Ten years on from the Stolen Girlfriends Club brand launch in a grungy Auckland carpark, Marc Moore and Luke Harwood talk to Phoebe Watt about a decade of creative collaborations and rock-star moments.
“That party is still one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Marc Moore, of the raucous evening in 2005 when he and business partners Luke Harwood and Dan Gosling invited a crowd of people into a pigeon-inhabited parking building in downtown Auckland and let them know what Stolen Girlfriends Club was all about. Sort of. “We made all this mock art, really lo-fi. At the time, a friend of ours was like ‘you should collaborate with Billy Apple, he’s my mate I’ll get him to do something with you’. But it never came through, so we just had a big sign that said ‘Billy Apple’s art goes here’. Then we painted a shopping trolley that had TVs in it and we hung it from the ceiling.”
Also hung from the ceiling were a few pairs of Stolen Girlfriends Club jeans. The presentation of short film The Fates, shot by Derek Henderson, and starring Pluto frontman, Milan Borich, rounded out the branding exercise. Although, says Marc, the film didn’t really feature any of the label’s product. “There’s very little branding in there, it’s more about a brand feeling.”
While this might sound like the kind of naïve marketing strategy you’d expect from a trio of self-confessed “young punks” who had “no idea what [they] were doing”, the decision to launch what they called a “vibe”, as opposed to a product range, was a good one. It wasn’t the done thing in those days. “As far as I knew, fashion was product, it was clothing,” says Luke. “Then there was music and there was whatever else, but I didn’t really see anything that brought it all together in terms of a brand culture. Music was the element that kind of created culture behind our brand.”
“There were so many cool bands that we were inspired by at that time,” says Marc, who counts indie band, The Checks, and their fan-base, as encapsulating everything the fledgling label was about back then. “All the people who went to The Checks’ gigs were people who we wanted to dress. We were like, f***, we’d be so happy if all of these people were wearing Stolen. It was such an organic scene — there was nothing contrived, it was all their natural instincts. So we harnessed that, but not on purpose. Just because it was a good time, really,” he says.
For all this talk of winging it, it’s possible the Stolen boys had a better idea of what they were doing than they let on. They wasted no time in impressing Tulia Wilson, who was designing for Zambesi, and who was instrumental in getting Stolen’s first season stocked in Zambesi’s flagship store. The significance of the brand positioning opportunity wasn’t lost on Luke. “You only get one chance to put your brand out to the market, and the market decides what it is. But if you start in a store like Zambesi, instantly you’re going to have this great brand perception, because you’re sitting against other great brands, too,” he says.
Such brands included Maison Martin Margiela, whose paint-splattered sneakers gave Luke something of a crash-course in brand perception. At the time it was unfathomable to him that someone “could paint over a pair of shoes with white house paint and charge $1200 for them”.
The sneakers also struck a chord because of the wearable art factor. Stolen Girlfriends Club took its name from a mixed-media exhibition that Marc staged in 2004, and art references have since underpinned every collection. Their current collection makes use of a Derek Henderson hydrangea print alongside a print inspired by Jackson Pollock. In previous seasons, the boys have collaborated with other creatives on initiatives from marketing to surfboard art.
Collaborating has taught them that there’s value in letting someone else take the creative reins. “Especially when it comes to an artist like Derek, who’s been around a while,” says Luke. “He’s seen stuff that we’re into probably once or twice before, so it’s really good for him to be able to go, ‘Do it like this’, and we’ll be like, ‘Cool, we’ll do it like that’.”
In 2011, the label worked with renowned New Zealand painter, Karl Maughan, on the Day Garden/Night Garden prints that spearheaded the S/S 2011-12 collection. The project remains a career highlight for Marc, who at the time considered himself “unworthy” of collaborating with “such a fine artist”. Not that he held back on giving Karl’s work the Stolen Girlfriends Club treatment, digitally reversing the colours of the original ‘Day Garden’ print in order to create the moodier ‘Night Garden’ print.
“I was looking at the collection and I was like cool, we’ve got all this bright, vibrant, crazy green s***, but we need something dark, we’re a New Zealand brand. Let’s flip it out.” The artist loved the result. “There’s a real strength in putting your brand in someone else’s hands and seeing how they mix it with their own brand and their own handwriting,” Luke says. “It adds so much freshness.”
Collaborating also adds a feeling of exclusivity. As Marc points out: “You’ll see another leather jacket from us and you’ll see another pair of jeans from us, but you’ll never see another Derek Henderson hydrangea T-shirt, or a Karl Maughan garden dress. They’re special pieces and that’s exciting.”
There’s always the chance that a creative collaboration could go horribly wrong and off-brand. “It’s like when you look at two people that are going to make a baby and you think, it could be quite hot, or it could be a real heaper.”
When it came to working with Karl, Marc says his excitement and enthusiasm kept him going. “But there were little thoughts deep down, like, ‘I don’t know if this is right for Stolen, what’s this baby going to look like?’ F***, baby looked great. Everyone loved it. Most popular kid at school, that little baby.”
Both Marc and Luke reference the Stephen Sprouse graffiti collection of handbags for Louis Vuitton as their favourite fashion/art collaboration. “I love anything that’s straight from the streets,” says Luke. “But then you juxtapose it with high fashion and it’s two worlds colliding. It’s awesome.”
“Stolen is really big on juxtaposition,” says Marc. “When you work with someone who shares an aesthetic, it’s all much of a muchness. So we’re about taking an idea from left, and an idea from right, and getting something unique in the middle.” Now building ‘phase two’ of the brand, it’s interesting to note that the designers pepper their conversation with phrases such as “as we’ve got older”.
“In the past,” says Luke, “we’ve more or less done whatever we felt like. But as you get bigger and have more responsibilities, you have to balance being creative with being sensible.”
This has meant learning to be as excited about the commercial side of the business as the creative side. Marc says re-cutting a top commercial seller season after season was never going to be as inspiring as designing the next cool thing for him. “But as we’ve got older I’ve realised that having those staples in the store that sell out in a week is pretty inspiring, too, in a totally different way. Inspiring from a business perspective.”
Luke believes that developing these staples is a craft in itself: “It shows discipline and skill to take something like a leather jacket and each season make it better until it’s this brand status symbol piece. It’s rewarding, as Marc said, to be able to create those products.”