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‘The Bay of Islands is where I find sanctuary and solace.’
Gems in this
Spending summers barefoot, diving into the ocean and feeling the calm of Aotearoa is the quintessential creative recipe for leading sustainable New Zealand designer Maggie Hewitt.
It’s this connection to land and appreciation for nature that places Maggie’s label, Maggie Marilyn, at the forefront of sustainable fashion. Drawing on a childhood spent surrounded by sustainable farming in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, Maggie took her brand back to basics, creating complete transparency from farmer through to runway. Despite the lure of New York’s high energy or Europe’s fashion pull, it’s the glimmering calm of her hometown Kerikeri that Maggie seeks out to create and design. We speak with Maggie about fashion as a vehicle for climate solutions, reconnecting with nature for inspiration and her Bay of Islands Travel Playbook.
On where you’re from
Kerikeri is a town in the Bay of Islands, at the top of New Zealand’s North Island. It was idyllic, growing up in such a small rural town as Kerikeri. I was always excited to get out, travel and see the world, but it’s only as I've gotten older that I’ve started to appreciate where I came from — it’s magical. I grew up on the water with lots of time outdoors.
On how Kerikeri shaped your thinking
Being brought up in this idyllic landscape gave me deeper appreciation for the natural world. It has informed who I've become as a business owner, founder, creative and designer — at the beginning of my career, it was subconscious. I was also inspired by my mother and spent a lot of time outdoors with her. She is an incredible gardener and always farmed in a way that was in harmony with the natural world. She never used synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. I feel very connected to food and fiber because I grew up in an environment with a deep understanding of where things come from and what goes into the growing. I had all of this built into me, forming who I was becoming. I’m grateful to have had that connection to the land.
On your creative beginnings
I’m dyslexic, so I didn't excel in the more academic subjects at school. I found my place in the creative world and in the arts. I knew that my mind works in a more creative landscape. In the local high school in Kerikeri, I was lucky enough to do all art subjects. In my last two years, I stopped doing math, English, and science, instead taking painting, photography and design. The only subject I couldn't take, ironically, was fashion — there were no fashion or sewing classes. Growing up in a small, rural town, I had the dream to go to places like New York, London or Paris, and this pull towards the fashion community. I’d read fashion magazines as a form of escapism and wonder. I loved the idea of a dream world where you could be anyone you wanted, based on how you dressed.
On lifting the curtain on the fashion world
Very naively, I decided to enroll in a Fine Arts degree majoring in fashion when I was 17, but had no experience. My mom didn't know how to sew, I didn't grow up sewing my own clothes, so I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but I was mesmerized by this world. Then a very unglamorous curtain was pulled back on what the industry was responsible for — seeing that fashion was having a negative impact on the environment and the people involved in the supply chain. I still clearly remember that feeling of not wanting to be part of this industry, but I'm stubborn and determined, so I completed my four years of study. From a creative perspective, I love designing clothing and I still believe in the power of clothes. I'd prefer not to be put into the box of a fashion brand, but as a business that creates solutions to the climate crisis through the vehicle of making clothing.
‘Being brought up in this idyllic landscape gave me deeper appreciation for the natural world. It has informed who I've become as a business owner, founder, creative and designer.’
On sustainability in fashion
Until I had my own business, I didn't realize how difficult it’d be breaking down walls of transparency in an industry built on smoke and mirrors. I didn't feel comfortable with not knowing who was making our clothes, and the environment in which they were working, so we started manufacturing in New Zealand. That was a special part of starting Maggie Marilyn. From there I asked more questions to understand the deeper parts of the supply chain: where the fabrics came from, who the fabric merchants and the people that spun, weaved and dyed the fabric were. Only once you have radical transparency, can you improve everything that's wrong with the supply chain. It's really only been in the last two years that we've actually started to build relationships with our growers and our farmers, and to understand the challenges they face. One of the largest impacts that fashion has is at a fiber level. People forget how inextricably connected the fashion industry is to the agriculture industry, and that the agriculture industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. We identified a couple of years ago that one of our greatest solutions to having a positive impact on the environment and the people involved in our supply chain was redefining the bar for how fibers should be grown. Now we're working with our growers to implement regenerative farming practices that sequester more carbon.
On working with New Zealand and Australia farms
The majority of our raw materials come from wool and cotton. Our wool is from New Zealand and we work directly with New Zealand growers, specifically with a farm in the South Island in Wānaka called Lake Hawea Station. We work with a cotton farm in Moree, New South Wales, in Australia, too, for the sourcing of our cotton.
