Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Barkers 40th - a fine fashion story by Duncan Greive

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the day that Ray Barker created a Kiwi fashion institution, Barkers. Here, we publish a beautifully written account of that singular journey by Duncan Greive, first published in the Barkers 1972 magazine. The Barkers story is a fascinating one indeed, punctuated with impromptu meetings with stadium rock bands, seriously famous old school New Zealand gangsters, law-breaking Saturday morning trading initiatives and an explosion, literally, of trackpants. Read on, it is well worth it...



It was a Friday night, so there was only one place they would be found. Lord Nelson’s Steakhouse, an Auckland City institution itself, had played host to the same rowdy group of young men for years. Ray Barker and his staff came after the stores shut every week to eat, drink, swap stories and unwind after the mania that was Friday night trading. That would regularly see queues out the door for the 14 changing rooms in Barkers’ flagship Queen Street store, and often see them take a cool $20,000 in an evening, which in the ’70s was enough to buy a fairly handsome property.

This particular Friday was no different as far as the Barkers boys were concerned – they were supremely comfortable in the place, and having a great time. Over the course of the evening some guests on the far side of the room watched ruefully, wishing they were having as much fun, and eventually flagged Ray down as he walked past to ask what the occasion was.

“I said ‘we come here every Friday’,” recalls Ray, nearly four decades on. Hearing an American accent, he asked the visitor what his group was doing here and, on hearing that he was an entertainer, Ray invited the group to join them for a drink. The night wore on, and got raucous as they had a habit of doing, and it was only toward the end Ray asked their newfound friends which group they were with.

“We’re called The Doobie Brothers,” he replied.

You know you’re doing something right when The Doobie Brothers – then one of the biggest bands on the planet – want to join your party. But it had been obvious that Ray had tapped into something with Barkers from the moment he opened for business on the corner of Victoria and High Streets.

Ray was 24 years old, and entering a market which many presumed to be saturated. There were 36 specialist menswear retailers in the central city alone, and the scene was ferocious from the first. Even before he opened his doors competitors tried to chop his business off at the knees, with his former boss Dick Chatwin, who owned a number of stores through the city, threatening suppliers and wholesalers with cancelled orders should they deal with Raymond’s, as his first shop was known.

Unfortunately for Chatwin and his ilk, Ray was not easily cowed, and the suppliers saw something in him that gave them confidence he would make a go of it. It helped that he had one of the best salespeople in the city, a handsome, charismatic 18-year-old named Jeff Parsonson who would eventually buy in and become Ray’s business partner.

“Jeff was the extrovert,” says John Thode, a Barkers manager from the ’70s. “He was incredibly sociable – he knew just about everyone, and everyone loved him.”

With Jeff out front working the room, Ray was free to concentrate on precisely assembling his vision. From the start he was determined that Barkers would create clothing under its own label, running counter to the whole market at the time, which was dominated by a few wholesale brands like Summit and Manhattan. Ray would spend days selecting fabric from local wholesalers and stay up late at night sketching out designs. These would be assembled in Tauranga and Manurewa, and in time dozens of other locations around the country during an era when New Zealand’s manufacturing base was infinitely larger than what it is today.

The store was an instant hit, becoming a mecca for style-obsessed young men. While their girlfriends shopped at the Jennifer Dean bikini shop on the opposite corner of High Street, guys would come in just to hang out and listen to music – the store was as much a social space as a retail store. Within a scant five months they had enough capital to open a second store on the retail juggernaut that was Queen Street.

Before Westfield and suburban malls, Queen Street was far more central to New Zealand retail than it is today, and the move from the slightly cultish confines of High Street to the biggest stage in the country signalled Ray’s bold, expansionist ideas very strongly. He took over a florist and a tiny clothing boutique and combined the two into the 100 Queen Street store, which was to become the bedrock of the brand’s early years.

Operating initially under the name Collars & Cuffs (a name recently revived for Barkers’ shirt club), it focused on the ‘body shirts’ which had proven Ray’s first smash hit. This was the early ’70s, the height of post-hippy, pre-disco excess, and figure-hugging rayon shirts, with extravagant collars were paired with very flared polyviscose trousers, most of which didn’t even have pockets lest they ruin the sleek lines. At that time there was no cooler outfit, and Barkers had effectively cornered the market, according to Thode, who found that early-mid ’70s era fascinating from a fashion perspective.

“It went through very dramatic changes,” he says. “When I started [in ’73] it was all about huge flares and very loud colours, but within a few years the look had moved on to much baggier pleated trousers, with slim, cuffed hems.”

Barkers was able to effectively lead the local scene through that period thanks to Ray’s regular world trips. He would start in Los Angeles and San Francisco, moving through London and Paris before taking in a different continental city each time – sometimes Milan, sometimes Amsterdam – always returning with a headful of ideas as to where the culture was moving.

With that international perspective in mind, it’s little wonder that the first group to really latch on to what Barkers was doing were Air New Zealand stewards – they were the most well-travelled guys in the country, and it wasn’t even close. A group of them befriended Parsonson, and soon much of the crew was shopping at Barkers. But by the time the Queen Street store was established the clientele was growing much larger, and more diverse.

“We were very popular with entertainers of that era,” says Thode. “Singers and TV presenters were always in buying and borrowing. Barkers’ logo was often in the credits of local shows. The guys from Radio Hauraki were in a lot as well.”

But beyond the nascent celebrity scene – remember at this stage Hauraki had only come in from its pirate radio ship a few years earlier, and television was only a decade or so old – another, slightly more sinister element started to come through the doors.

“The Auckland gangsters would come through too, a real mixture of people”, says Thode. Some owned strip clubs, and there were a couple of brothers, who were known as ‘the enforcers’, who apparently used to go round beating people up. The transvestites used to come down from K Road too. And all these people used to have large amounts of money, and buy a lot of clothes for cash.”

One in particular would go on to real infamy. Marty Johnstone was a key member of the Mr Asia syndicate, and while it has been erroneously reported in both books and a previous issue of this magazine that he was a Barkers employee, no one disputes that he spent a lot of time at the 100 Queen Street store. He had, in fact, worked alongside Thode, Parsonson and his eventual killer Andy Maher at Chatwin’s Richard Jones menswear, before leaving to head overseas. But the Johnstone who Thode encountered in ’75 was vastly removed from the kid who he had partied with a few years earlier.

“He was in a huge limousine, and had a whole lot of young women with him, along with a guy who looked particularly heavy,” says Thode of Johnstone’s first visit to the store. “Marty was a big, tall guy, and was wearing this huge fur coat, and dripping with gold medallions and rings.

“He would come down and I couldn’t believe the amount of money he spent. He would buy two or three of everything, spending a huge amount of money.

“I would ask him what he was up to these days, and he’d say ‘Oh I’m just overseas now. I’m in the import business’. He was always really vague about it.”

Despite – or likely precisely because of – the slightly seedy glamour of some of its clientele, Barkers continued to flourish through the ’70s. The store was so popular that it was a constant battle to keep it in stock. Ray recalls closing one Christmas Eve with 27 pairs of jeans left in his store. That might not have been a problem, but that store’s name was Barkers Male Boutique & Jeanery – jeans were what they sold, and he had to spend all of January telling disappointed holidaymakers that with the local factories closed there was no way he could get more stock.

What moments like that crystalised in Ray, was a desire to find a larger store. 100 Queen Street, had been bursting at the seams for a few seasons now, even after Ray had taken over the coffee shop underneath it still failed to meet spatial demand. He began scouting for real estate further up Queen Street, with a mind to create the hippest, most exciting retail store in the country.

Ray was still under 30 when he began that hunt, but the Auckland he was prowling was very different to the one into which he had been born. He grew up in Orakei, part of a family who ran Hartleys, one of the biggest sheet metal manufacturers in the country. For a while every milk can in New Zealand came from their workshop, and there was an expectation that Ray would join the family business once he was finished at school – in the ’50s and early ’60s that was often a man’s lot.

It just wasn’t in Ray though. He had cultivated an interest in fashion starting early in high school, one that was cemented by a chance encounter which presented a window into what a glamourous world it could be. He was approached in his mid-teens and asked to model for a fashion show at Milne & Choyce, one of a number of department stores dotting Auckland city at the time. The show was a huge hit, thanks in part to the live backing from a very young Ray Columbus & the Invaders, and Ray was hooked. Sheet metal and plumbing never really stood a chance.

Still, he gave it a shot. But after spending a couple of years working throughout the business, and getting a sense of how a large operation ticked, he headed off on an OE which would help galvanise his desire to make a play in fashion. He headed to the UK and found work at a made-to-measure suit business named Burton Tailoring. Outside was London in the Summer of Love, but at Burtons old world bespoke suits were the only way a man should dress. He only stayed six months, but the experience of working with fabrics and measurements proved a tremendously instructive education. Particularly so when paired with the nightlife and extremity of late ’60s London fashion – between those two poles lay a vision of what Barkers would eventually become.

He returned home in ’69, and within a few years had helped usher in the modern era of clothing retail within New Zealand – the first fashion-focused chain which blended a deep understanding of international trends with an appreciation for the unique character of the New Zealand market.

When he concluded his search for better retail space he settled upon 200 Queen Street as the perfect site. At 200-square metres it was an enormous store, but Ray’s gut told him that it was the one.

He gave it a plush, Great Gatsby-esque theme, a wanton luxury keyed from the novel then enjoying a revival. Store environments were an obsession for Ray, who would chew through potential profits on custom theatre lighting and chrome rails while his contemporaries were making do with off-the-rack shelves and display units. He also invested in an enormous sound system, which pointed out onto Queen Street, and always played bang up-to-the-minute music, or even pre-release albums, as record company reps would drop in with free LPs every week.

But with this expensive, luxurious environment came brutal rents, and even with Friday nights a mad scrum it chafed at Ray that weekends remained off limits due to local bylaws. But rather than just shrug and let it ride he did something rather radical about it.

