After seven years in Auckland, Sue McKenna returned to UK soil with an itch to set up a business that would combine her interest in fashion with her love of New Zealand. We spoke to Sue to find out more about merino wool, the exclusivity of her stock, and the best-seller item that will keep us on trend year on year.
So, tell us about the fabric.
Merino wool comes from a particular type of sheep, and predominantly comes from New Zealand, Australia and Canada. They tried to introduce them to the UK but they didn’t like the climate, so the quality of the wool they produced wasn’t of the same softness. Wool is measured by the diameter of the fibre, and merino wool is very fine. Its structure means it drapes beautifully and is very flattering. Unlike cashmere and other wool mixes, merino wool is very resistant to pulling and bobbling.
Why should we wear it?
It’s very soft and comforting on your skin – you don’t get any of the itchiness you can get with lambs wool or other varieties of wool. They also use it in sports for base layers in cycling and skiing because it allows your skin to breathe. So if you get hot when exercising, the wool wicks away heat from your body and regulates your body temperature. It offers the same quality in garments, so it keeps you cool when it’s hot and warm in the winter.
Why is your stock so exclusive?
The company who make my 100 percent super soft merino are a husband and wife team in Auckland. I modify the designs from their in-house designer, and choose the colours that I think will suit the UK market and the customers that I’m aiming at. I might make little modifications like add or remove pockets, or add a hood. They’re very flexible and we work together on the designs to try to make something that will suit our lifestyle over here. All the 100 percent merino products, like the jumpers, ponchos, asymmetric scarves and wraps, are all exclusive to me in the UK – nobody else has them.
Who’s the target customer?
The age range is really anything from about 25 up to 100, but the majority are sort of mid-30s to 70. One reason for that is probably because when you reach your mid 30s, you have more of an idea and confidence in your own style. My products are quite expensive, so it’s important that they’re things that will last 10 to 15 years. If you look after merino wool it will last for a very long time – it’s not disposable fashion. My aim is to offer products that are stylish and flattering, but also slightly classic, so they won’t date.
What’s the most popular?
The crossover jumper is of one of the best-sellers (the Barton jumper) – I’ve had that right from the beginning. It’s a timeless piece. What I find most popular are the strong colours like lagoon, burnt orange and charcoal grey, and next year I’ll be doing navy for the first time. I’m interested in doing a cropped cardigan which I think will be a piece people will want to pull out because, if you get the style right, it’s not going to date.
Will you be introducing menswear in the future?
Definitely. I thought that I’d just test the water with accessories and see if there was demand for it. I want to be organic in the way that it grows, to see what the demand is for and try to respond to that. When I chat to customers at events, people might ask for a few things, so in the past I’ve had men’s jumpers sent over especially for them.
We know you attend fairs, events and markets. Any plans to open a shop?
Online is great, but what I enjoy most is going to events and meeting customers. What I find is that when people come to my stand, feel the fabric and and try it on – they’re hooked. So if I can open a shop it will be like having a permanent event. I want to build a local customer base in the North of people who will come knowing that I’m a specialist in merino wool and come for my products. It’s definitely on the agenda.