Dame Denise L'Estrange-Corbet of New Zealand fashion label World is this country's most out-spoken critic of off-shore manufacturing.
Yet a Spinoff investigation has revealed that multiple garments labeled as made in New Zealand are manufactured in China and Bangladesh.
She's the highly critical champion of New Zealand fashion, calling out competitors for saving money by making their clothes in substandard conditions overseas instead of paying higher wages at home. But for the past seven years, Denise L'Estrange-Corbet's WORLD brand has been selling t-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants manufactured in Bangladesh and China and bought through AS Colour.
L'Estrange-Corbet was made a dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in January of 2018, for services to charity and fashion. As co-founder, along with her ex-husband Francis Hooper, of WORLD brand in 1989, L'Estrange-Corbet has been widely praised for her stance against offshore manufacturing and her brand's staunch Made in New Zealand policy.
Earlier this year, Hooper told Stuff "to survive today...when physically everything we make is here and then shipped, is very hard indeed, but that is the hand we have been dealt. We refuse to make our collections in a third world country."
In an April report by Newshub (subsequently republished on The Spinoff), L'Estrange-Corbet criticised fellow New Zealand label Trelise Cooper for receiving an F rating on the Tearfund and World Baptist Aid Australia report. The Tearfund report grades companies around the world on their clothing production, material sourcing, and worker conditions. Newshub reported that WORLD weren't part of the grading because "the brand manufactures all their clothing in New Zealand, and have done since their inception in 1989".
As of today, the WORLD store in downtown Auckland stocks their latest collection in full, including t-shirts with various sequin appliqués, sweatshirts ($199), and sweatpants ($199) with sequins down the legs. The WORLD tag on every item of clothing proclaims "FABRIQUE EN NOUVELLE-ZELANDE". Translation: Made in New Zealand.
Find the care instruction label on the inside seam, however, and you'll discover the t-shirts are sourced from AS Colour and made in Bangladesh. The sweatshirts and sweatpants are also purchased from AS Colour and made in China.
The Spinoff received an email from a customer who had found identical patches to the ones on WORLD's current t-shirt collection for sale on Ali Express. When The Spinoff visited a WORLD store to see the t-shirts, we stumbled upon what appeared to be a sample t-shirt with the Made in Bangladesh label attached to the inside back collar. Of the dozen t-shirts on offer, it was the only one with a collar label declaring its place of manufacture. The tag was identical to AS Colour tags, right down to the reference number which, when put into the US government's Federal Trade Commission database for textile and clothing manufacturers and importers, linked directly to AS Colour.
A spokesperson for AS Colour confirmed WORLD buys clothing wholesale through its online store. While wholesale purchases from clothing labels make up a small portion of sales, AS Colour clothing can still be found under 'high end' labels around the country. "I don't think it really matters where a blank garment comes from. You get them from manufacturers all around the world. It's no different from any other surf brand or skate brand," the AS Colour spokesperson said.
But WORLD isn't just "any other surf brand". In 2015, WORLD became the first fashion label in the world to be endorsed by the United Nations. The honour came after WORLD worked with the UN to come up with a logo for their Sustainable Development Goals. The logo has been printed and sold on AS Colour t-shirts in WORLD stores, online, and in the gift shop at UN headquarters.
L'Estrange-Corbet's commitment to ethical commerce saw her recently criticise fashion behemoths Zara and H&M, who "all share the same manufacturing bases, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and whilst some of the factories may pay above their countries [sic] legal minimum wage, anyone with a single brain cell can work out, that this is slave labour".
When approached by The Spinoff, L'Estrange-Corbet confirmed WORLD has been selling AS Colour t-shirts made in Bangladesh for "approximately seven years", adding the t-shirts "represent 1% of our annual garment production". Our survey found at least 12 of the 133 garments being sold via the WORLD website, including the four UN logo t-shirts, are manufactured overseas.
