By Kate Pierson
It’s not often you get to spend an hour talking to one of Aotearoa’s most commanding fashion designers about what makes her tick.
Needless to say, you make the most of that hour. Because when it comes to Trelise Cooper – style magnate, wife, mother, and the darling of New Zealand’s sartorial scene – there’s much to discuss when it comes to how she does it all.
But, you know, what triggers the intrigue is not so much the fact that she was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013, or the fact that she has 10 flagship boutiques throughout the world and more than 200 stockists throughout Australasia, Asia, Europe, America and the Middle East. Oh, and we haven’t even started on her philanthropic largesse yet – that’ll come later.
Of course there is significant kudos attached to each of these achievements for they are life defining in their own right. But actually, it’s the fact that she’s able to look fear straight in the eye – despite its paralysing qualities – and then own it over and over again that gives Trelise that real je ne sais quoi.
To understand Trelise is to understand her industry, and the first thing to know about the market she plays hardball in, is that there’s no such thing as the quid pro quo.
It’s never been a ‘what you put in you get out’ type of industry, and your blood, sweat and tears – no matter how genuine – don’t guarantee you a dime.
No one will hand you a cheat sheet at the beginning of the season and you can be sure as hell, that the sartorial graveyard is full of fashion flubs that went straight from go to woe without even a hint of credit earned on the way through.
One thing’s for certain, if you want anything out at all, what you put in has to count first time, every time. You cannot operate with impunity; you will be accountable and you most certainly are touchable.
You are within the reach of unforgiving critics with acid tongues, and the naysayers hiding behind veils of Internet based anonymity that are not only thirsty for blood, but as potentially damaging to your credibility as the frontline critics holding the spotlight in weekly columns and reviews.
Scary stuff? You bet.
There’s also absolutely no opportunity for sweet-talking of any kind in this business. Wool won’t be pulled over anyone’s eyes no matter how fabulous its quality. They either like you, or they don’t – plain and painfully simple. ‘They’ being the rather picky masses of the fashion devoted who are constantly agitating for change.
When you’re in this business, the euphoric highs come with the perilous lows, and once you’re on that rollercoaster known as ‘the fashion industry’, you best be hanging on for dear life.
The girl who could
It’d be fair to say Trelise’s journey has been quite the odyssey with more than one Sisyphean climb involved along the way.
Most impressively, perhaps, is that she has honed the art of living out her own advice. If you took this commendation for granted, only accepting it at face value, you might be prompted to say, ‘Yeah, and?’ But think about it. Really think about it.
It’s pretty much a full-blown rarity to meet someone who’s going to do what they say and say what they do. Most of us are walking contradictions – hey, we’re only human.
And so is Trelise. But she learned a valuable lesson once upon a time ago, and she’s kept that lesson a close companion to this very day – define your dreams and fiercely pursue them – no ifs, buts or maybes.
Her lessons have been life ones – she wasn’t really a fan of the traditional kind having left school at 15. In fact, there’s nothing traditional about Trelise Cooper at all, and it makes her story all the more fascinating.
She was married at 17, divorced at 21, and enrolled in what she likes to describe as the ‘University of Trelise’ immediately thereafter.
“I got into the top class in the fifth form at Henderson High School, which bothered me greatly,” she quips. “I didn’t want to be that nerdy and studious person, and the fact I got into that class actually prompted me to leave. School was an unremarkable time for me because I was a bit of a dreamer by nature.”
Her love of dreaming and clothes started long before she decided school wasn’t for her – back to a time where the living was simple and she was the apple of her father’s eye. “The love of clothes probably all began when I was a child. I was a pain in the neck and I insisted on getting changed over and over again. We weren’t rich, but my parents were young and indulged me – particularly my dad.
“When I was living in a subdivision around the ages of 7, 8 and 9, my friends and I would be out in the cul-de-sac playing in fifties frocks and lost in an imaginary world of dress ups, bags and lipsticks. I enjoyed hours and hours of playing around with jewels, textures and colours – these experiences really fueled the beginning of it all.”
Trelise retained this imagination, but her coming years were certainly some of the tougher ones of her life, as she left school and floundered trying to decide what to do next.
“I ended up marrying my boyfriend at the time who was a builder and we bought a home and ran a building business together. I did that for five years and ran other businesses too.
“It was quite a tumultuous relationship and that pushed me to seek out greater learning – I wanted to seek out ways to know myself better. By the end of that marriage, I was already into a new way of thinking. I sought to make a better life for myself and a better attitude – that was really the key to what got me here today.”
The girl who would
Trelise has kept in her possession a series of journals from the earlier days of seeking out a ‘better attitude’. She says the content of these journals is profoundly moving when she reflects on how she has made every aspiration she wrote in them come to life.
“During the hard times I did lots of creative visualisation. It’s a bit of a catch phrase these days, but there is a real formula to doing it properly. I would write down each of my goals in the most definitive detail – as though they had already happened.
