoyed and what are you looking forward to? 

MR: We picked up a takeaway from Little India, even though we make curries frequently, Little India is the real deal and never disappoints.

Finish this sentence: I have learned to never take for granted... 

MR: That everything will be alright in the morning. It's realising that this is not a dream or a nightmare - its reality and its global. We are all in this together, whether we are in China, Paris, London, New York or Auckland and there is no demographic or elitism. It's very grounding.