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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Two Cowboys: Customers are the Custodians of the Brand - Swazi, Levin, New Zealand

Outdoor Clothing Made in New Zealand - Swazi, New Zealand

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Levin was New Zealand's fabric and garment manufacturing epicentre until the industry was decimated by companies moving their operations overseas. Headlines such as: "A New Zealand clothing company goes 'global' and shuts all local factories." became too familiar in this part of the world over the last decade.

"Swazi will never manufacture overseas!" Davey Hughes, the founder of Swazi, New Zealand stands proudly behind this statement and his commitment to making their products in the market, where they are the most recognised and respected. We’d get an ‘I LOVE MILEY’ tattoo before we’d manufacture in China!

Swazi is an outdoor clothing and niche garment manufacturer that is proudly making its products in Levin, New Zealand.  Swazi produce innovative and practical agricultural, hunting and outdoor leisure clothing, hand in hand with an assurance to make the voice of the outdoors heard by promoting adventure, hunting, conservation and a sense of responsibility among young people.

It’s made by a passionate bunch of people who live close by. So close, that many of them walk to work every day. For Davey and his team, it’s about community, something that’s easy to forget about if you have your product made on the other side of the world. Creating jobs for people who live in their town is pretty much the best community oriented thing they can do. It’s awesome to see people develop pride in what they do every day. It’s awesome to watch that pride spread through their families and whanau (family).


It is initially hard to place Davey in his garment business.

Here is a hunter and trapper in a country of possums. Let's face it. Regardless of the country's breathtaking beauty (which everyone knows, thanks to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings), New Zealand is not really known for its animal wildlife, is it? What is a big game hunter doing there?

Davey is a rough outdoorsman, world traveller, and television personality, but with an unwavering commitment to the success of everyday people in an age-old and very competitive industry. He is in an industry that seems to have departed from New Zealand some time ago. That he makes garments and design clothes in Levin, is not something that comes to mind when you watch the fella trying to spear a Grizzly in the Canadian outback.

Not even the name "Swazi" fits. It is the name of an African people and tribe from Southern Africa, thousands of kilometres removed in the distance and in culture from Kiwiland.

Maybe, it is just this initial confusion and contrast that makes the Swazi story and its values so attractive and intriguing. There is a surprise around every corner!

Here is what stood out for us:

  • Patriotism: While from Scottish lineage, Davey has an unwavering commitment to his country, New Zealand and its people. He demonstrates this with the loyalty to his workers and town, by continuing to manufacture in Levin even though the country's own Government decided to pass its production over in favour of manufacturing in China.
  • Niche Product Innovation: Swazi's clothes stand out because it keeps people alive. Davey found a niche in outdoor garments because of the harsh climates people face working in the rain, snow, and wind. It is not only recreation clothes, but safety gear, high visibility gear, and even speciality suits that keep helicopter pilots from getting hypothermia. 
  • Global Online Business: The majority of Swazi's products is sold online. This was bold, and some would consider risky move they made five years ago. It is paying off for the business. Products are shipped all over the world. It is no longer a local success story. It is a global one. More so, because five years ago there were still a lot of scepticism about selling apparel over the Internet. Today, people on every continent wear and love their Swazi gear they ordered online.
  • The Brand: Davey's personal brand is probably the strongest selling point for Swazi. Not because of the hunter, adventurer and traveller persona. It is because of his down-to-earth honest and practical approach to overcoming life's obstacles, and the changes were thrown at him and his team. "Every change has an opportunity" is Davey's motto. He is the person you want to know when "chips are down". Because, when you have to rely on someone like many individuals rely on Swazi's clothes to keep them alive, you want to count on Davey. As we say in Canada: "He's got your back."

The most notable comment in the conversation with Davey is his acknowledgement that Swazi's brand is no longer his brand. "We are merely custodians now for our customers," Davey says that the customers of Swazi own the brand. They get married in it. Buried in it. All he and his team can do is not disappoint the loyal and the faithful.

It was an excellent adventure to spend a day with Swazi in Levin. We hope to be back for much more soon.

Hendrik van Wyk

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