7 Dec 2022

Cutting the cloth: What it takes to make clothes in New Zealand

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 7 December 2022

The Detail visits one of the largest - and last - clothing manufacturers in the country.

Ben Kepes wears a black hoodie and stands on an elevated platform. Behind him is the factory floor of Albion Clothing, with rows of workbenches and tools. There is a string of flags hanging over the factory floor.

Ben Kepes is the co-founder and director of clothing label Cactus Outdoor, which acquired Albion Clothing in 2018. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

The first thing you see from the top of the stairs at the Albion Clothing factory in Christchurch is a line of national flags.

Beyond them, on the factory floor, are rows of sewing machines. There are bolts of fabric lining one wall and racks of finished clothing on the opposite side.

This isn't just any clothing, but police and Defence Force uniforms, as well as apparel for the Cactus Outdoor label.

Sadly, says Cactus co-founder and director Ben Kepes, it's New Zealand's largest manufacturer of clothing and one of the last. 

"Sadly I say, because in years gone past, factories would have had thousands and thousands of staff. This is only 100, but this is what the largest in New Zealand looks like nowadays."

Cactus Outdoor acquired Albion about four years ago. As a specialist in tailored clothing, it takes more than a dozen skilled workers to make a garment, such as a handmade blazer.

A workbench is covered with shiny black material. There is a smart screen lit up with clothing pattern shapes in different bright colours, acting as a reference for how the black material should be cut to make a pattern.

A new digital cutting machine. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

"That's really important," Kepes tells The Detail. "In this day and age we hear all about New Zealand's low productivity and that we need to be a technology leader. 

"All of that is true, but every time I walk through the factory I can't help but be proud, but also saddened, at the incredible skills our people have but that they're not valued by the world at large."  

The company wants to expand in New Zealand, but it can't find enough workers to fill the orders and it's now looking at outsourcing to other countries, like Thailand and Vietnam.

Kepes says young people aren't interested in manufacturing, because "it's not sexy", but he also says it's dismissed by politicians and business leaders.

The Detail goes on a tour of the factory to see how the garments are made: from the bolt of fabric, through the new digital cutter and the hands of "highly skilled artisans" at various machines, to the final stages of stitching buttons and domes.

Cactus Outdoor general manager Mat Junge says when he first started at the company more than three years ago, he was taken aback at how the factory worked.

Mat Junge stands in front of a workbench in the Albion Clothing factory. There are other workers at workbenches behind him using sewing machines and other tools. The factory floor is busy with equipment and goods.

Mat Junge is the general manager of Albion Clothing in Christchurch. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

"When we wear the garment, we don't recognise the effort and the work that goes into it.

"It's expensive to make in New Zealand, because we're paying Kiwis kiwi wages," says Junge.

He says one New Zealand worker's wage would pay for six-and-a-half workers in other countries. 

"You can see why this industry's been absolutely destroyed."

Kepes points out that the flags overhead represent the many nationalities of the workers.

"We're very proud that we give new New Zealanders their first go in New Zealand. At last count we had 35 nationalities represented here.

"My parents were refugees to New Zealand - my mother worked in a clothing factory when they first came - so I feel a personal obligation but it's actually a really cool thing to do to support immigrants and many refugees as well."

When Cactus Outdoor bought Albion, Kepes says his ambition was to rebuild the Christchurch apparel sector, an "eco system" with different businesses involved.

"That is still the vision. I would love someone to start the fabric mills, so that New Zealand wool and hemp that's grown here could actually be made into fabric here, but that requires someone to invest and take a risk and thus far it hasn't happened."

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