Embracing change . The team behind Moke is (from left) Merel Wylie, Lynn Stevens, Melissa Mckay, Sarah Jennings, Keith Stevens, and Anneke Stevens. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

For Oamaru-based clothing brand Moke, Covid-19 has meant a pivot of sorts, but as the saying goes, when a door closes, somewhere a window opens. Directors Sarah Jennings and Keith Stevens speak with Ashley Smyth about how the company is weathering the storm.

Adapting to the environment they are operating in has been the key to survival for family-run clothing company Moke, company director Sarah Jennings says.

When Moke was started up by father-daughter duo Keith Stevens and Sarah Jennings in 2013, they were providing jackets for the international tourist market.

Now it’s a family affair, with Keith’s wife, Lynn, and daughter-in-law, Anneke, both integral members of the team. Anneke brings her fashion expertise, while Lynn helps on the sales and dispatch side.

The tourism market had been steadily building for the company, while it also moved into more mainstream women’s fashion.

“Pre-Covid, probably around 35% of our business was sort-of derived from that tourist sector. Ngai Tahu tourism companies – the Agrodrome in Rotorua, Rainbow Springs, Shotover Jets – they’re on of our key accounts,” Keith said.

They had also created a sister-brand, Kakahu, with a less fashion-focused, more Kiwiana-type vibe, which had been proving popular, Sarah said.

“And it’s kind of been mothballed for now.

“So definitely Covid was a bit of a scary time, because that was like a tap turning off at that part of our business . . . so we really had to re-strategise,” she said.

The lack of the tourist dollar took a significant chunk out of Moke’s bottom line, meaning efforts which had gone into making the brand more popular with mainstream fashion retailers, as well as “dabbling” with online retail.

And it was paying dividends.

The company was also dipping its toes into the Australian market, with encouraging success.

“We’d started working with a marketing company in Dunedin, so we just really focused on our online website. And together with that, we also started to actually help our retailers, by sending product out directly from here during Covid, so they could still kind of run their businesses as well.”

As a winter apparel company, Moke was deemed an essential service during lockdown as the weather cooled, Keith said.

“So we spent a lot of time with our customers, assisting – we were sending orders from the warehouse directly to our retailers’ end customers on their behalf.”

He and Lynn worked hard within their bubble packing orders and sending them out.

They company was fortunate the Level 4 lockdown happened at the end of March, Sarah said, with their product going into stores only a few weeks earlier.

“If [lockdown] had been a month earlier, it would have been a very different story for us, because of the impact of cancelled orders.”

The company, however, was sympathetic to the plight of retailers, who were forced to close soon after re-stocking for winter and had bills to pay.

“But, I think we’ve kind of strengthened relationships through Covid, because we’ve had to work through things together,” she said.

Keith said Australia accounted for 30% of their business this year, whereas two years ago, it was “non-existent”.

“We’ve really gone from a client base of zero to about 80 [retailers] in the first 12 months of working with our new agency.”

It was an exciting market and they had “barely scratched the surface”.

The global pandemic was still impacting the business, which relied heavily on its ties with China and Vietnam, where the clothing was manufactured.

Having moved to China as a family when Sarah was 13, and lived their for 10 years, the family had close contacts in both Shanghai, and Nanjing. As with all companies importing product, the supply chain had been affected, she said.

“Delays with shipping, factories being closed and just prices are being driven up everywhere – not only with regards to freighting and all of that, but also just the little fabric mills have had to close.”

She and Anneke were looking forward to being able to return to China, so they could meet their manufacturers again face to face, rather than online.

They were “optimistic, but very cautious” about how next year would go, she said.

While retailers had been quite busy over the past six months, they were cautious, and that could be reflected in their orders.

“But we differ a little bit from a lot of companies, too. We hold stock, so we offer our customers a stock service. They’re not having to outlay 100% of their buy at the one time. They can continue to top-up during the season.”

A new range introduced last year, Arctic by Moke, was a more “high-spec”, seam-sealed, down range, and had been well-received this winter. The company was preparing to show for next winter, which included its first appearance at New Zealand Fashion Week, on August 26.

Keith said while Covid definitely did not help the company’s position – ”if 35% of your market goes overnight, that’s a big gap” – the company had adapted where it needed to, and come through it well.

“We actually ended up, from last year’s financial year, with 30% growth for the year, which was a pretty stirling effort considering the challenges we had.

“That was driven by the increase in Australian sales.”

business was cause for some “robust discussions” around the dinner table, but it mostly worked in the company’s favour.

“The key to working with family too, is we do work quite separately now,” she said. “Because when we first started it was just the two of us, doing everything,”

Sarah was production manager and responsible for driving the online presence, while Keith oversaw sales and dispatch.

The Moke company premises, upstairs in Oamaru’s Loan and Mercantile building, was also adapting, with a showroom expected to be ready in the next three or four months.

“It will be our office, but we want our customers to be able to come up here, and when we do have all our samples here, to be able to do little fashion shows,” Sarah said.

“It’s such an amazing building. We want it to be more of a fashion house.”