You sense Amanda Dorset and Ben Wilson are the couple you’ll find yourself talking to long after the campfire has turned into embers. The Wānaka husband and wife have a sense of ease about them – of conversation, enjoying life and having a good laugh in between.
The founders of Wilson & Dorset, creators of luxury sheepskin homewares, are at their Dublin Bay home and bantering at each other over how they met.
“You invited yourself to one of my parties!” This from Ben, who doesn’t sound at all like he minded. After all, it was a party that not only spurred a relationship but a business.
While the duo knew of each other when they attended high school in Canterbury – Rangi Ruru Girls’ School for Amanda and Christ’s College for Ben – it wasn’t until their mid-30s that they met up once again.
The party was to celebrate a development Ben, his brother and a friend had completed on the West Coast. Amanda was working for Icebreaker in Auckland and hit the road with three friends to find the party at a little out-of-the-way place called Hannah’s Clearing, about 20km south of Haast.
And technically, Amanda didn’t invite herself to Ben’s party – her friend asked Ben if it was okay first.
As the three women wandered along to the beach party, they spotted something a bit out of the ordinary for them.
“There was a chopper overhead with something dangling from the bottom of it. It was some sort of beast. And I was going, ‘Oh my god, this is actually the wild west,’” says Amanda, laughing.
It was, says Ben, a proper West Coast party. Something had indeed been shot earlier in the day, while crayfish had been harvested off the boat and the brews were steady. And then there were the yarns – which is how Ben got Amanda’s attention.
“He told the story around this ridiculous jetboat ride. He had gone up beyond the spot where normally people don’t go because it’s too treacherous. And it all went to custard,” says Amanda. “There is a video of the jetboat going over this massive boulder. It looks like the jetboat is driving itself because Ben had been jettisoned into the passenger side and the jetboat was airborne. And the next shot is the jetboat being choppered out of the river…”
“Ah, that wasn’t that time – that was another time,” Ben interrupts, slightly sheepishly.
“Oh, that was another time,” agrees Amanda. “Anyway, I was like, he was this quiet shy, quite sweet guy at school and little did I know he was a rugged, outdoors type who enjoys making the most of nature – a bit of an action man. So it did pique my interest at that point.”
“That was all before kids. Then everything ground to a halt,” adds Ben quickly, in case we think he is still attempting to fly jetboats.
However, the relationship was cemented when they saw each other a few months later at a New Year’s Eve event at Minaret Station. It was one of those grand evenings where all the nice drinks are gone so naturally you start mixing the leftovers in an old enamel teapot, says Amanda.
West Coast, hunting, cocktail mixing in a teapot – you don’t get much more Kiwi than that.
After that sort of beginning, it comes as no surprise that connectedness through the medium of nature is at the very core of Wilson & Dorset.
“There are people living all around the world who are quite disconnected from nature. They are living in central city apartments and we’re exceptionally lucky we are sitting here in Dublin Bay looking over the lake – you get a more stunning view really,” says Ben.
However, introduce something to those apartments, that is truly from nature, which you can touch, and it recreates the feeling of nature, says Amanda
She refers to the biophilia hypothesis, as per American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believes humans seek to be connected to nature.
“I think that’s what we don’t really realise. When we go for our walk along the beach or in the forest or are lounging on sheepskin, compared to something synthetic, your body feels good. It’s quite a primal thing,” she says.
Wilson & Dorset’s sheepskin products, including rugs, stone sets and beanbags, encourage ‘lounging’ – transforming formal spaces into places of supreme enjoyment.
“We spend so much time at our computers; we are locked into this sitting position at our desk and then we go home and sit in our armchairs. We replace one static seating situation for another. But if you have a lounging rug or stones to lounge on – to read a book or play on – it is very good for our bodies,” says Amanda.
“One of our customers, early in the piece, had a beautiful living space with a tile floor and they just didn’t use the space. He bought a lounging rug and what he found was he was suddenly reading the paper on the floor – he hadn’t done that in 30 to 40 years,” adds Ben.
