When I ask fashion legend Caroline Sills what her role in the business is these days, there’s a slight pause before she turns to daughter Toni, who’s in the same room. “Hold on, I’d like to get it from the horse’s mouth. Toni, what’s my role now?” Her daughter is handed the phone, “Oh hi – she’s good at doing that – passing the buck,” Toni laughs.
Toni now has a crucial role in the sales and marketing of the business, and it’s very clear from talking with the successful pair that they have a fabulous relationship in work and life. When we talk on a winter weekday morning, the two of them are in the shop together going through the new collection and all the luxurious cashmere knitwear that the label is famous for.
The iconic Caroline Sills label is now a fully fledged family business. Both daughters, Toni and Christina, work there, as does Caroline’s husband, accountant Lloyd Sills. The businesswoman started out when the children were small. A trained nurse, she needed a new direction that suited her family better, so she moved into fashion.
It was small to start with, but soon Caroline was selling in a boutique on Queen Street. “And that grew like topsy because it was all hand-knitted, you know, ladies on hand-knitting machines.” The label’s popularity was unstoppable, all while she was balancing a young family.
“It just kept growing and growing. I don’t think I had a meal sitting down for about three years. It was very intense, we used to work in the basement of my home,” Caroline recalls.
Her daughter Toni was about three years old when the Sills brand spread across the country. The South Island has always been an important market. Iconic Christchurch fashion store Quinns, which no longer exists, was the first home for the label. It was after owner Margaret Quinn died that Caroline decided to open her own store in Merivale.
“Margaret and I had a really nice relationship and I sold to her for at least 30 years. She was an absolute powerhouse, a pocket rocket. When she died, for such a long time it was a really sad area for Merivale, because Quinns was such a hub of influence. So that was when we decided to open up a shop, to give back on some of that commitment people had to our product.”
They now own six stores across New Zealand, the most recent opening in Wānaka just over a year ago. Wholesaling had become more difficult; boutiques were closing because it was getting harder to make money. “I also wanted to display our own collection and how I felt I wanted it to be represented. So that’s been the newest evolvement in our business.”
The label is renowned for its knitwear, but these days the designs are more diverse and just as divine. Caroline is innovative and often the person in the family pushing most for change. “I really embrace change, thank goodness, because it certainly is the industry that allows you that.”
The ladies in the basement on hand-knitting machines are a distant memory, with all their woollens now made in China. “We tried a lot of New Zealand factories but they had more interest in their own range, so it was just too hard to meet deadlines for us. We’ve had a really good relationship with the same knitter in China for a long time; their quality is amazing.”
Around 70 per cent of the woven garments are still New Zealand-made and they’re always looking for new ways to be sustainable. “We’re not making a song and dance about it, we’re just trying to quietly do the right thing and not make exaggerated claims,” Caroline says.
Toni always knew she’d end up working in the business as an adult, but she wanted to get her own experience first. Both she and Christina spent their school holidays helping out in the warehouse and were entrenched in the brand from a young age. Toni studied and spread her wings, getting experience with other companies in New Zealand and abroad, so she could contribute her own skillset to the Caroline Sills brand.
“I really started full time when I came back from my OE. I think we had one computer, so there was a lot that I could add through my experience of other companies, which I thought was important.”
Toni says opening up their own stores has been a game changer for the label because people can see the entire range. “Having our own stores has made us much more in touch. It keeps us honest about what sells and what doesn’t sell – what people are wanting. It’s made us much more astute, having our ear on the ground, rather than just having wholesale alone. And hopefully it’s made us produce better ranges because we feel the pain of the retail store, because we are the retail store now too,” says Toni.
When I ask who their market is, Caroline laughs. “I always used to joke and say it’s anybody with a credit card.”
Caroline is not so active in designing now and works more as a consultant, but Toni says her contribution is still the backbone of the business.
“Her role is very much as a mentor to the design and the stores. Everyone is very mindful that it’s Caroline’s name on everything, so she has a standard that she expects because it’s her name on the window. She’s very involved – being in the stores and making sure there’s a consistency in the aesthetic.”
It’s obviously working. Covid-19 and a more competitive fashion market hasn’t seen a slowdown of the Sills empire. Its success and subsequent workload are punctuated for the family with regular get-togethers in Waiheke. Toni and Christina both have their own children, so the family now consists of three generations.
Toni says they all have their own lanes at work. Lloyd Sills sits downstairs sorting the money and Christina focuses on the merchandising. “We all work well together and have enough respect for each other, we know each other’s strengths, and it just works.”