Van Hulzen came into contact with Optimum in search of blank body blocks to use for dip-dyed hats. She toured Optimum’s factory and was impressed with the team’s authenticity, describing suppliers like Optimum as “a gem”.
Optimum was founded in 1990 and remains family-owned. Many staff were kept on from a previous business, Woolcraft, since the 1970s.
“I really wanted to be part of it,” van Hulzen says.
Retail also entered into van Hulzen’s considerations when creating From. Her core label, Widdess, has a boutique-style bricks and mortar store in Ponsonby underneath the studio workroom where other brands such as Hydrangea Ranger and Dehei are stocked.
Van Hulzen felt independent retail was important, and wanted to support products that were made in New Zealand with the From range.
She approached Tim Fawcett, Optimum’s chief executive, with an idea for a collection with “different handwriting”. The result was a Fair Isle range of knitwear inspired by what van Hulzen calls “grandpa jumpers”. She wanted to take a traditional, hand-knit feel and translate it into a commercial product.
The organic yarn is not bleached but dyed on top of its natural colour. This means muted tones and softer colours.
Fawcett says the wool that goes into From products is of Austrian origin, GOTS certified as organic. It’s “way ahead of Fairtrade” certification, he says, and approximate to BioGro.
He believes nobody else is manufacturing organic knitwear in New Zealand.
Fawcett says the big challenge for small factories like Optimum is that high street is shrinking, taking retail clients with it. High street retailers’ struggle translates into a struggle for the manufacturers too.
“Whether you like it or not, you get branded as old or mature or whatever,” Fawcett says.
Optimum’s core range is stocked by many independent retailers and small chains such as Zebrano, Status Clothing and The Merino Story.
Fawcett speaks of perhaps five other suppliers of Optimum’s size specialising in possum merino for the tourist market, but Optimum is the only supplier doing a 50/50 split.
He came to New Zealand in the 1970s, and recalls more than 40 factories specialising in knitwear operating locally. He estimates there are now eight or nine.
“Everybody’s having to look at what else we can do, and we decided to go down the organic route with a new designer.”
From is aimed at a completely new market to Optimum’s existing customers. When the second From range was launched in May, only a single customer stocked both From and the standard Optimum range.
“It’s a new and ever-changing landscape,” Fawcett says.
From is now in its second winter, and is 100 percent up on the launch year. Fawcett is proud to report it’s exceeding expectations.
Consumers are able to buy direct via From’s website, but behind the scenes, Optimum passes on the sale to retailers as it’s not looking to compete with stockists. Fawcett’s daughter Sarah, who is Optimum’s sales and operation manager, says the website’s real purpose is to show off the full From range.
“Ideally we would love for the community to buy from the retailer, but if they want a one-stop shop then the website is it.”
Sarah Fawcett would ultimately like to make the production process more visible and showcase the personalities at Optimum.
Optimum can produce much, much smaller runs than offshore factories, says Fawcett. It offers greater flexibility and a higher level of support. Because production is all in-house, the Optimum team have full control over quality and can work very fast – samples can be produced within a day or a few hours.
“We’ve got full control of the whole process so things can happen at lightning speed if they have to,” Sarah says.
There’s strong research to back up Fawcetts and van Hulsen’s hunch that organic knitwear might do well. As well as being the morally correct to do, sustainable and socially responsible products are increasingly popular with consumers, especially Millennials and Generation Z.
“Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share but build loyalty among the power-spending Millennials of tomorrow, too,” says Grace Farraj, SVP, Public Development & Sustainability, Nielsen.
The Spring Summer 2019 range is out now, and is made with organic cotton rather than merino.