Pearl emerged at a time when locally created fashion and style had real cachet with the buying public. New labels, often attached to retail boutiques, were opening up across New Zealand. Responding directly to the fabrics and to the customer Pearl envisioned designs that would transcend fashion and allow all women, regardless of age or body shape, to feel and look elegant in beautiful attire.

Cris Roberts' love for fashion came at an early age, growing up in a culture of getting "done up" in 1960s Britain. She has fond memories of her mother Wilma's glory box and the way she invested in quality items rather than choosing "cheap and cheerful" options. The eldest of five children, Cris was born in Torphins, Scotland. She came to New Zealand in 1973 at the age of 18 to join her father, John Elrick, in South Auckland and very quickly adapted to the dramatically different society. "I remember being photographed by a newspaper in the 1970s, when I was walking down Queen Street in a bikini and shorts, which was like being naked in England," Cris laughs.

Pearl designer, Cris Roberts. Image © Cris Roberts.

Cris gained work experience in administration at a local Ford Motor Company here before she returned to the UK for a few years. In 1979 she came back and settling here permanently embarking on training in accountancy at the local Winstone Samsung Industries pulp and paper mill. Perhaps surprisingly these skills led to her entrance into the fashion industry when in 1986 she began work with Zambesi as their bookkeeper.

During her 18 years at Zambesi, Cris witnessed first hand the effort that goes into every single garment; from fabric choice and pattern development to the way it is merchandised, advertised and sold to customers. Travelling to London Fashion Week, New York and Australia to promote collections, she was exposed to the realities of the fashion industry. Cris learnt sales and production skills at the company and eventually became the Financial Controller and General Manager.

Cris stepped out as a designer in 2003, establishing Pearl, with its first boutique on Richmond Road, Grey Lynn. Motivated by a desire to dress women in a more personal way, Cris endeavoured to distance her brand from the rigid nature of fashion, removing constraints both from the garments themselves and the way they were sold to people.

A Pearl photoshoot at Muriwai. Image © Cris Roberts.

Having worked together with Beth Mikkelson in Cachet, the Zambesi retail store in Takapuna, Cris knew and admired Beth’s unique style and passion for fashion and invited her to join the brand. Beth’s forte was in sales and her ability to create a warm and comfortable environment for the customer, while Cris specialised in the business and design areas of Pearl. Their collaboration lasted nine years until, in 2012, they decided to go their separate ways, with Cris continuing Pearl on her own.

The Pearl aesthetic is sophisticated, delicate and feminine, with inspiration from Cris’s obsession with vintage designs from the 1920s to 1970s. Pearl’s solo show in the 2005 Air New Zealand Fashion Week, was described as "a marriage of edginess and elegance" by Thread magazine. The wrapping and draping of fabric around the silhouette was a key theme and Pearl continues to explore this, through the generous amounts of material flattering the figure. Cris sees one of her stand out achievements being the creation, after years of development, of the perfect 'wrap shirt'.

Pearl continues to evolve with recent collections influenced by AUT graduates, including Greta Bannister and Kristina Drake. The inclusion in store of other brands such as Elizabeth Soljak of A la Robe, and Swarovski accessories has added to the occasion wear offering. Although the demographic of Pearl has remained constant throughout the brand’s lifetime, Cris believes that Pearl has become "stronger rather than pretty", through not only a change in the business, but a change in attitude as well.

Remaining New Zealand made is a significant driver for Pearl, with the workroom located above the current store on Ponsonby Road employing the expertise of machinists, pattern makers, designers and retail staff. The needs and passion of the clients continue to inspire and influence the garments that are designed and produced under the Pearl label. "I want to make things that people will keep forever," Cris says. 

Text by Zoe Madden-Smith. Banner image © Pearl.

First published April 2016.

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