L'Estrange-Corbet has since complained about The Spinoff's headline - 'T-Shirts from Bangladesh. Sequin patches from China. Sold by WORLD as 'Made in New Zealand'".
She says it's misleading, because the sequin patches on the T-shirts are manufactured in Hong Kong, not in China (In 1997 the British transferred Sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, though Hong Kong maintains a Special Administrative Region status).
L'Estrange-Corbet also upbraided The Spinoff, saying, "Your support of a 99% New Zealand brand is remarkable." She added: "The Tall Poppy syndrome I see is alive and well and still raging in NZ. Please remind me again why I should keep my production here??"
L'Estrange-Corbet said WORLD once made their t-shirts in New Zealand but the factories they used had closed down. "We were unable to manufacture the garments here as there are specialist machinery required," she wrote. "It was not a decision we took lightly."
She pointed to AS Colour's ethical credentials. "Child Labour Free (CLF) strongly supports and endorses AS Colour who are diligently working towards ethical sustainability in the area of supply chain transparency, ethical sourcing/supply and of course, the child labour free certification process."
AS Colour received a C+ rating in the Tearfund survey.
Among the many op-eds and interviews in which L'Estrange-Corbet discussed the evils of offshore manufacturing and the challenges faced by local labels, The Spinoff has been unable to find a mention of WORLD having to resort to t-shirts manufactured in Bangladesh and sweatpants manufactured in China. "It is illegal in NZ to not say where garments are produced," said L'Estrange-Corbet when that was put to her by the Spinoff. "The care tags are highly visible in all our garments. If you had visited any of our stores, you would have seen this."
When The Spinoff revisited an Auckland WORLD store, we found 10 t-shirts with sequin or embroidered patches. All 10 had care instruction labels stating where the garment was made on the inside seam, near the hem and out of sight. Only the sample t-shirt that The Spinoff had already purchased had the place of manufacture where the consumer could see it clearly. This is not unusual. A lot of clothing companies won't include the place of manufacture on the collar tag. But what the Bangladesh-made WORLD t-shirts did have were highly visible cardboard tags stating "FABRIQUE EN NOUVELLE ZELANDE". Made in New Zealand.
When The Spinoff asked if L'Estrange-Corbet believed this could mislead customers into thinking the t-shirts were made in New Zealand, the answer was no. "The WORLD clothing tags that say Made in NZ are Made in NZ, so there's nothing misleading about this," she says. "The t-shirts do not state this."
L'Estrange-Corbet has made specific mention of sequins recently, saying "I couldn't sleep at night knowing that children were making my garments or stitching on sequins". Sequins have been the focus of a number of investigations into child labour practices. Lucy Siegle, author of the 2011 book To Die for: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? wrote that while there are machines that can perform the delicate task of sewing sequins onto fabric, they are costly and, if the finished product is to be sold cheaply, rarely purchased by overseas manufacturers. Instead, the task is often given to women or to children, whose tiny fingers apparently mean they work faster than adults.
The sequin patches that have been sewn onto the t-shirts at WORLD can be found on AliExpress, sold by the same vendor, TongLiang Boutique Store. They did not answer any of The Spinoff's questions about their factory and working conditions.
L'Estrange-Corbet told The Spinoff that co-founder Francis Hooper "travels to Hong Kong at least 4 times a year and personally visits the factories making and producing these patches."
For 28 years, WORLD has been positioned itself as the conscience of New Zealand fashion, maintaining its embrace of ethical principles and a patriotic attachment to home manufacturing throughout the globalisation era.
L'Estrange-Corbet wrote an editorial for Apparel magazine last year on manufacturing. She talked about global fast fashion giants, and how they had hollowed out artisanal manufacturing worldwide. She lamented what had happened to production in New Zealand, and about the way global luxury brands retained their value by dictating where their products are made.
"The day any of these brands decides to manufacture in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh is the day they sign their own death warrants," she wrote, "and are no longer considered luxury or even desirable."