Always be making: duncan mclean

Clothing designer Duncan McLean has always been making things. You might say it's in his blood.

His mother ran a fabric store then re-trained as a designer, and his father is a carpenter. And his grandmother worked as a finisher at a clothing factory, doing all kinds of intricate handwork. Surrounded by all that talent, he was always going to be encouraged to follow through on his creative curiosity and give things a go.

"I used to stand by my mother when she was sewing and say, 'Can you make me this, can you make me that,' and she got sick of me and said, 'Make it yourself'," he recalled. "Cutting stuff, making stuff, measuring stuff - it's all the same. Back in the early '80s, even in the late '70s, everything was the same in New Zealand, and I always wanted something different. You had to make it."

The road to an elegant shopfront in Newtown, Wellington, where he makes beautifully hand-tailored jeans and clothing for men and women - as well as a wide range of custom T-shirts from his wide-ranging portfolio of screenprint designs - began with a diploma from Wellington Polytechnic in 1991. Three days after graduating he was on his way to New York City with no job and only $600 in his pocket.

"I wanted to go to a fashion capital," McLean said. He landed in the garment district, surprising people with his direct and slightly desperate approach. "I looked at the names on the door, went to the top and started knocking on doors. I almost had a breakdown because I was like, 'What am I going to do?' But it was great. People were so cool - 'No one ever does this! Do you want a coffee? Can we photocopy your resume for you? This is fantastic!'"

It didn't take long for him to get his foot in the door with an up-and-coming young designer, Cynthia Rowley. It was great timing.  "That company grew from $1 million to $10 million in three years. It was crazy." He ended up building a substantial 10-year career in that rough-and-tumble industry, including six years as a design assistant for Rowley.

As Rowley's design assistant, McLean did a bit of everything - an experience that led to a watershed moment in his development as a craftsman.

"I basically interpreted a lot of her designs," he said. "She would go out to dinner and come back with a napkin and some sort of sketch on it. I really liked that. I could take it from a sketch to a sample stage. I like that the best - just making it work, going from 2D to 3D.

"It took a while, about two years, and I remember going, oh, I can make anything I want! That was really cool."

McLean honed his skills further at American design stalwarts the Gap and Banana Republic before returning to New Zealand in 2002. He worked for a while for Icebreaker and then bought his own piece of Newtown at 141 Riddiford St, a lovely ground-floor shop on the corner with a workshop out the back and living quarters upstairs.

His design philosophy is no-nonsense: "I see myself as a clothing designer, not as a fashion designer. I've never been that fussed on the fashion side of it. I like clothes. I just want to make nice clothes, and see people wearing them and enjoying them."

"I keep it pretty simple. It's all about the fabric, really - try to make the best quality you can make, but it's all about the fabric."

This is evident in the tightly edited selection in his shop. Alongside the custom screen-printed T-shirts (you choose the colour and the design from his denim-bound sample books), you'll find a handful of clothes sewn from lovely fabrics in classic, wearable designs. They're practically one-offs.

McLean is a keen guitarist and DJ in his spare time. He finds that fashion's creative spirit lines up nicely with the magic that happens when musicians play together. "I love that experimental element of it. When you play with other people it's like speaking a different language. I think clothes are a bit like that. You're not speaking English, you're speaking the language of clothes, because they do the talking."

McLean, at 47, attributes a lot of his own development to the opportunity he had to learn his craft at a young age, getting a solid grounding in technique at school before heading off to New York.

"It's all hard work and accumulated knowledge, really. You can teach people certain things but it's like being a builder, you learn the basics and then on the job it's completely different. You just accumulate knowledge - hopefully you don't make the same mistake more than three times."

"I've always had a long-term approach. I don't think I'll be good at my job until I'm 60. When I'm 60 I'll be more confident, I will have gone through a lot of different changes, and so my experience and the way I do things will be a lot more calm. I'm a much better sewer now, I'm much more patient with myself."

As for Newtown? McLean finds shopkeeping there feels like a little slice of New York.

"I've always said it, always - people laugh at me, but New York's the big melting pot, and so's Newtown. It's the most interesting neighbourhood in New Zealand by far," he said. "Some days I love it and some days I hate it, but that's the fashion industry too. One minute you love it and the next minute you're hating it."

"Newtown's got that feeling that it could, potentially, be really amazing, but you've just got to wait it out. It's a long game, it's not a short game. It's changed dramatically since I've been here."

He points to Newtown stalwarts People's Coffee, along with restaurants and bars like Monterey, Bebemos, and Moon, that have all set up shop in the years he's been in the suburb. "I love that Mount Vic is right there, I love the fact that the community's so diverse. People still look down their nose at it, but I like that my kids walk down the street and see every element of humanity. You do see people with mental health issues, you do see people with drug and alcohol problems, you do see regular people. It's an amazing cross-section. It's all walks of life, and you don't get that in a lot of suburbs."

duncan mclean. 141 Riddiford St, Newtown, Wellington. Phone: 04-389 2466