With a fresh look and approach, Max is forging into the future. Two of the driving forces behind the local institution share why the rebrand goes far beyond a surface-level makeover.
Max has been part of the New Zealand retail landscape since 1986, a pillar of the country’s malls and regional high streets. For many Kiwi women, it was their trusted source of everything from workwear to casual separates and the “going out” tops that defined the 2000s.
Before the advent of online shopping, the brand was a dependable (and affordable) source of womenswear – and it was local. Proudly so. There were billboards starring iconic Kiwi models such as Ngahuia Williams, bearing the brand’s then slogan: “Women’s Republic of New Zealand”. Those were the days of David Wright, who established the brand in 1986 and was at the helm until 2006.
The years that followed were tumultuous for the country’s retailers: international players arrived, e-commerce bloomed, and Max shifted to a more volume-driven business model.
But last November, Max was acquired by Barkers; another icon of local retail. It was a timely move for the menswear brand, says its managing director Jamie Whiting. “We repositioned Barkers and turned it around, and we often had people ask, ‘When are you going to do a Barkers for womenswear?’”
He sees the market placement and demographics of the two brands as having particular synergy. “For us, it was a really natural fit.”
A radical reinvention was on the cards from the start. Talking through the trajectory of the rebrand, Jamie says his first move was to promote Rochelle MacDonald to the position of general manager, and from there they set about repositioning the brand. “At that point we made the decision that almost everything needed to change,” he explains. “It wasn’t just a tweak to a seasonal campaign or the range, it was an entire rip-down and rebuild.”
Max general manager Rochelle MacDonald and managing director Jamie Whiting.
By early March their strategy was in place, and from there the team began reinventing Max. “We basically broke all the rules of the old business,” Rochelle says. “We re-sourced everything from a product perspective. Because most of our fabrications changed, the way we handled it changed, and the fits changed.”
Surprisingly the Max team is more or less the same as it was before the brand joined the Barkers Group. She cites this lack of disruption as a blessing, crediting it – along with the retention of product and customer knowledge – with enabling the swift rebrand. “The existing team just embraced it and worked so incredibly hard; it’s really humbling.”
She and her team focused on enduring design and better-quality garments, with a particular emphasis on fabrications. The product range was 30 percent polyester and nylon before the rebrand; now those textiles make up only five percent. The team prioritised sustainability and biodegradable natural fabrics; over half of the new range is made from textiles like cotton and linen, with the rest made from reconstituted natural fibres such as lyocell, which is recyclable. Rochelle proudly says that nearly half their cotton range is now organic (up from zero) thanks to Max’s new line Elementary, the first step in the brand’s self-professed sustainability journey.
Barkers undertook a similar shift, around 2017, with Jamie spearheading a more responsible approach to manufacturing. He freely admits it wasn’t easy. “It took us two or three years to really build up that supply pipeline for our organic cotton, and for us everything has to be certified.” But thanks to the Barkers roadmap and extensively redeveloped supply network, he says shifting Max to that approach was relatively pain free. “Because we had done all that work with Barkers, and we had manufacturers who make really good, high-quality product for other global brands, we were able to tap Max into that supply chain quite quickly.”
As part of the strategy, they’re also introducing other brands such as Levi’s to Max stores, as well as a collection made using iconic Liberty of London fabric. It’s an unprecedented series of moves that elevates their offering and brand awareness.
Max is also expanding its range with artisanal and locally focused lifestyle products, including Jasmin Sparrow jewellery, Claybird Ceramics, and Storm + India tea. “We wanted to work with people that had a similar ethos to us, that were local, that were small businesses, and generally women-led,” Rochelle explains.
Another pillar of Max’s repositioningis a new flagship store in the redeveloped Westfield Newmarket – a departure from their existing fit-outs, with natural materials and a more luxurious feel. “It’s really important that the environment reflects everything we’re doing from a brand point of view,” Jamie explains, as they shift their store experience towards a more personal approach than that of recent years.
Asked whether they’re concerned about more international retailers entering the New Zealand market – like the imminent arrival of Cos – Jamie seems unfazed. “Competition’s good; it keeps the good brands and the good businesses on their toes, and it makes you work harder.”
For Max (and Barkers), part of working harder is being a responsible business. “Where’s the ultimate journey for sustainability? It’s about closing the loop,” Jamie says, disclosing that they’ve formed an internal cross-company group, Nature Needs Heroes, to implement initiatives across businesses. He’s also on the steering committee for The Formary, an industry group that’s developing solutions for textile reuse circularity.
Both Jamie and Rochelle couldn’t be happier with the speed and outcome of the repositioning to date. They’re proud that the brand now outwardly reflects the culture of the business, as Rochelle says succinctly: “This is what Max should be; this is where Max belongs.”
Scroll through our gallery below to see our picks from the upcoming collection.
Words: Emma Gleason
This story originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly Issue 4, 2019