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Wool domination

1 August 2022
Untouched World is 96 per cent New Zealand-made, with the majority coming out of the Christchurch workroom.

Celebrating more than 25 years in trade, Christchurch-based clothing company Untouched World’s success comes from finding balance between innovation and staying true to its roots. Interview Josie Steenhart

Launched in 1995 as a pioneer of the sustainable fashion industry, Christchurch-based clothing brand Untouched World continues to lead the way in innovation, ethics and environmental friendliness, all without compromising on quality or its impeccable signature design aesthetic. Style caught up with founder Peri Drysdale for a chat about growing up on a sheep farm, blazing international trails, staying New Zealand-made, signature fabrics, outdoor pursuits and a memorable pair of shiny red shoes.

You grew up on a South Island farm, when/where did your interest in fashion/clothing come from?

I grew up on a sheep farm at the base of the Southern Alps, up the Rakaia Gorge.

I was always interested in wool, I learnt to spin and knit – pretty badly – from an early age. All our sweaters were beautiful homespun wool garments my mother made. I made all my own clothes from about 12 years old and started my first business at that age making and dressing soft toy animal families!

You’ve been in the garment industry since 1981, tell us about those beginnings…

I had a very exciting and fulfilling career in echocardiography when it was brand new in the world, but had to leave it behind to have my two children. There was no such thing as part-time or maternity leave in those days.

I was fairly busy with two little people in my life, but there was a growing question in my head – what will I do with the fragments of available time that were opening up? I couldn’t go back to echocardiography. What else could I do?

I reflected back to the days growing up on our farm, we had a big kitchen with a coal range in it. It was always warm in there, so we all used to linger around the kitchen table after meals, along with any farm workers and visitors we had. Something that came up in conversation often was the concern that the New Zealand economy at the time was reliant on exporting primary products with no added value. Raw wool was sent overseas in bales, whole meat carcasses shipped offshore – there was no marketing innovation or development, as both of those categories were dealt with through single desk commodity marketing.

Around the age of six, at that same kitchen table, I learnt about the power of a country’s brand. My mother was emptying our three-times-weekly mail bag, when a little box covered in brown paper tumbled out. Inside was a pair of shiny red shoes she’d bought for me to wear to a wedding. My mother took one shoe out, turned it over and there were three words stamped in the leather sole.

“Made in England,” she said, “that means they’ll be good quality”. For some reason that concept of a ‘country’s brand’ stuck with me.

I decided I would do something about the lack of value add in our economy. I would make some cute natural wool items for infants, wrap our New Zealand brand values of ‘clean, green environment’ and ‘warm friendly people’ around them, and offer them to people in overseas markets who dreamt of living in pristine, laid-back New Zealand.

I asked a neighbour to teach me how to knit properly so I could write knitting patterns, and started with just 10 outworkers. That quickly grew to 500 in just four years. In the first six months, I moved from infant and toddler styles into childrenswear, then onto adult handknits and finally adult domestic machine knits. Selling garments only for infants and toddlers wasn’t going to meet the yarn spinner’s minimum run, so we had to go bigger right from the get-go.

Four years in, we moved to computerised knitting – not something I had planned or particularly wanted to do – but I couldn’t scale fast enough and consistently get the premium quality we required using outworkers.

Within eight years, I was travelling and exporting to Europe, Canada, USA, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Our season here was very short, so this was a way I could keep our team in work through the offseason.

peri 3 crop 1
Untouched World founder Peri Drysdale.

How did Untouched World come about?

With all the travel I was doing, visiting most markets once a year, it became obvious to me the planet was
in trouble. I could see more evidence of environmental degradation from visit to visit. The various newspapers I picked up on my travels only ever talked about GDP and business revenue. There was absolutely no conversation or thought at the time given to what was happening to the environment.

I, on the other hand, fretted about it. Here I was, one lone observer from the other side of the world, in a small company and a woman to boot – what could I possibly do? That’s when the idea was born for Untouched World to be a sustainable lifestyle brand. Until then it was a certified organic undyed knitwear story under our then parent brand, Snowy Peak Ltd.

I wanted to model running a sustainable business and producing sustainable products, and engage people and leaders with more power than me to help along the way. I would challenge the status quo, get people thinking and asking questions, and most importantly, get people to start taking positive action. This was back before social media existed, so there was no influencer market to work with.

What was the first garment Untouched World produced?

The first Untouched World garments were BioGro-certified undyed wool sweaters. The expansion into a whole lifestyle wardrobe came later.

Can you describe Untouched World’s core ethics/values/mission?

Our mission is to make a positive impact in the world, so everything we do comes back to that, whether it’s deciding on what fabric to use or what suppliers to partner with.

We strongly believe each and every one of us can make a difference, and that the little things combined can make a big difference.

We are constantly working on how to be better, and rather than following fads and trends that can often turn out to be a bad case of greenwashing, we put a lot of time and energy into researching the best solutions with the most minimal impact, and share our findings with our community, so they can benefit from the knowledge we gain along the way. We constantly work on our own sustainable innovations.

Untouched World has always been a social and environmental enterprise, even in the 90s when we were thinking about such things far less – tell us a bit about that side of things, and the challenges related to that you’ve met along the way…

Actually, even in the 80s – we were naturally a social and environmental enterprise long before I had ever heard the term sustainability being used. It just made good sense to me to treat our team and suppliers well. If they did well, we would do well.

