Barbara Lee

Granny's 1968–1973, Panache 1978-2008

Barbara Lee began her career in fashion design when she was working as a receptionist in Christchurch when she was 20. Although she could not sew, she could draw. One day a local manufacturer, Gary Brown, came into her office and saw Barbara's sketches of "long, thin ladies" wearing dresses on her blotter. He offered to turn her sketches into a reality if she opened her own store.

In the summer of 1968, Barbara rented a shop in the White Hart Arcade on Cashel Street. Gary Brown made the garments and Barbara’s friend Paula Ryan, a graphic designer and model, designed her first label – and the brand Granny’s was born.

Granny's first photoshoot at Ferrymead Heritage Park in Christchurch, 1968. Image © Barbara Lee.

Granny’s clothes were a hit in Christchurch and by 1970, the business had developed into an exclusive wholesale label supplying a limited number of stockists nationwide.

Barbara recalls that the clothes would be delivered on a Friday and there would be a queue waiting outside the shop. "It was just unbelievable. I would sell out really quickly so I would put the layby clothes out on my racks again just to look like I was still in business."

Barbara's designs for Granny’s featured what she describes as "the brightest colours and the shortest miniskirts" – perfect timing for these trends with the youth explosion that began in London. 

A Granny's design, 1970. Image © Barbara Lee.

In 1973, Barbara retired the Granny’s brand and left to travel the world with her boyfriend William, who would eventually become her husband and business partner. When they eventually returned to Lyttelton in 1978, Barbara began her next fashion business.

It was a very different concept to Granny’s. The new label had a larger space on High Street, with a workroom upstairs and a space to hold in-house parades and a light and airy salon. The new label was called Panache, which means a grand or flamboyant manner; verve; style; flair. It was more serious than Granny’s and focused on establishing a niche for Barbara’s designs that could capture a share of the expanding national market.  

Parade at Panache, circa 1980. Image © Barbara Lee.

William Lee took over the business and production, which allowed Barbara to focus entirely on design. She created a collection for a slightly older, more professional audience than the Granny’s clientele. Her models included Paula Ryan, Pieter Stewart and Nicky Watson.

In October 1987, the international stock market crashed. Barbara stopped designing for wholesale markets as it became harder to secure payment. However she managed to win the contract to produce corporate wardrobes for Air New Zealand’s Koru Club in 1988, which eventually led to the contract for the Air New Zealand uniform in 1992. 

The designs, with a few tweaks here and there, stayed in the air for nearly 15 years. The success of this venture led to more corporate work and to designing and producing school uniforms for clients throughout New Zealand. By the mid 1990s, corporate design accounted for 75 percent of her business. 

Barbara and William Lee, 1997. Image © Barbara Lee.

In 2003, Barbara's friend Pieter Stewart talked her into showing at New Zealand Fashion Week. Her appearance propelled Barbara back into the wholesale business for the first time since the 1987 stock market crash. Pieter believed there was an international market for Barbara's designs. "There was nobody else doing quite what she was doing." 

Barbara's first show was with the Christchurch labels Sakaguchi and Tango. It showcased her knack for headline-grabbing attention as she sent Nicky Watson down the runway in a red satin corset and fishnet stockings.  

In 2008, Barbara started prepping for retirement and closed one part of her business. Also she still designs uniforms for schools and corporations, she officially closed the doors at Panache, now located on Tuam Street, nearly 30 years after beginning the label. 

Text by Dennis Gedye. Banner image © Barbara Lee.

Last published June 2015.

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