25 September 2020
25 September 2020
The last stretch of the journey to Matapouri Bay, on the North Island’s east coast, takes in steeply winding roads and hills cloaked in native bush. Each bend in the road reveals the unique beauty of this part of New Zealand. Or, as Chris Dobbs of menswear label Working Style says, “every turn of the wheel is just around the corner from happy days. It’s the part of the trip where you start to get that sense of levity.”
Dobbs and his family have been holidaying here for 14 years. The small beachside community is dotted with holiday homes that embrace the perfect curve of the white-sand beach. This Kiwi summer idyll, the ultimate retreat from Auckland, is where Dobbs established Working Style in 1987. Although he calls himself the “village tailor”, the business is much more than that. Working Style Parnell is the flagship and one of the biggest suiting stores in the Southern Hemisphere. Rooms lead to more rooms, reflecting how the company has grown and evolved over the years.
The brand has developed a loyal following for its impeccably tailored suits made in Europe from European-milled fabric, and attentive customer care. If ‘Dobby’ is in the shop, it’s not unusual for him to remove a customer’s shoes, give them a polish and thread through a new pair of laces.
“We have great relationships with people who trust us,” he says. “We audit their wardrobes, resole their shoes, and constantly talk about ways to be smart and non-wasteful. It’s about care – our customers are busy people and we are the intervention.”
Working Style Parnell is an evocative place to be as the brand’s proud heritage is woven into the surrounds. The lower level is stocked with casual wear and the walls are lined with photos of rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix, the Stones and Kurt Cobain, while upstairs emanates European charm. Customers naturally gravitate to the second level, where the business of suit making takes place. Fabric from some of the oldest mills in Europe line countertops and antique cabinets are filled with cut crystal and tailoring memorabilia. It’s here where Dobbs holds client functions and regales colleagues with stories of European encounters with the likes of tailoring greats Bruno Cucinelli and Ozwald Boateng. While business travel has been recently pared back, the fashion industry isn’t one that ever rests, and it’s Matapouri that provides a regular respite.
Spending the entire month of January at the beach is a foil to the full-paced nature of the business. And the drive to Matapouri is part of the ritual in dialling it all down. The all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQC adds a new element to the journey, treading quietly on the road and delivering superbly smooth and efficient acceleration. Oscar, the family dog, lies contentedly on a blanket on the back seat. With three children and Oscar, pit stops have always peppered the journey north and traditions have formed over the years. A stop at La Nonna Italian Bakery at Kaiwaka, about 90 minutes out of Auckland, is one of those. As is a catch up with owners Ilia and Eva Petro, who fill their cabinets with Italian-style baking, plus a few nods to Kiwi classics, such as the
Beyond Auckland’s city limits there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy how the EQC handles the notorious winding roads that lead to the coast. The Mercedes-Benz easily climbs the corkscrew-like bends of the Brynderwyn Range and, once over its pinnacle, the generous windscreen fills with views out to the spectacular Ruakaka coastline.
Once you pass the city of Whangarei, the landscape becomes rural and the mood relaxed. The next stop – Huanui Fresh Produce and Black Stump Coffee Shop in Glenbervie – is a must for weekend supplies. Their fresh produce, much of which is organic, is grown locally on the area’s long-established orchards – Huanui is the district’s oldest and dates back to the 1870s.
The towering avocado trees that line the roads here are indicative of the rich soils that attracted the early Scottish settlers in the 1860s. The landscape also bears the hallmarks of their stonemasonry and the drystone volcanic rock walls have left a proud heritage in the landscape. They are also a landmark that mean Matapouri isn’t far away. It’s at Huanui Fresh Produce where Dobbs is usually thinking about the meals to come. “We always stock up on fresh condiments for the fish that we will definitely catch – fennel, coriander, basil, capers, lemons, limes, peppers,” he says.
Dobbs is a committed boatie and keen fisherman who, with a mate, co-owns a boat that they keep nearby in a farmer’s paddock. It’s a friendly arrangement that’s typical of this unpretentious beachside community.
Summer life at Matapouri is dictated by the tides. On a good day, the boat gets two runs out to sea for free diving, fishing for snapper and kingfish, or snorkelling at a marine reserve. A big day out takes friends and family up to the Poor Knights, a renowned diving spot further north.
To reach the beach house, or bach, Dobbs turns off the road onto a shared, unsealed lane and parks on the grass, within easy reach of facilities to charge the EQC for the journey back to Auckland. Supplies are unloaded, along with the dog who immediately races to the beach to explore familiar territory, and everyone begins to relax. Except for Dobbs – the dedicated active relaxer. A tour of the bach quickly reveals this character trait to be true. Over the years, Dobbs has added to the bach himself, building decks, a jetty to the estuary and sleepouts for the kids. A few years ago he installed a second-hand kitchen. There’s a relaxed informality to the place, which is without the polish or refinement of a city home. And there’s no internet connection – just how the family likes it.
As well as daily swims and runs, there are coastal walks, tennis and surfing. Just north of Matapouri is Woolleys Bay and Sandy Bay, where surfers make the most of left and right-hand breaks. “Without a doubt, Sandy Bay is the best surfing spot on the coast. It’s just over the hill from Matapouri Bay and has a consistent easterly swell that creates a beautiful wave for young and old,” says Dobbs of the place where his kids learnt to surf. “It’s a magical setting.”
Back in the city, active relaxing for Dobbs comes in the form of tennis, golf, swimming and the gym. The car boot is testament to this – his kit for each sport is always at the ready. His employees know that the best time to ask him for something is when he returns from the gym in the afternoon. He’s energised, refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
A significant challenge the business has been facing is sustainability. Dobbs and his colleagues have taken a long, deep dive into actively making the business and its products as environmentally sound as possible. “We’ve been working on this for a number of years – from sourcing, reducing and recycling, we’ve had to really change our thinking to ensure that our suppliers are ISO accredited,” he says.
“We have long-standing working relationships with suppliers in Europe who have made huge inroads into comprehensive accreditation and best practice. If you are dealing with people you have confidence in, it should follow through that they are passionate to do all the right things. But this is a broad conversation you need to have, and you need to check and crosscheck all your suppliers.
“We have further to go to ensure sustainability and transparency but the key thing is that we are well on the road. It’s a long game, mission-critical and non-negotiable. This is not just a buzz and it’s not a five-minute fix. You can’t be a laggard – you need to be an innovator,” he says,
Working Style has completely de-engineered the plastic paraphernalia associated with traditional packaging and continues to make inroads into tackling the waste associated with online orders. “There’s a lot of noise associated with that and we should all be concerned with the impact that has on our beautiful planet,” says Dobbs.
In store, one of Dobbs’ greatest frustrations in the trade is the default to excessive and unnecessary wrapping. “If you fold up a beautiful pair of woollen pants, wrap them in tissue paper and put them in a beautiful Working Style bag, the pants are sitting there folded and getting creased. When we ask clients how they would like them packaged, they instantly get it, there’s no confusion – they ask us to place them on a hanger so that they won’t need to iron them. There’s no need to default to making everything look pretty – we prefer a more practical solution, which is also about personal service,” he says.
The company has a long-standing relationship with the initiative Fix Up Look Sharp, a charity that provides men with a personal styling experience and equips them with an outfit for a job interview and employment.
“We regularly donate – we’d never burn product, which is a common practice in the fashion industry – and we communicate with our customers to find out if they have clothes they no longer wear. We pick up, launder or dry clean the clothes and deliver them to the charity. We get amazing uptake from our clients, and although it’s not a traditional discussion about sustainability, they are people who have worked hard all their lives and appreciate how tough life can be for some people. They loathe waste and frivolous consumption and like the idea of sharing a quality product with someone who is less well off. It’s a common-sense approach.”
Dobbs’ commitment to reducing, reusing and recycling isn’t confined to business. It’s visible in his approach to simple living at the bach, which he’s added to with upcycled materials, right through to his sustainable approach to fishing – only taking what’s needed and nothing more. And it carries through to the EQC, which includes almost 100 components produced from renewable materials such as hemp, kenaf, wool, cotton, paper and natural rubber. Aesthetically, the vehicle’s design language of contemporary purity and progressive luxury is a natural fit for a man in fashion.
By Joanna Bates