From an early age, Beth Ellery was encouraged to design her own clothes for each season. These designs, and that of her two sisters, were made up by her mother and Beth remembers that they were immaculate. While sewing was one of Beth's creative interests, fashion design was not an immediate career choice.
By the end of a degree in architecture, she had decided to change direction and pursue fashion. The germ of this idea came after Beth realised she was making a wardrobe and thinking: "What's missing? I should make these other things." Beth describes her process at the time: "I'd see a fabric that I wanted; take it home and start cutting and sewing to see what happened. I'd remake things and make second and third samples for my own wardrobe. I think I was really pedantic. I'd spend a lot of time getting it right."
As the idea of being a fashion designer told hold, but with no intention of studying fashion formally and no fashion industry experience, all Beth could think of doing to advance herself was to make a small collection that might provide an entrée. It was in 2002 that she decided she really wanted to work for Marilyn Sainty. "So I just phoned her up."
Beth asked Marilyn if she could show her a small, winter range. "She looked at it and liked some things in it and said that she was working on similar things, so we had a really good meeting. Then she offered me a job as a designer."
On her first day, Beth was asked to begin designing a small collection, under her own name, for Spring/Summer 2002–3. It included six pieces: a pair of trousers, a sleeveless jacket, a singlet, a skirt, a dress and a long-sleeved top. Marilyn mentored her through the development process.
Only a small number of each style in Beth's first collection were put into production and they intermingled with the other clothes in Marilyn's Scotties stores. "It quietly got put out on to the sheleves and then just started to sell. It was very low key, no fanfare."
After Beth had been working with Marilyn for two and a half years, Marilyn retired. "Marilyn told me that I was ready and then she left. So I must have been." Even so, this new development must have been daunting for Beth who felt safe under the umbrella of the company and because Marilyn was always there to prevent her from "making a huge mistake".
When Marilyn retired in 2005, she and her business partner, Sonja Batt, retained the Scotties stores and Beth took over Marilyn's workroom and invested in the Scotties label in partnership with Marilyn's long-time pattern maker Mavis Luen.
Mavis and Beth ran the Beth Ellery, Camille Howie and Scotties labels until 2012, when Beth left to have her first child, Wilson. She had planned to be a stay-at-home mother but she missed the business - the wild deadlines, racing the courier cut off, the thrill of getting a style just right and a happy customer, even all the frustrations made her want to return to fashion.
Beth relaunched Beth Ellery in 2014 while pregnant with her second child, Hazel. The label has changed somewhat from its previous incarnation and now there is an emphasis on online sales. "Creatively I feel that after a break I have more confidence," adds Beth. "I don’t mind making mistakes, and I am brave enough to make simple things now too, which gives me a real sense of creative freedom and satisfaction."
Text by Angela Lassig from New Zealand Fashion Design, published by Te Papa Press. Banner image by Sam Hartnett. Image © Beth Ellery.
First published September 2014. Updated December 2015.