Natalie Chan is such a romantic that she had three weddings to mark her marriage to husband, Ray. Her enthusiasm for weddings has seen her business flourish, making her one of New Zealand’s leading bridalwear designers. Her name is also synonymous with the hand-made occasion millinery she excels in.
Natalie grew up with both her mother and father in business and was acutely aware from a young age that she wanted to do something creative and that with hard work anything was possible. Recognising her daughter’s drive and talent, Alma Chan encouraged Natalie to nurture her creativity and at age fifteen Natalie was volunteering at charity fashion events, keen to learn everything she could about fashion. Encouraged by her enjoyment of those early experiences, Chan enrolled in a pattern-making and garment construction course at Auckland’s AUT in the late 1990s, which laid the foundation for the technical skills she would need for a career as a designer.
During her studies Natalie began working for fabric wholesalers, Global Fabrics, where she learned the intricacies of the textile business and began developing her ideas for her own label. An apprenticeship in the workroom at Trelise Cooper and then a job on the shop floor in Trelise’s Auckland retail stores, helped her understand how garments are sold and how the retail model works. It was Trelise herself who encouraged Natalie’s fashion dreams, advising that she would need to learn how a business worked before starting her own label and encouraging her to utilise her design knowledge to sell garments. "I personally felt like I did really well because I had a lot of extra information and also knew how garments were to sit, and what could be taken in and how it could be taken in and even if it was possible," says Natalie. "It was an important experience which I don’t think I’ll ever forget and a huge opportunity as well."
In 2001 Natalie decided to make the leap and start her own eponymous label, beginning with daywear and streetwear collections that had her signature feminine style. Initially wholesaling to several Auckland boutiques, Natalie then set up shop for herself in her workroom above her mother’s florist shop in Parnell. 2004 saw her move away from the wholesale cycle and concentrate on retail. When Alma Chan moved her Cartier for Flowers business to Newmarket in 2009, Natalie took the opportunity to turn her mother’s former shop into her first proper boutique with her name on the awning. By this stage, she had been developing her millinery skills for several years, attending millinery courses over at TAFE, as well as attending private tuition by established milliners in Australia. What began with Natalie making the occasional piece for photo shoots to complement her clothing had now become an important part of her business as fascinators and other millinery were coming back into vogue. She was establishing a reputation on the Auckland racing scene for her beautiful headwear designs.
With a lifelong love of dressing up it is no surprise that Natalie's business evolved to become about special occasion wear. Although it was initially school balls and teenage girls who made up much of her early clientele she noted that changing the colour palette of her dress designs meant they were suitable for weddings. Softening her colour range meant orders for bridesmaids dresses began coming in and occasionally bridal gowns which Natalie greatly enjoyed creating. "I just realised how much I loved playing with the beautiful fabric," says Natalie. "I love the lace. I love the crystals. I love the appliqués. It’s a pleasure and a dream to cut and make. You just stand back every time you create something and you can’t wait for the next stage." Her undeniable enthusiasm for weddings saw the bridal side of the business flourish alongside her hand-made millinery.
As the orders came in Natalie developed a small, skilled team to work with her in her atelier above the boutique. She favoured the European model of the upstairs/downstairs business where the craftspeople that create the products are never far from the shop floor and on hand to attend to fittings and alterations. "Our manufacturing is all done in house which is only because we don’t mass produce anything," says Natalie. “I wanted to have things this way because you are closer to the clients and the customers.”
2012 saw Natalie's blossoming business move to its current location, a bigger space further up Parnell Road. The new premises even allowed for a bridal dressing area and she decorated the boutique with a stunning floral display which runs the length of the back wall of her store. A loyal team of three women, Frances, Helen and Linda, work with Natalie in her boutique and atelier with each team member contributing their creative ideas and talent to the business. Together they create seasonal ready-to-wear womenswear, millinery and bridal collections while also working on bespoke pieces for clients.
Despite having done many events over the years, Natalie hadn’t shown at New Zealand Fashion Week until 2015, when she joined several other local bridal labels as part of the New Zealand Weddings magazine show. Opening the show with gowns that featured hand-painted and appliquéd flowers on silk and lace, Natalie's collection proved to be a real eye-catcher on the runway. After many months of research, experimentation and hard work her team had pulled it off. "From a business point of view for me I think it’s really great because it’s showing people that we can be in that calibre, because to do something for fashion week is on a different level," she says. "It’s a huge investment for the business, not just financial but also time and talent. There’s no point putting something in for me if it isn’t gorgeous."
While Natalie's romantic side informs her beautiful designs, it’s her astute business acumen that has helped her business thrive in a highly competitive market. Being her own boss has meant taking on a number of different roles and skills but she relishes the challenge and is constantly working on developing her business. "At the end of the day I’ve always wanted to keep this business, that’s a long term goal, it’s just what we do with it," says Natalie. "The business has so many facets now and I always want to improve or do things differently and push new skills. And there’s things to keep us on our toes like social media and everything that is changing digitally. I find that side really challenging but once you tackle it, you understand it. I love the bridal, I really do, it’s something that’s blossomed really well and I want to continue doing that. I love the bespoke side of things, it’s the idea of slow fashion coming back in and I love that. I think the biggest goal is becoming better than what we are each year and trying to outdo ourselves, that is probably the hardest thing. It’s about always learning and improving, because how do you get anywhere in life without learning?"
Text by Evelyn Ebrey. Banner image © Natalie Chan.
Last published June 2016.