“For me, those goals involved fashion and my new partner and husband who was in the fashion industry. I was frustrated because I was always on the periphery, but I had an intuitive sense that it would be something I would love to do – the passion was fired within me.
“I had no formal training and no expertise in garment construction, but I wanted a shop, and to travel overseas and buy fabrics. Sure, it was audacious and bold and, yes, there was a little voice that said, ‘Forget about it – who are you trying to kid?’ but I had to ignore that voice – I had to act like it was going to happen.”
Trelise took action by doing something that’s always harder than it sounds – by putting one foot in front of the other. She spent her first five years in fashion between 1984 and 1988/89 before taking a break with her first baby.
“It was the end of 1996/ early 1997 that I began the business I have now. At times there were hiccups, and sure, sometimes I felt like I was treading water, but I just kept using all the things I had learned along the way.
“If I think about the early days – I would wake up rigid with a pit of fear in my stomach. I had fear that I wasn’t good enough – fear about finances and failure. But when you’re fearful, you don’t procrastinate and you’re very careful about every step you take and the decisions you have to make.
“The year I achieved a $5 million turnover I lost the fear. I stopped right there and said, ‘I am worthy’. It first hit home what I had achieved when I was able to tick everything off in those journals. All of the things that once seemed so fantastical had happened.”
The girl who did
Today Trelise’s name accompanies some of the most sought after finery in New Zealand, and the world for that matter. Her garments and jewellery are made for women in the boardroom right through to the ballroom, with fabrics, embellishments and craftsmanship radiant beyond measure. Her lines have expanded to include fragrances, interiors and children’s wear – each collection respected and highly sought after for the incredible tailoring and captivating aesthetics.
Trelise’s pieces are looked upon as the seasonally elite – tangible forms of fashion advice in their own right – and
with good reason.
On the advice front in the fashion industry, you’ve got to be in the business of taking advice as much as you give it, and Trelise is capable of both.
“You rely on lots of people and your team is incredibly important to you when it comes to sharing ideas and looking to them for advice. The challenging thing is that sometimes those people you bring in to represent you can’t be bothered doing what they’re meant to do.”
Although difficult for Trelise to concede because it flies in the face of her natural instincts, she says that this reality means being ‘liked’ cannot factor fully into the equation.
“If I’m completely honest, on a very personal level, my preference would be that people liked me. There would be few people who could say honestly that they didn’t want other people to like them, or think they were nice.
“But, what I have recognised throughout the years, is that this isn’t always healthy – at times you have to say ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘leave – you’re not here for the greater good’,
“Maybe you get respect for doing this and maybe you don’t. Maybe you get liked and maybe you don’t, but I decided some time ago, that actually, in business, it doesn’t matter. I detached – I had to.
“Sometimes you just have to stop trying so hard to be liked because it can make things worse. You just have to accept that there are certain parts of society who just don’t want to like you, or that want to pull down what you do.”
The old saying ‘It can be lonely at the top’ is something that many of the ‘greats’ would confirm, and Trelise is no different. “It can be lonely when it comes down to you at the end of the day and you are the one responsible.
“But I discovered an interesting piece of teaching some time ago – that everything that happens to me is for my highest good. I can see that everything that has happened to me – good or bad – has sent me on a journey that would have not otherwise happened.”
On the giving advice front, Trelise plays a significant role in many lives and the fortunate recipients of her guidance come from all walks of life.
She’s not only an advocate for breast cancer, domestic violence awareness, Habitat for Humanity, and an integral part of MARITAGE International – a United Nations partner organisation connecting women in developed and developing countries – but also a mentor to youth groups.
Trelise is candid about the fact that she does arrive at these sessions in her Mercedes Benz, and she is aware her students are going to get their backs up when they first meet her. But what she also knows is that the disparity between her journey and her current reality – two worlds that couldn’t be further from one another if they tried – command attention, and people are going to listen up pretty damn quick.
“When I turn up to work with these youth groups in my Mercedes, I know what they’re thinking straight away. I’m this rich woman with a rich life – but actually, there was never a silver spoon in my mouth and I started out like many of them – in Otara in a state house.”
While Trelise is very open and transparent about her past, she is understandably private about her future, about which she says, “Our dreams are very private and personal things – a personal prayer in a way. I don’t always share because people can stamp on them, or things may not unfold as I expect.
“But what I can say is that I have plans for a Kuwait store and expanding into new markets. I have this sense that the global financial crisis is receding for America and I want to build up my business there – I have never given up on America.
“I also want to pull back a bit and spend more time with my family enjoying our life in the South of France. My son lives in New York City and I want to spend more time with him too. That will definitely be a part of my future, but I love New Zealand – I will never leave here.”
To peruse Trelise Cooper’s exquisite fineries, go to www.trelisecooperonline.com