Vancouver is known for its shimmering seaside crystal towers, its whales that flirt with you, its glam-glam moviemaking world and the best skiing in the Americas up the hill in Whistler. It is also known to the “in” set for its designer, Zonda Nellis, who sells to fashionistas all over the world. Here she is!
MARY WELLS: Zonda, what brought you to Vancouver? Were you born here?
ZONDA NELLIS: No, I was born in a small town outside Toronto. I was supposed to go to a fashion college in Toronto but then I came to Vancouver and I thought it was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. I loved what was going on at the time. There were poets, there were artists, it was a mélange of the arts all coming together at that time. There was a thriving art scene. There still is. But that is what drew me to work here.
MARY: But you don’t sell only in Vancouver, you sell to people all over the world.
ZONDA: Yes. I don’t sell a lot in Canada. We have a store here in Vancouver but now I sell primarily in New York, Chicago, Florida – a lot of warm-weather regions, Palm Beach, Naples, Sarasota. I am interested now in a warmer weather lifestyle. My buyers are all ages, travel a lot and these days many work and live an elongated warm-weather lifestyle.
MARY: How do you go about selling, say, in New York? Do you have to take a truck full of garments? Or just a few samples?
ZONDA: We show in New York twice a year. I show with a group of other designers at the Jumeirah Essex House. For many years designers have been taking a suite in a hotel in New York to show their collections and that is what I have done for more than 25 years.
MARY: Do you have models? How do you show things?
ZONDA: Sometimes I have a model and sometimes I don’t. The buyers who come to see me have been buying from me for a number of years and their time is limited. A good buyer rarely needs to see anything on a model. I have a different story every season but they see it on a hanger and they know, they just know.
MARY: What about Europe?
ZONDA: I sell to stores all over the world. But this year I am focusing more than usual on the stores in the Americas and Vancouver. I think right now it’s a time to be safe – the Americas are buying again and Vancouver is a hot town now.
MARY: To be safe. Does that mean that the buyers are more conservative in this recession? Do they want something a little more Grace Kelly than they used to?
ZONDA: So much revolves around the economy everywhere now. That is very interesting to me. But I find that I like it that women are more thoughtful about what they are getting. Sometimes they won’t buy a whole outfit but they’ll buy a fantastic piece to wear with something they already have.
They always come to me for something special, if there is a marriage or a big event. But now women are more spontaneous. They don’t want to order something. When they want something they want to have the experience of buying it right away. Maybe they haven’t shopped in a while so they don’t want to wait. I have to be ready for that, I have to keep my finger on the pulse of change and be ready for what they are feeling.
MARY: What stimulates a collection? How many collections do you do each year?
ZONDA: I do spring and fall but it’s changed, it’s almost as if there isn’t a real fall in the stores I sell to. A lot of customers live half their year in southern regions so the stores go to them there and want clothes that bridge seasons.
I do things for many businesswomen. I’ve had a lot of bank managers, a lot of lawyers, some high-profile lawyers in the United States, women who are at the top of their profession and are interesting because they dress exactly the way they want to dress. They don’t feel they have to dress as people might think they should. I love that.
MARY: So do customers stimulate your collections? Or is it intuition, it just comes to you in a flash – your next collection?
ZONDA: Well, I’m a designer, I’m lucky, fashion is an exciting, ever changing world. But I think I am stimulated – truly moved – by fabrics. Yes, I would say, number one, it’s the fabrics. I am constantly developing fabrics, not even on a seasonal basis. Right now I am developing a linen knit fabric I have been working on for eight months to bring it to the weight I want it to be. Now, finally, that linen knit fabric is great and is going to make my spring collection very special. It’s something you won’t find everywhere and I just love it. Also color inspires me. Sometimes I will see something and think, “Oh I love that color! That’s rare.” Yes, the fabrics I find and the ones I create and colors – that’s what lifts me wayyyyyyy up.
MARY: Is that why you took that long trip to India?
