At LCF we love hearing what our incredible alumni have been up to since their time here. Recently, alumna Denise L’Estrange-Corbet, CEO of WORLD, one of New Zealand’s most progressive and philanthropic fashion brands, got in touch.
She studied at LCF from 1982 to 1984, on the one year Fashion Production course, and then went into the final year of the four year Women’s Tailoring Course for another year. Denise spoke to us about her career, what she enjoyed about her time at LCF, and the ups and downs of owning your own fashion business.
What was the best thing about your course and what did you find most challenging?
The best thing about the course was learning so much from the tutors, especially Eddie Thornton, who was just the most brilliant and patient tailor you could ever find! You really have no idea about the complexity of what goes into a garment, particularly in hand tailoring, and we would sit on the tables, with our feet on the chairs, hand canvassing coats over our knees at Curtain Road, like little old ladies as the cast iron radiators clanked! It was a really great time and I made some wonderful friends.
The most challenging thing was that we were based at a different LCF site every day – from John Prince’s Street, to Golden Lane and Curtain Road. We weren’t able to have lockers so we had to lug all our files around – this is in the prehistoric, pre-computers times – and we looked like a pack-horses!
Why did you choose to study at LCF?
I chose LCF as it was the only place in the country to go if you wanted to study fashion, and that was all aspects from design to fashion journalism. It was by far one of the most respected at home and overseas, and still is.
Did you find London inspiring while studying?
I was brought up in London from the age of 3, and I made the most of all it had to offer – I think I quite possibly took it for granted. As a 13 year old, BIBA, on Kensington High Street was a favourite hang out – that shop just blew my mind on every level imaginable. I also loved Antiquarius on the King’s Road and shopping in Portobello Road. There is always something new happening in London.
What are you doing nowadays? Tell us a bit about the jobs you’ve had, and the highlight of your career so far…
While studying, I worked for Browns in the holidays and weekends. After leaving LCF I worked for Crolla in Dover Street, which at the time was run by Scott Crolla and Georgina Godley, and got to meet so many famous people that passed through, as the workroom was downstairs to the shop. Tom Dixon was a friend of theirs, and used to pop in all the time in the 80s. Meeting Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan was by far the most incredible experience there. I remember Andy Warhol and Billy Boy having an argument over a floral chintz sale dress that was £50, as they both wanted it – it was surreal!
I worked there for two years, and decided to visit New Zealand, my birthplace, for six months. I was working in a fashion store in New Zealand, and I met Francis Hooper who worked next door, and had just come back from the UK. We got talking and one day suggested we pool our meagre £200 together and start our own business.
We knew nothing about owning a business, and it was all hit and miss, but New Zealand did not have a youth culture, and we were the beginning of that in 1989. Today we have 6 large stores and employ 35 people. We sell nationally and internationally, and dispatch all over the world.
Highlights so far would have to be receiving visits and recommendations from the late Anna Piaggi (Creative Director Italian Vogue), who came backstage in Sydney at our show at Australian Fashion Week, and said it was the ‘best show of the week”, and bought an outfit. In 2002 I was the first female fashion designer in NZ to be awarded an MNZM (formerly MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for services to Fashion Design. That for me, was huge, but WORLD, as a brand has broken so many barriers, we are know as a ‘brand of firsts’ and we do things before others!
Last year, we designed a t-shirt for the Global Goals – a 15 year plan, which was endorsed by the United Nations, and travelled to New York for the launch. The event was attended by Queen Rania of Spain, Victoria Beckham, Richard Curtis and Alek Wek amongst others. Twenty percent of sales go to the United Nations Global Goals project.
How did you get to where you are today?
Francis and I got to where we are today by hard work. Working until 5 in the morning before shows was the norm, you just did the hard yards, and nothing has changed. We had no family or support system here, so it was very much sink or swim. We started early, finished late, and had a new baby, but we did it! Our daughter, Pebbles, just came with us everywhere, you just make it work.
What were your biggest challenges along the way?
So many challenges! Unfortunately, running a fashion business means you have to deal with so many boring things, that are not creative, and that drain you. Things like landlords, staff, leases and of course, cash flow. Money in and money out is a merry go round, but that is business.
Tell us about an average day at your job…
I find it quite weird to do so much of my work on a computer nowadays – it would have been done by letters and telephone when we started out. We still design with pencil and paper, always have, always will – there’s nothing like jotting down an idea on paper. It is very tactile, and is what designing is about.
Each day is different depending on the time of year, whether we have a show, collection time, so there is never an average day thankfully! I write about fashion for media, comment on TV, Judge fashion events, travel, lecture, select fabrics, hoover, support charities in my Ambassador Roles, whatever needs to be done to get through the day.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Our ambition to keep growing and following our ethos. We do not support cheap or child labour, all our products are made to the highest standards locally, and we are artisans – for us it is not about volume at the cheapest price.
WORLD is a luxury brand and all our clothing is made is New Zealand, as we firmly believe in supporting the local industry. Ten years ago we launched our WORLDbeauty stores, which bring the best perfumes, beauty brands and objet d’art from around the world. We source and hand select the best from around the world, and ensure our customer is constantly challenged.
What is your top tip for people who want to get into roles like yours?
My top tip for people wanting a role like mine, is to identify your market and stick to it. You cannot chop and change, what you do and believe has to be what you stand for. Creativity and originality is so important, and never, ever be compromised. You need to also be able to stand up for what is right.
Alumni can connect with LCF in the following ways: