In the 1980s New Zealand’s location in the Pacific was beginning to colour our self awareness and aesthetic with artists and designers re-interpreting their cultural heritage to reflect a more local expression. The Street Life designers were leading this change.
The Street Life label and retail store was established in 1980 by Chris Cherry, June Robinson and Christine Moon. Chris’ career in the garment trade began in production and manufacturing in Australia and his first job as a 19-year-old required a trans-Tasman relocation. He was sent to Auckland from his native Melbourne by his employer, The Clothing Company, a subsidiary of a high-volume Australian manufacturer.
While in New Zealand, Chris met June Robinson who was a trained cutter and pattern-maker and after several shifts between Auckland and Melbourne they returned to Auckland to open Street Life at 17 Swanson Street. "There was never really a plan. We just bought some sewing machines and took out the lease on the store," remembers Chris. Their friend, patternmaker Christine Moon, also joined the business, which they called RCM Clothing Company.
In 1982, Street Life moved from Swanson Street to a streetfront store in the Century Arcade at 5 High Street. With its neon Street Life sign by Paul Hartigan in the window the shop was popular not just for their own labels but also for the imported brands they stocked to compliment them. They also introduced a second label, Workshop, which began as a utilitarian range for women.
Chris soon noticed that an increasing number of young men, interested in a more relaxed and nuanced style of dressing, were drawn to Workshop jumpsuits, army pants and shirts. In response Workshop produced clothes that refrained from being overtly gendered and this repositioned the brand as a street or urbanwear label, a relatively novel concept in New Zealand in the 1980s.
As the Workshop brand grew in scale and reputation the profile of the Street Life label diminished. This was due in part to the departures of Christine Moon and June Robinson. In 1986, Helen Cherry started as designer of the Street Life label.
Helen had previously worked at Zambesi and her designs for the Street Life took the label in a more feminine direction. After producing several collections, Helen felt the label no longer sat well with the garments that she was designing. "[The clothing] was becoming more and more … my handwriting, my style… We were becoming more sophisticated, the fabrics were more specialised."
In 1997 Chris and Helen decided to drop the Street Life title completely and rebrand the label as Helen Cherry. The new name suited the developing aesthetic and provided a fresh and focused start to the womenswear side of the company.
Text by Alice Tyler. Banner image of Paul Hartigan's sign for the Street Life store, circa 1982. Image © Paul Hartigan.
Published November 2016, updated August 2019.