In the late 90s, we decided for the planet’s sake we needed to increase the conversation around sustainability. To do that we needed to expand our presence in the market, so we talked to a PR person who said, “Aren’t you a bit before your time?” My response was, “Yes we are, but if someone isn’t, then there won’t be a time”.

Way back then, it was a real challenge finding materials that met the sustainability credentials we demanded, while also offering comfort, durability and style. Of course, we have always believed so strongly in wool, and other natural animal fibres – but coming up with amazing summer fabrics that look
great and last took longer.

On that note, congratulations on becoming a Certified B Corporation earlier this year! What does that mean exactly and why is it a big deal?

In a nutshell, it means we’re in business to do good. It’s a certification that is only awarded after rigorous
investigation and assessment to ensure we’re the real deal, so that only makes achieving Certified B Corporation status sweeter.

It’s also a commitment to constant improvement. We’re reassessed every three years to ensure we’re taking steps to make a positive impact on our environment and in our community. It ensures we stay on track with achieving our goals and keep striving to be better at what we do and how we do it.

What are some of the ways Untouched World is currently working with/helping people/communities?

We educate and inspire our rangatahi to champion the way towards a more sustainable future through our UN-recognised Leadership for Sustainability Programmes, so they can lead the way for future generations.

Through our Untouched World Foundation, we are helping students realise their passions and potential, while also equipping them with the knowledge they need to make more informed and sustainable choices.

We also work with B1G1 to give back to communities in need. When someone purchases a garment from our CoolTree range, or buys a coffee in our café, we donate on their behalf to provide access to clean drinking water for families living in poverty.

Our Project U Collection is made by women who were once trapped by poverty and prostitution, and have been taught new skills to help them on the road to freedom.

What are some of Untouched World’s signature fabrics and why are they special?

Where do I start? A personal favourite is Kapua, our blend of cashmere, possum and mulberry silk. It is honestly hard to beat the combination of comfort, softness and style it offers and the fact it’s so warm yet lightweight but also utterly pill resistant. Perfect at this time of year, when the days can swing between warm and freezing!

Our fine, machine-washable Mountainsilk is another crowd-pleaser. Made from 100 per cent merino, [it’s]
sourced from Glenthorne Station, a ZQRX-certified station situated at the foot of the Southern Alps (about 110km from our workrooms), where they are leading the way in regenerative farming practices. This merino is grown to the highest standards of animal, social and environmental welfare, and is the perfect year-round layer with so many benefits for the wearer.

Untouched World is 96 per cent New Zealand-made, with the majority coming out of the Christchurch workroom, tell us a bit about that…

The workrooms at Untouched World (based at our head office on Roydvale Ave!) are like a home away from home. The staff are like family and we have regular gatherings to celebrate birthdays, small wins and acknowledge milestones for our team. Some staff have worked for UW for 30 years! Everyone that works here is very hands-on and we take a collaborative approach to designing and producing the garments. There is something quite special about our designers being able to work directly with the staff producing the garments and discuss every little detail about the garment face to face to make sure the quality is always second to none.

The love, skill and care being poured into our garments is phenomenal, and for us, it’s important to know that the people making our clothes are well looked after. It’s also so nice to keep those wonderful skills alive.

What do you love about living in Christchurch, and running a business from here also?

I love the ease of getting about and our proximity to nature. You can be at the beach one minute and the ski field an hour later. Nature is such an important muse for us, so it’s lovely to have so much on our doorstep. With the city’s rebuild we’re now also spoiled for choice with so many great restaurants, cafés and bars, so that’s always a bonus.

On the flipside, what are the challenges of the same?

We’re a long way from international markets and shows, spinning mills and fabric houses, so being ‘down under’ definitely presents its own challenges when you’re trying to source new yarns or fabrics, particularly in a Covid environment, dealing with various lockdowns and freight delays. It forces us to think outside the box a lot though, which is always a good thing!

How has being a woman in business changed over the years?

When I started out, there certainly weren’t many women in the boardroom, and there still aren’t many in the manufacturing industry today, but I’m pleased to say there is a lot more support out there for women in business nowadays.

Great organisations like Co.OfWomen provide an excellent platform for mentorship and relevant support from people who can share from their own experiences.

How would you describe your personal style, and does that influence the brand?

Modern, understated and timeless.

My personal philosophy of ‘less is more’ definitely flows through to our collections, which are designed so each piece will multi-task and dress up or down for travel, work or play.

I love a wardrobe that can facilitate my busy lifestyle and take me from the boardroom to the outdoors and on to dinner after, morphing quite comfortably into each new environment without compromising on comfort or style.

What are some of your other passions/pursuits outside of the business (if you have time for any!)?

I am a keen swimmer, and I used to be away off skiing at every opportunity that I could through the winter months, but these days I enjoy a walk somewhere in nature with my husband, often accompanied by my daughter’s dog and sometimes my daughter and grandchildren! Other than that, it’s pretty much head down, tail up working in the business, but I love it, it doesn’t feel at all like work.

What’s coming up for you and the business?

We’ve been working on a brand refresh, so we’re excited to be rolling that out over the next wee while, and we’re also working hard on making our digital experience world class.

Our stunning new summer collection launches in-store and online next month, with some beautiful new yarns and fabrics.

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