Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist, specialising in lead generation and content marketing.
OPINION: Years ago I wrote a book called She’ll Be Right, about rural New Zealand women building businesses, running farms, and building careers outside of cities. Some of them had been thrown into it by circumstance, while others were actively pursuing building businesses where they were, instead of having to relocate to cities where there were more people, bigger resources and better wi-fi.
I was living rurally myself, but was making a 60km round trip daily just to get a latte from the nearest town’s cafe. I was not really made from the same cloth as the women I was profiling.
I hadn’t thought about that book for a long time, until I interviewed Claire Williamson for my MAP IT Marketing podcast. I’d asked her to come on and talk about her bespoke clothing line, Velma and Beverly, and quickly discovered this thriving small business was only one of the activities Willliamson has on the go.
There are a growing number of rural women-led businesses emerging, especially as the face of farming is evolving. There’s a greater need to diversify and find ways to generate income off the land, that is sustainable, protects the environment and also helps protect and support the families living on the land.
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More and more rural women are launching businesses that help use the materials and resources close at hand. They’re in charge of marketing, customer service and finding new markets for their products and services. Like many small business owners, they’re also often juggling parenting, with the added jobs that come with land, stock and machinery.
Williamson is no different. While running a business designing, manufacturing and marketing made-to-order bespoke woollen coats takes up a significant amount of her time, her main role is still as a mortgage adviser, specialising in helping buyers get into their first homes.
The flexible hours needed for that have also given her time to squeeze in other interests including co-hosting her own popular podcast “Black Heels and Tractor Wheels”, which tells the stories of rural women around New Zealand, and being on the board of Rural Women New Zealand.
Having a clothing business that reflects her family history, incorporates her love of rural New Zealand and creates something that’s sustainable and lasts beyond one season encapsulates the values Williamson holds close. “It’s called Velma and Beverly because it’s named after my grandmothers. I wanted to have some provenance in the business. Sometimes people think that my grandmother’s names are a little strange, but I love them. They were both massive sewers. They made all of their own clothes, they looked after their families. And I think I just really wanted to have a bit of that in my own business.
Williamson grew up on farms. As she explains, while she’d like to own a farm one day, for now she’s a lifestyle farmer. “I have sheep, some cattle and chickens. And I live just out of Cambridge. But my long-term goal is to buy a farm. My parents are sheep and beef farmers. One day I’m going to be growing and selling animals and their wool to the world but at the moment, I’m partnering with fantastic farmers who have sustainable values, and using their wool in my clothing.”
Two of those partnerships are with The Grumpy Merino, another rural women-led business based in North Canterbury, which supplies the merino wool for Williamson’s coats, and Palliser Ridge in the Wairarapa which provide the lambswool. Both of these suppliers have a strong focus on sustainability which fits with Velma and Beverley’s own values.
Finding suppliers for the wool was one thing. Working out how to transform it into fabric was another. “I wanted to keep that whole process in New Zealand,” explains Williamson. She knew this would help ensure the quality remained high, and would make it a premium product. Focusing on coats that would last for years meant Williamson would need to create a product that fit into the “Buy Once, Buy Well” purchasing bracket.
However, finding someone to create the fabric in New Zealand proved more difficult than expected. “In the end, I googled and rang a firm up in Auckland, and asked for some offcuts. They were making fabric for upholstery. I used some of that to make a couple of samples and started getting comments on it.” Realising her idea had “legs”, Williamson pre-sold coats off those initial samples. “This allowed me to have enough money to do my first run.”
When ordering, the customer can select from a range of different kinds of cotton to line their coat. This material is ethically sourced, rather than made in New Zealand, as we don’t grow cotton here. However, Williamson does get the coat toggles and buttons made here. “We got them made by a lovely gentleman down south, who was making something else quite random. I emailed him and I asked. He makes native timber toggles from little bits and pieces of wood that are left over. I love them.”
Just as the business was starting to get off the ground, Williamson snapped her Achilles tendon. Looking back it was the best thing for her emerging business. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you can run around like a headless chicken. It gave me time to provide an online presence for that business.”
Velma and Beverly launched in 2019, and Williamson is aware that the pandemic likely helped the business grow during 2020. “Over that Covid period, we all wanted to give back to New Zealand businesses. And people wanted to support New Zealand,” she explains.
Along with this is a shift for more people to choose slow fashion over fast. “Often there’s a preference for a beautiful garment, something that’s unique, that will last for a long time. It’s fabulous. Because we are getting away from that, I suppose fast fashion, let’s have everything under the sun kind of feel.” I suspect that’s a view Williamson’s grandmothers would also have shared.
While make designers focus on creating runs of certain designs, Velma and Beverley coats are all currently presold and then made to order. From a cash flow perspective, that keeps the risk down, but it also means that the business can provide a more customised service. “ I spoke to a lot of people and they said things like, ‘Oh, the sleeves are too short’, or ‘I’m taller than my size’ . I wanted to cater to those people. And I’ve had some customers buy three coats just because they can get that extension on the arm length.”
While Williamson manages the partnerships, design and strategic direction of the business, she’s able to make it work with her other commitments with a small and supportive team.
Any idea that she would be able to manage it all was put to bed with the creation of the first prototype. “You really have to have someone doing the sewing, someone managing the operational part, the customer service and the marketing and the sales, because they are quite different skill sets. I always knew that I probably wouldn’t be good enough at sewing to do the sewing side. I made my first prototype. And I realised that taking 10 to 15 hours per coat was probably just not going to be viable.”
Marketing a fashion label is expensive and highly competitive. Williamson has used social media, with Facebook and Instagram as her main channels. Her messaging has been around “How our coats are going to make you feel, sharing options and getting people to talk to us and ask questions.”
However, most of the marketing has been in partnering with other rural based businesses. They’ve had success advertising in Shepherdess, a magazine for Rural women in New Zealand. Word-of-mouth marketing has also helped, as well as having her coats work as effective mini billboards, with customers coming to her after spying someone else wearing one.
Adding new colours to the range, and new styles is part of the future plans for Velma and Beverly. But Williamson would also like to extend the range beyond wool coats. “We’ve got some other plans around building a range including blazers and suiting.”
For Williamson, Velma and Beverley have given her a chance to incorporate the elements of what rural New Zealand is to her. Her hat tip to family, and intergenerational care of the land. The ethos around supporting other rural-led businesses and building community by using products and services that support and grow our communities here in New Zealand, and do so in a sustainable way.
As Williamson reflects, “What’s really interesting is in farming is we are going through a massive period of change. There’s a lot of regulation, a lot of changes with carbon targets and water and others where farmers are going to have to change and adapt. And what that means is that land use is changing as well. So this is the time to find new ways to use our land to do something new.”
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