“In Durham Lane there was a shop called Record Warehouse,” he says. “It was owned by a guy named Michael Dow. Michael and I got on well, and we were chatting one day about how we’d love to open on a Saturday morning. So we decided to do it, and to take out an advertisement letting people know we were going to. Even though it was against the law.

“So the Labour Department would come in just about every Saturday and fine us a couple of hundred dollars for opening. But he and I persevered, and I guess we were the pioneers, because we got more and more support from other retailers.”

Within six months, and despite the opposition of heavyweights like Smith & Caughey, half the CBD had joined their movement, and Ray and Michael’s little protest forced a law change allowing Saturday trading.

It was only the most dramatic of a number of moves Barkers was to make over the coming years. A core team came together, including Jeff Parsonson, Jeff’s brother Richard and a store manager named Lester Van Der Veer. This group, along with a tightknit set of retail staff – few of whom ever left, such was the loyalty Ray engendered – ran the company until the late ’90s, and for most of that period the company was one of the most admired in New Zealand retail.

They largely had the market for fashion-focused menswear to themselves through the ’80s, and flush with the cashflow this afforded them they expanded down country, first to Christchurch, then Wellington, then eventually Sydney, where an unscrupulous landlord bilked them out of their chosen site and into a less favourable one, meaning their entry to a notoriously competitive market was stymied.

On the ground in New Zealand, though, they went from strength to strength, with lookbooks from the ’80s showing vibrant colours, slim fits and small collars which would fly out of stores today, before moving into the louder, baggier ’90s. This coincided with Van Der Veer’s appointment as head of design, ushering in an era of real extremes, but one which clicked with the New Zealand public in a huge way.

Barkers was early and heavily invested in baggy clothing, and sweats in particular. Advertising from that era invariably shows two guys and a girl somewhere sunny, having a fantastic time, drowning in vast hoodies, or boxy mustard suits, or Aztec-inspired shirts. The Barkers and BMC branding became a lot more prominent too, and while they stayed New Zealand made they stopped stocking other brands and switched to entirely Barkers-branded merchandise, which couldn’t be found anywhere else. This look culminated in the company’s biggest, brashest hit, and the one for which it would forever become known: the trackpants.

Van Der Veer had recently taken over from Ray’s overseas trips when he returned with this strange, but somehow compelling proposition.

“He came back with the idea for a hooded sweat and a matching trackpant,” says Ray. “That’s how it started.

“We loved them. We thought it was a great casual outfit. This was around 1990, and we did a shoot on Waiheke, after doing several in Australia. The one on Waiheke was based around the hooded sweat, the trackpants, some great bold-coloured tees and stripes – it was a fantastic range that summer.”

The trackpants exploded to become one of the biggest fashion crazes the country had ever seen. Barkers sold 50,000 pairs over the next few years, and mufti days were awash with oversized, pigment-dyed cotton, all of it manufactured by Streetwise in West Auckland.

As striking as the garment was the way it was marketed. The trend was started by seeding the product not to celebrities, as is commonplace now, but to their high school equivalents. First XVs and rowing eights received Barkers trackpants and sweats custom embroidered with their school and team, and where the sporting elite went, the masses soon followed. Outside of school the company started the first VIP club in clothing retail, issuing members with a card and emailing out invitations to VIP-only days in startlingly unconventional forms, including a mock jury summons and, memorably, thousands of slices of burnt toast.

They were halcyon days for Barkers, where everyone involved felt locked in and in rhythm. But behind the scenes, things were becoming more difficult. Competition, which had mostly been non-existent through the first 20 years, arrived in the form of surf and streetwear brands like Billabong, Stüssy and Huffer. Australian chains like Country Road came in with Chinese-made clothes which could be discounted more steeply than Barkers ever could, and the New Zealand manufacturing scene started to dry up as the lifting of tariffs upped the flow of cheap imports. The rise of Dressmart’s discounted outlet stores, which Barkers reluctantly joined, also put pressure on prices, and eventually Ray, who had prided himself on his commitment to New Zealand made clothing, started to have to move his manufacturing off shore.

It all culminated in what Ray calls frankly “the biggest regret of [his] life”. After a heart scare he sold the business to Jeff Personson and Brendan Lindsay, before it went through a succession of management and ownership changes before its recent revival under former Max and Hallensteins general manager Jamie Whiting – an apparel industry lifer who is a huge admirer of Barkers and is determined to return it to the iconic status it enjoyed in the first three decades.

After a decade away Ray has re-engaged with the business which still bears his family name, and has spent time with key members of staff in a new role as brand ambassador. Now in his sixties and semi-retired, his position as a pioneer of men’s fashion in New Zealand can at times be passed over when the histories of New Zealand fashion are written in favour of ankle-biters who came along decades later. But to spend time with him is to be made amply aware that beneath his calm demeanour lies an intellect and instinct with few parallels in the industry – it was what made a shaped Barkers into an iconic brand which practically invented men’s fashion in this country.