DENISE L'ESTRANGE- CORBET
THE FASHION DESIGNER
By Brenda Ward, JUNO
WORLD has become a multimillion-dollar fashion business through co-founder Denise L’Estrange-Corbet’s hard work and foresight.
Denise L’Estrange-Corbet laughs when she says she and business partner Francis Hooper could never do anything other than be in the fashion business. “We’re totally unemployable, but it’s all we know, so we have to keep going!”
And she says she would love to diversify her investments but any spare money the business makes is reinvested in the brand, in its six stores and its staff.
She admires people who live off their investments, but says: “They’re great at what they do – and I’m great at what I do.”
L’Estrange-Corbet didn’t get pocket money as a child. Her solo mother was struggling to raise her and her sister on a Chamber of Commerce secretary’s salary in London. The three of them slept in the same room, in a rented house with seven strangers, and unlike her schoolmates, she had free school dinners.
But she developed a strong work ethic, heading to a pharmacy to work after school and on Saturdays from the age of 13. “I worked on the counter and even counted out prescription tablets when the pharmacist was busy which I am sure a 13 year old should not have been doing!”
After she left school, L'Estrange-Corbet applied to attend the London College of Fashion, was accepted but was told she was not eligible for a grant. “So I wrote to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and I got a grant. So, my advice to people is always to go to the top!”
She continued to work in her holidays to top up her grant, and when she started working for fashion designer Scott Crolla, the young workroom assistant was still cautious with money.
A trip to Japan for her boss gave her the chance to visit New Zealand, where her family had lived until she was three. “I fell in love with the sky, the sea and the beauty. I found London a rat race, and unless I had a flat in Knightsbridge where I could walk my dog to buy my groceries at Harrods, I didn’t want to live there any more.
In Auckland, she started work at fashion store Zambesi, working in the boutique next to the menswear store where the young Francis Hooper was working.
The pair became great friends. “We set up monthly fashion shows to top up our incomes and saved $200 each. We were standing outside the bus stop when Francis said: ‘Why don’t we go into business together? Why not start our own label? How much have you got?’ I said: ‘$200.’ ‘How much have you got?’ ‘$200.’
“Francis always reminds me about the fact that I had to think about it. I had to think what happens if I lost that $200? I’d have nothing.”
A different WORLD
Starting on a small scale with hats and lapel badges, the pair soon built up the WORLD business and over the years it’s moved away from a personality L’Estrange-Corbet calls “avant-garde and crazy” to become a luxury brand.
“Everything went back into the business and still does” she says. “If your business does not evolve, change and grow, it dies.”
There’s no respite in fashion, she says – ranges change every season. Many costs need to be paid before the money has come in from the previous season’s profits.
L'Estrange-Corbet says although she doesn't invest in the share market she did buy 300 Air New Zealand shares for her daughter Pebbles when she was born in 1989, and wished she had not bothered!
She then invested in property, when she realised how much money WORLD was paying to rent its High Street headquarters – and how much it paid for car parks.
She bought a charming historic church in Pitt Street in the Auckland inner city. It is the oldest brick church in New Zealand and is their head office.
“The three directors, myself, Francis Hooper and Benny Castles invest a lot of our money into making sure that customers in our stores have an amazing experience,” she says.
Doing what they’re passionate about has given the pair a business they love, which is increasing in value every year. “We pay a high price for our clothing to be produced as it is made in New Zealand by locals who demanded and received a minimum wage and rightly so.”