T G Southwell

1953-1986

A talented designer and a cut-make-trim business were the missing elements Travers Southwell needed to break out on his own and start a women’s fashion label. 

Travers was employed as a travelling salesman for the children’s label Poppetwear in the post WWII era. It was a time of change for fashion - the invention of the bikini, the rise of the New Look and, in the early 1950s, the emergence of a new ‘teenage’ fashion. Until this time, teenagers had dressed in similar attire to their parents but Travers found many retailers were asking for ‘teen’ styles such as shirtwaist dresses and blouses with Peter Pan collars.

Travers approached his employer, Desmond Reevely & Co, who made the Poppetwear label under licence, and suggested that they expand their range. However Desmond wasn’t in a financial position to do so; and closed down his Brown’s Bay business in the mid 1960s.

Seeing a gap in the market, Travers left his job at Desmond Reevely & Co to go out on his own. T G Southwell was founded in December 1953.  While Travers was a talented salesman, he was aware that he had no design or manufacturing experience. He solved the first part of this problem by employing dressmaker Alma Kimber who was a friend of his wife.  Alma had trained as a dressmaker at a salon on Karangahape but was now married and raising her family on Auckland’s North Shore. Travers offered her a position where she could design for the Southwell label from her own home. Travers solved the manufacturing issue by contracting his work to cut-make-trim businesses - small manufacturers who were able to undertake all the steps needed to produce the Southwell ranges ready for sale. 

Alma Kimber designed for Southwell for more than 30 years.

However, Travers’ clientele didn’t turn out as expected. He explained to Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins in the book The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design since 1940. "We did make clothes for teenagers but they were fairly sophisticated garments and we found older people buying them so we quickly evolved into a fashion house."

Travers Southwell advertised his label in the prestigious Vogue magazine, Summer 1958.

To begin with Travers operated out of a room in his family house, but he later moved the business to 25 Chancery Street in central Auckland. The Southwell label was sold in retail and department stores across the country, including Milne & Choyce The DSA and Hazelwoods in Upper Hutt. 

Ad for Southwell at Hazelwoods, 9 March 1961.

When The Dress Circle author Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins asked Alma about her approach to design, she said she had "every magazine in the world" and described herself as a "copy artist". However, a Thursday magazine article (17 April 1969) speaks of Alma’s ability to interpret top fashion looks into a particularly wide range of styles, including both young sophisticated casual and more formal day and evening wear. Apparel magazine (1 June 1971) describes her designs as both "classic and fashionable".

A Southwell dress (top left) in the fashion pages of the Gisborne Photo News, 1967. Image © CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 NZ.

One of Alma’s favourite fabrics to work with was wool, she told Thursday magazine. "Wool is so pliable like all the natural fibres. It looks so well when a garment is finished, it is worth the effort. Wool is lovely to wear - I wear it myself all the time, even in summer."

Alma cutting out a garment made from wool. Thursday magazine, 1969.

In 1971 Alma was chosen to design a gown for the American opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs. Mattiwilda performed in the Auckland Festival of Arts and Alma was one of four local designers who dressed the singer for her New Zealand performances. The designers were given the Mattiwilda's measurements but no other information prior to her arriving in New Zealand. Alma’s design was a bright yellow gown with beaded trellis work. 

American singer Mattiwilda Dobbs wearing an evening gown by Southwell, 1971.

Travers introduced additional labels, several that he made under licence, during the three decades he owned his business. Kelly Arden, Anjon Originals, Minima, Young Sophisticates, Sunseekers and American Cotton were also made by T G Southwell.

An ad for Anjon Originals by Southwell from Vogue magazine, Summer 1958.

Travers closed T G Southwell in 1986. 

Text by Kelly Dix. 

Published August 2019.

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