“We do need more women in business,” says Diane Stephenson, founder of legendary bridal and event wear store, Modes. “We need more women on boards, and more women to chair boards too. Women bring a different vision, they bring empathy and a holistic approach. You need that balance. You can’t fill a rock pool with just crustaceans! You need diversity for survival.”
The rock pool analogy is a nod to Diane’s former training as marine biologist. One of her earliest dreams was to establish a mussel farm, and under Professor John Morton, was part of the team that helped establish New Zealand’s first marine park at Goat Island, as well as planting some of the native canopy trees you see on Tiritiri Matangi today. She still takes a keen interest in the environment, and has visited Antarctica on a Russian science icebreaker, as well as the Galapagos Islands. Immediately before moving into fashion and retail, Diane worked as a maths, science and biology teacher.
Though Diane rues the dearth of dames across so many of Aotearoa’s upper echelons, she admits that it’s not an issue she has ever faced in her final chosen profession.
“In my industry, there is no problem, many of my closest friends and supporters are male,” she says. “It’s a tough industry to be in, but everyone helps each other. There is total equality, without issue. However, after my father passed away, I had to spend some time with accountants and lawyers and was quite shocked by the chauvinism, arrogance, lack of lateral vision, and lack of homework!”
The no-nonsense Newmarket icon sure shoots from the hip, also directing her ire at the upcoming Westfield mall (“they removed 3,000 carparks while building”), Sunday trading (“I’m not religious, I just believe in being a balanced human”), and brides that “hunt in packs” (“it’s better when they just come with Mum”).
However, Diane’s passion is palpable, and she can be charmingly self-deprecating, too. She also takes pride in her integrity, calling out—but not naming—a competitor that recently sold the same dress to five different young ladies all attending the same ball. Modes, she says, has lost sales over the years for refusing to employ such tactics that guarantee to ruin that special night for so many girls.
On making alterations to clothing for her older clientele, Diane refers to herself as “the master of the gusset!”: “I’ve put on weight over the years too, so I understand what they need!” On choosing a wedding dress, she regales me with all the things that must be taken into consideration—aside from the fact it can take up to half-a-year to order and a couple of fittings to alter such a “complex product”, sourced from Europe—like the appropriateness of the gown for the venue, the figure, the skin tone, the light, the temperature, the final dance, and of course any cultural or religious influences. Even the width of the gown can be a factor ensuring dad and daughter fit down the aisle together.
I wonder if she has to deal with an abundance of bridezillas.
“No, the bridesmaids are usually a little more difficult! They are not the brides. They have to wear a colour that perhaps doesn’t suit them, and having to get three, four, or five differently shaped women to agree is not easy. I’ve had maybe two bridezillas over my time here, but 99 percent of our brides are an absolute pleasures to deal with.”
That time spans an incredible 35 years. When Diane established Modes she was one of four fashion outlets, with Smith and Caughey’s, Saks, and 3 Bears; now “there are over 400!”.
“One of the reasons I’m still in the industry is that there’s never any time to get bored,” she says. “You’re always looking forward, there’s always so much going on that you just can’t stop to think about anything else.”
She is fiercely proud to live and work in Newmarket, and shops there “religiously”. “I frequent the cafés, my doctor’s here, and the Rialto’s great for the staff film night” says Diane. “My daughters went to school here [she has two daughters, and her partner has another four], it’s an amazing little hub, and I enjoyed the ten years protecting Nuffield Street and Newmarket Park on community projects such as as ten years chairing the business association.”
But, with one eye on retirement, Diane and her partner have recently bought a bolthole in Matakana near Goat Island where she can share her passion for the environment with her family. “I’ve taken them around the marine reserve and seen some snapper that possibly I first met 40 years ago!They will continue to entertain thousands of snorkellers for many years to come, while contributingto the snapper stock in the area.”
Diane describes the property as typically Kiwi, a “minimalist barnhouse” with covenanted native bushland and marine access through mangroves to the beach: “There are even glowworms under the ferns on the driveway.” She’s already experimenting with possible tourist opportunities (“A five-star host!”), such as Maori medicine and cooking classes, or chutney and relish weekends. When Diane does finally shut up shop for good, she plans to take up painting with watercolours. But, she’s not there just yet.
There’s also an on-site mobile home on her Matakana property that Diane lends to her “loyal staff” for weekend breaks. “It provides work-life balance and makes their job more enjoyable,” she says. “It’s hard work dealing with the public, and dealing with up to 300 people on a Saturday for example can be physically quite taxing.”
I ask about advice for those considering coming into the industry and Diane says that it’s most certainly not for the work-shy or the faint-hearted. “You need to have good people skills, not only with the customers, but for the diverse collection of staff and suppliers, and be mindful of cultural differences. It’s not just about being creative and managing money, but managing people, too.”
Such bonds are what brings the most rewards.
“I enjoy people, and I enjoy travelling,” says Diane. “As part of my job I have visited ancient artisan mills in Italy and met very talented people with impressive skills. One fine friend whom I haven’t seen for about five years as he lives abroad is about to celebrate his sixtieth so we’re all going to Marrakesh. It’s these such things that I would most miss—certainly not having a lease and constantly negotiating rent hikes, so more control over my destination would be a bonus!”