While home sewing and dressmaking was prevalent in New Zealand and exclusive salons catered for a wealthy clientele, it was the large garment manufacturers who filled in the gaps in the country’s wardrobe for most of the 20th century. Fashions Ltd was one of the bigger manufacturers - a business that spanned a couple of generations and operated for over six decades. Forty years after Joe Lewis established the business in Wellington, his sons acquired a rival manufacturer, Classic. They dominated the women’s clothing market for another 20 years.
Joe Lewis came from a long line of tailors. His father Abram was a fourth generation tailor who had fled Eastern Europe to escape the pogrom and had settled and worked in London.
When he was 18 years old Joe and his brother, Alfred, travelled from England to Australia. Alfred stayed but Joe moved on to settle in New Zealand where he found work in Wellington with Herb Price at his business in Wellington, Strand: Gentlemen’s Outfitter and Mercer. In 1912 Joe set up his own tailor business - J T Lewis Ladies Wear Specialists and High Class Tailors.
In Wellingon he met and later married Irene Hope, who was the daughter of a local dentist. Their first son, Peter, was born in 1919, followed by two more sons - Bill and Tony.
In 1926 Joe was one of a group of Wellington businessmen who took over an existing clothing company that was in receivership. Their objective was reported in the Evening Post: "To commence and carry on business of manufacture of clothing of every description and general incidental."
A considerable extension of his original ambit the new business was located on the top floor of the Gas Company Buildings in Courtenay Place. Fashions Ltd, designed and manufactured womenswear and men’s overcoats. They had only been operating for a few years when the Great Depression hit New Zealand decimating much industry but business acumen, good connections and hard work carried them through.
In addition to his tailoring skills, Joe was also an astute businessman. In the 1930s he travelled to Europe and the United States and returned with the latest machinery for the Fashions Ltd factory. He bought machines that could perform specialised tasks such as blind-hem stitching, pin tucking and shirring thereby making production more efficient. As well as the machinery, Fashions Ltd brought in examples of the latest fashion from London, Paris and New York. These were reproduced in the factories and wholesaled to retail stores across the country. When journalist O N Gillespie visited the Fashions Ltd factory in 1939, he was unable to tell the difference between the American-made garment and the one made in the Wellington workroom. "I made a conscientious effort and spent time on a close scrutiny to find a difference between original and copy, and could discern no difference whatever," he wrote in an article for the NZ Railways Magazine (1 August 1939). "Every thread and tracery, every tint in ornamentation and material, seemed to me to be exactly the same. Then the manager explained that one difference had escaped me. The New Zealand article was better finished and it had a hem to enable 'letting down' or some other mysterious process."
According to O N Gillespie, there were about 200 people working in the Wellington factory in 1939 and the work was "divided into two sections, the silk fabric manufacture, and the making of clothes from heavier materials". This division, between dressmaking and tailoring, is a characteristic we see in couture houses and translated to most manufacturing.
But it was the machinery that made the biggest impression on Gillespie. "In a gown-making establishment is a room with the mechanistic air of a precision plant. Here is a genuine die-press, making handsome buckles. The die shapes themselves come from overseas, and these machines press out the shape and cover it with cloth. The process needs to be seen to be believed." He was also in awe of a large 'butcher's block' for various types of stamping work and an air compressor plant for quilting "where the thread is blown through the fabric".
Despite the automation provided by the machinery, Gillespie wrote about the workmanship of the garments. "I was interested in the large showroom of Fashions Ltd, in the enormous variety of the flower and metal ornaments required to give the finishing touches to all sorts and types of gowns. Some of the flowers are made on the premises with modern embroidering machines, but the world is explored for original and exquisite novelties." He quoted the manager: "A distinctive ornament is often the key point of a dress design and simply makes the gown."
Gowns were set aside not long after Gillespie’s visit to the factory. Joe’s granddaughter Jacquie Lewis recalls that her "Poppa’s" first love was overcoats, harking back to his tailoring days in London. During the Second World War the factory was requisitioned to make greatcoats for the New Zealand armed forces. This work secured an income during a time of severe rationing and restrictions on clothing manufacturing. The company also produced a limited range of Fashions Ltd garments that adhered to wartime design guidelines.
After the war, his youngest sons joined the business - Tony straight from school and Warren (who was known as Bill) joined after his return from the war in England. To Joe’s disappointment his oldest son wasn’t keen to work at Fashions Ltd and he trained as a doctor.
Fashions Ltd was in a good position to expand and they opened factories in New Plymouth and Christchurch and also a knitting mill and dyeworks that were still operating in the 1960s.
Like many other clothing companies in post war New Zealand, Fashions Ltd began to manufacture a number of overseas labels under license, which were sold in department stores and salons across the country. This included the British labels Dereta, Eastex and Gor-ray, and the American label California Cottons. The Fashionbilt label, however, was their own, created by their in-house designers.
Joe’s granddaughters Jacquie and Gaye Lewis recall making frequent visits to the Fashions Ltd factory in Wellington in the early 1950s.
Gaye Lewis, now Bartlett, says it was here that her grandfather nurtured her love of fashion. "Fabric texture and quality was emphasised while colour and trims were explained and demonstrated as only a grandparent can do." She describes watching with fascination, the fabric being cut into pieces and made into garments by the machinists, and the garments stacked in piles before arriving in the pressing room. These visits inspired a career in fashion, including a stint in the trim department at Fashions Ltd in the 1960s.
After Joe died in 1958, his sons were instrumental in turning the business into a public company listed on the Stock Exchange. In 1967, they acquired the Auckland clothing company, Classic Manufacturing, and renamed the business Classic Fashions.
The business continued to pursue its approach of investing in learning about the latest technology and fashion from overseas. Walter Hart joined Fashions Ltd as a cutter in 1963 and, after two years, he was sent to London to study pattern making and to learn about computerisation and the new technology of fusible interfacing - systems and processes that he set up with the company on his return.
Following an attempted takeover by Lane Walker Rudkinin 1980, Bill and Tony re-privatised the company and became the sole shareholders. While they now owned the Fashions Ltd’s garment factories, Lane Walker Rudkin had managed to secure the knitting mill and dyeworks.
Classic Fashions continued manufacturing including its franchised labels Lesley Fay, Jonathan Logan, Petite Vogue, Act III and Esprit. When Bill died in 1998 more than eight decades in the family fashion business ended and the Lewis family sold the company.
Text by Kelly Dix. Image by Kate Coolahan for Fashions Ltd, 1950s, from Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Last published September 2018.