The Wilson legacy
A small advertisement appeared in the Otago Daily Times in August1881. Robert Wilson (1832–99) offered to subscribe £100 on the condition 19 others subscribed a similar amount to “test the playability of the industry” of sending frozen sheep meat to Britain. That man was also Ben’s great-great grandfather. As a result, the New Zealand Refrigerating Co Ltd was formed, with Robert as one of the original directors.
“They didn’t end up being the first – they were the second shipment, it was a bit of a race at the time. It was the beginnings of the sheep meat industry – they were already sending wool at that stage, but sending frozen things was an enormous feat and the height of technology at the time,” says Ben.
Sheepskin and meat, in some form or the other, have been in the Wilson family ever since. One of Ben’s earliest memories of sheepskin comes from the carpet in the living room of the Taieri farmhouse, near Dunedin, in which he grew up.
“My father was involved in the trade back then. It wasn’t carpet, it was sheepskin cut up into pieces and fixed to the floor. I always remember this luxurious, curly carpet; this sheepskin,” he says.
Ben’s father, the late Robert Wilson, and his exporting and consultancy company Robert Wilson Ltd, also helped set up a sheepskin tannery in Xuanhua, China, with Auskin Group and an up-and-coming Dunedin tanner, Leroy Parker.
“In 1997, Dad arranged for Leroy, a Port Chalmers lad who had never travelled at that stage, to live in Inner Mongolia and help build the tannery. They commissioned the new tannery in three months – an incredible achievement given Leroy did not speak a word of Mandarin when he arrived,” says Ben.
Not only does Leroy still remain with the Auskin factory as technical director, but the close family-like relationship remains. Amanda and Ben use the factory as their manufacturer, plus they have a small shareholding in the factory.
Amanda and Ben wanted to fly the New Zealand wool flag around the world, but they also wanted to connect to our natural surroundings. To do that, they needed to do things differently.
Things looked too perfect. That was what Ben noticed in his pre-Wilson & Dorset days, when he was working with retailers in Asia selling sheepskin products.
“I’d see sheepskin in the store and right next door would be a synthetic product. Those synthetic producers were working really hard to make their product look natural,” he says.
Ben concluded sheepskin was being over-engineered and over-processed to the extent they almost “looked synthetic”.
“The character had been stripped out of it. Wilson & Dorset is about taking the material back to its natural character and not stripping it away.”
At the same time, Amanda was working for Icebreaker as the New Zealand merino story was gaining traction, led by founder Jeremy Moon.
After witnessing the power of storytelling and simple but good design, Amanda combined her knowledge with Ben’s and the concept was born around being innovative with sheepskin, about taking the product and linking to something both were passionate about – Wānaka and New Zealand’s natural environment.
“That connection to place was always quite important. The brand, aside from reconnecting people to nature, is vicariously enabling them to connect with place – Wānaka, the people, the place, the lifestyle,” says Ben.
And so now you will find Wilson & Dorset lounging rugs and products in homes, lodges and mansions in Los Angeles, London, Copenhagen, Russia and Paris.
On one memorable occasion, an overseas visitor from Paris saw one of Wilson & Dorset’s rugs at a luxury lodge in Wānaka and decided they needed one immediately.
“They didn’t have time to pop into the shop so a helicopter met us at Glendhu [Bay] and we threw in four products, in different colours, and it flew back to them to make their decision. They couldn’t make a decision so they took all four,” says Amanda.
While the business is exploring global markets in a formal way, it has not lost its connectedness – both to people and nature.
“People walk into the store and see this pure, beautiful New Zealand wool product and we just sit and chat on beanbags. You’re just sitting and yarning to people about their lives and then they take something home with them that is a lovely reminder of the experience they had in Wānaka,” says Amanda.
At the end of the day, Amanda and Ben are just two people who love a good chat, a life of ease and the place in which they live. And now they share it with the world.