ZONDA: Yes. I felt there was so much gloom and doom now in life and I really needed an injection, a blast of color. I didn’t want to be moved by all the negativity dribbling into my brain; I needed a lift of pure color, so I went to India. You hear a lot about the poverty in India but every woman I saw in a sari, the way she wrapped it around her body and the way the pattern was placed, I just thought those women looked fantastic. And whether the woman was poor or wealthy there was that joyous pure color, that sense of the fabric on her body – you could feel her elegance.
I discovered fabrics there. Some of the fabrics that come to North America from India are not a high quality. But there is a lot of great fabric there. I discovered a fabric dyer, a fourth-generation fabric dyer in Jaipur who does incredible diagonal dying with multi-colors. You know, those fabrics rarely leave India. They’re done for noble families, the wealthy and movie stars, that quality of fabric. Very personal and primitive – the way it is done – yet the results are highly sophisticated.
MARY: You have some in your showroom.
ZONDA: I do. I do.
MARY: What about Italy? You get a lot of fabrics in Italy.
ZONDA: Yes, I’ve been working in Italy for the past five years. Before that it was always France. That was where I began to use couture fabrics but in my own way.
MARY: Don’t you experiment with it? Dye it? Paint it?
ZONDA: Yes. Sometimes I remove the color from the fabric. This is very expensive fabric and if anyone knew that I was throwing it into a pan of bleach!!!! But it comes out in different and interesting ways and then I put the color back into it. I am irreverent with fabric. And because they are mostly all-natural fabrics you can do that. I take velvet and dye it, I twist it, I emboss it, I set it with heat. People would say, oh you can’t ever get velvet wet. Well, in France I remember there was a machine I liked in one of the velvet companies and they called it the wet cat machine. When the velvet came out it looked like a wet cat, with that sort of pile. You can do anything to these fine fabrics because they are good. I push it with these fabrics and transform them to make them special, unique, exciting, NEW.
MARY: You are an engineer with fabrics as well as the designs. That’s why you never see anything quite like your things. How do you stop your intuition? When do you know you have the fabric just right? Do you have some kind of self discipline that says, “No more!”?
ZONDA: It’s hard during collection time. It’s hard to stop. I don’t go to bed until four usually. Yes, it’s hard to stop.
MARY: It’s creative craziness, like painting a painting. Collection time means what? Have you developed a good feel for what the stores and your customers are expecting of you?
ZONDA: Oh yes, they make appointments. And we are dealing with stores and customers we have dealt with a long time. Especially now because some good stores have shut down in the recession. We are now dealing with stores and good customers who are still doing well. It’s not like selling to a lot of brand-new stores. It is not that kind of time. For example, I have a store in Florida – she has such a good vision for her store that she can carry all the usual labels but she can carry my unusual things as well. She does very well. They used to say it is for from day to evening but I think in the many warmer worlds today it is from evening to day – you can wear long things at night or for lunch at the beach restaurant. Or around the house looking beautiful. That is why I started developing these lightweight fabrics, the linens, the knits, and this is a digital print and it is cotton but it is a gorgeous fabric. Feel it! Very high quality. You could just cut a hole in it and stick your head through it and wear it looking cool and unfussy and great. I stayed away from prints for a long time but print is going to become an even more important in fashion so I learned to print, myself. Digital. This is a fabric I am developing by printing – I’ll show you a piece here. It’s almost Byzantine or like a Coptic tunic you would see in a museum but lighter and floating and so fine. I am so excited about this.
MARY: It’s lovely, Zonda.
ZONDA: The clothes in warmer climates allow you to do more than in cold weather, I think. But then I get excited about what women wear in cold weather too. You know, to be comfortable, you don’t have to be in a jogging suit. If I see too many women in running shoes I get nervous. I just don’t have a running shoe mentality. You can be comfortable, cool or warm, and be beautiful at the same time.
For me the fabrics are so important, the dying – it’s magical. You put something in and, like with a painting, you don’t know how it is going to turn out and silk will turn out completely different from cotton. When you combine silk and cotton together there is a reaction you may not expect. Sometimes it’s truly thrilling. But finally the fabric must be unusually good and the design must be unusually beautiful and together, the fabric and the design must be something more – they must be magic. I am relentless looking for the magic. It is magic that women hope for. Mary, it is magic that makes the fashion business such a great one to be in – and it’s rare.