Creating multi-colored coats: the growth of women-led rural businesses
Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist, specializing in lead generation and content marketing.
OPINION: Years ago I wrote a book called She’ll Be Right, about rural New Zealand women starting businesses, running farms and building careers outside of towns. Some of them had been thrown there by circumstances, while others actively pursued building businesses where they were, instead of having to move to cities with more people, larger resources and better wi-fi.
I used to live in the countryside myself, but I would drive 60 km round trip daily just to have a latte at the nearest town cafe. I wasn’t really cut from the same cloth as the women I profiled.
I hadn’t thought of this book for a long time, until I interviewed Claire Williamson for my MAP IT Marketing podcast. I had asked her to come talk about her bespoke clothing line, Velma and Beverly, and I quickly discovered that this thriving little business was just one of Willliamson’s ongoing businesses.
A growing number of women-led rural businesses are emerging, especially as the face of agriculture changes. There is a greater need to diversify and find ways to generate income from the land, which is sustainable, protects the environment and also helps protect and support families living on the land.
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More rural women are starting businesses that help utilize the materials and resources at hand. They are responsible for marketing, customer service and finding new markets for their products and services. Like many small business owners, they also often juggle parenthood, with the extra jobs that come with land, inventory and machinery.
Williamson is no different. While running a business designing, manufacturing and marketing bespoke woolen coats takes up a significant amount of her time, her main role remains that of a mortgage adviser, specializing in helping first-time buyers home.
The flexible hours required for this also gave her time to focus on other interests, including co-hosting her own popular podcast ‘Black Heels and Tractor Wheels’, which tells the stories of rural New Zealand women. , and serving as a board member of Rural Women New Zealand.
Having a clothing business that reflects her family’s history, incorporates her love of rural New Zealand and creates something that is durable and lasts beyond one season sums up the values Williamson holds dear. “It’s called Velma and Beverly because it’s named after my grandmothers. I wanted to have a certain provenance in the company. Sometimes people think my grandmother’s names are a little weird, but I love them. They were both massive sewers. They made all their clothes themselves, they took care of their families. And I think I really wanted to have some of that in my own business.
Williamson grew up on farms. As she explains, although she would like to own a farm one day, for now, she is a lifestyle farmer. “I have sheep, cattle and chickens. And I live right next to Cambridge. But my long-term goal is to buy a farm. My parents are sheep and beef farmers. One day I will grow and sell animals and their wool to the world, but for now I am partnering with fantastic farmers who have enduring values and using their wool in my clothing.
Two of those partnerships are with The Grumpy Merino, another rural women-run business based in North Canterbury, which supplies the merino wool for Williamson’s coats, and Palliser Ridge in the Wairarapa which supplies the lambswool. Both of these suppliers place a strong emphasis on sustainability, which aligns with Velma and Beverley’s own values.
Finding wool suppliers was one thing. Knowing how to turn it into fabric was another. “I wanted to keep this whole process in New Zealand,” says Williamson. She knew this would help ensure the quality remained high and would make it a premium product. Focusing on coats that would last for years meant that Williamson had to create a product that fit into the “Buy Once, Buy Well” shopping category.
However, finding someone to create the fabric in New Zealand proved more difficult than expected. “In the end, I googled and called a company in Auckland, and asked for scraps. They were making fabric for upholstery. I used some of it to make some samples and I started getting feedback about it. Realizing that his idea had “legs,” Williamson pre-sold coats from those initial samples. “That gave me enough money to run my first race.”
When ordering, the customer can choose from a range of different types of cotton to line their coat. This material is ethically sourced, rather than made in New Zealand, as we do not grow cotton here. However, Williamson has the coat’s toggles and buttons made here. “We had them made by a lovely southern gentleman, who was making something else quite randomly. I emailed him and asked. He makes indigenous wooden rockers from small pieces of leftover wood. I love them.”
As the business began to take off, Williamson broke his Achilles tendon. In hindsight, it was the best thing for his fledgling business. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you can run around like a headless chicken. This gave me time to provide an online presence for this company.
Velma and Beverly launched in 2019, and Williamson is aware the pandemic has likely helped the business grow in 2020. “During this time of Covid, we all wanted to give back to New Zealand businesses. And people wanted to support New Zealand,” she explains.
Along with this, there is a change for more people to choose slow mode rather than fast. “Often, we prefer a beautiful garment, something unique, that will last a long time. It is fabulous. Because we’re moving away from that, I guess fast fashion, let’s have everything under the sun. I suspect that’s a view that Williamson’s grandmothers would have shared as well.
While designers are focused on creating series of certain models, the Velma and Beverley coats are all currently pre-sold and then made to order. From a cash flow perspective, this reduces risk, but it also means the business can provide a more personalized service. “I’ve talked to a lot of people and they’ve said things like ‘Oh, the sleeves are too short’ or ‘I’m taller than my height. I wanted to satisfy these people. And some customers have bought three coats just because they can get that arm length extension.
While Williamson handles the partnerships, design and strategic direction of the business, she is able to make it work with her other commitments with a small, supportive team.
Any idea that she would be able to handle it all was put to bed with the creation of the first prototype. “You really need someone who does the sewing, someone who manages the operational part, the customer service, the marketing and the sales, because they are quite different skills. I always knew I probably wouldn’t be good enough at sewing to do the sewing side. I made my first prototype. And I realized that taking 10-15 hours per coat was probably not going to be viable.
Marketing a fashion brand is expensive and highly competitive. Williamson used social media, with Facebook and Instagram as primary channels. Her message was around “How our coats are going to make you feel, share options and get people to talk to us and ask questions.”
However, most of the marketing has been done in partnership with other rural businesses. They managed to advertise in Shepherdess, a magazine for rural women in New Zealand. Word-of-mouth marketing has also helped, as well as the fact that her coats function as effective mini-billboards, with customers coming to her after spying on someone else wearing one.
Adding new colors to the range and new styles are part of future plans for Velma and Beverly. But Williamson also wants to expand the range beyond wool coats. “We have further plans to create a range including blazers and suits.”
For Williamson, Velma and Beverley gave her a chance to incorporate elements of what rural New Zealand is to her. His hat points to family and intergenerational care of the earth. The ethics around supporting other rural-led businesses and building community using products and services that support and grow our communities here in New Zealand in a sustainable way.
As Williamson explains, “What’s really interesting about agriculture is that we’re going through a period of massive change. There are a lot of regulations, a lot of changes with carbon targets and water and others where farmers are going to have to change and adapt. And that means land use is also changing. Now is the time to find new ways to use our land to do something new.