On where creativity has taken you
This is one of the parts that I love the most about my job. It’s interesting being a founder and having a dream for the business you want to create, but the realities of running that business can sometimes be different. I started off as a creator, as a designer trying to find a solution to a problem that you face. That’s the way I look at the brand that we're building with Maggie Marilyn, but as the brand has grown — up until the last couple of years with Covid — I was traveling all around the world, either on sourcing trips, and meeting with manufacturers and suppliers, or at the other end, selling the product and meeting with press and our community globally. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the rest of the world.
On where you return to
I spend a lot of time in the US, specifically in New York, which holds a special place in my heart. It’s so different to where I grew up — I like having that balance. I couldn’t have one without the other. I'm ambitious and I crave the energy that a big city gives you. When you're in New York, you feel like you're at the center of it all, where everything is happening. There’s so many creatives, ideas and businesses coming out of that city; I find it really inspiring. I love people-watching, too. In a city like New York, you can sit on a park bench and watch all day as the world goes by.
‘I don't know if there's something special in the water or the air down here, or if it’s our geographical isolation, but there's this real sense of Kiwi ingenuity, a real can-do attitude.’
On what makes Aotearoa New Zealand so special to you
It’s where I'm from and one of the most special places in the world. The environment is incredibly beautiful and there's also something special about the people. The talent coming out of New Zealand is really special for how small a nation we are. I don't know if there's something special in the water or the air down here, or if it’s our geographical isolation, but there's this real sense of Kiwi ingenuity, a real can-do attitude. No mountain is too high. Yes, it’s a big world out there, but I've never felt like it was one where Maggie Marilyn or I couldn't succeed on the world stage. I think other Kiwi creatives and entrepreneurs feel the same.
On the pull of the Bay of Islands
Building Maggie Marilyn took me to so many incredible cities and places all over the world, but being able to have this place I can come home to and recenter, with this sense of quietness and stillness — I wouldn't be able to do what I do without it. Everyone needs a place they can go back to, in the good and bad times. I feel very connected to the water and the ocean. If I'm in New Zealand and I feel like things are falling apart, I drive home and dive in the water and feel like all my problems fade away. I drive from Auckland to the Bay of Islands — it's a four-hour drive — and just jump in the water.
On top swimming spots
There are so many incredible beaches in Northland and about 150 little islands dotted all over the Bay of Islands. It's also remote and secluded. Having that stark contrast of traveling to a city like New York, it's then quite amazing to arrive at a beach in Northland and not see a single person. My favorite beach is Matauri Bay — I went camping there a lot with friends growing up. We did a summer shirting collection at the end of 2021 and we named the shirts and the collection after my favorite places in the Bay of Islands.
On the town of Russell
There's a lot of history and culture rooted in Kerikeri and also Russell, which used to be the capital of New Zealand and is today this really cute little shipping town. There's a place called the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. It's one of the oldest pubs in New Zealand and I'd recommend anyone coming to the Bay of Islands to go there. It’s idyllic and right on the water.
‘Sage sits on this hill in Russell and has the most spectacular view of the Bay of Islands. It also has a really special farm-to-table menu.’
On your favorite places to eat and drink
There are beautiful vineyards and wineries in the region. The restaurant called Sage sits on this hill in Russell and has the most spectacular view of the Bay of Islands. It also has a really special farm-to-table menu, where everything on the menu comes from within a 50-kilometer radius of the restaurant. I’d also say that we have some of the best seafood in the world. We have this place called Mangonui Fish Shop, which is an hour drive from Kerikeri heading north, and it’s iconic for New Zealand. I’d order beer-battered fish and chips, whatever the local fish of the day is, maybe a snapper or tarakihi. It's beautiful.
On exploring the coastline
If you're in the Bay of Islands, most people have a boat, and that’s the best way to get around all the different little islands for incredible snorkeling and fishing — there are beautiful little rock pools. There’s an island called Urupukapuka Island — everyone gets there by boat, and there’s an old-school pub with beanbags outside. It’s very laid-back. When you come to the Bay of Islands, you don't wear shoes for as long as you stay, which I love. It’s also a great place for a road trip. Driving further north up to the top of the North Island, to North Cape and Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua, is super special. In Cape Reinga, there’s a beautiful walk and you can stand at the lighthouse, at the northernmost point of the country. Also, the further north you go, the more you can see both sides of the island. On the east coast you have white sandy beaches, while on the west coast you have black rugged beaches.
On your relationship with Bay of Islands
It’s a place that tugs at my heartstrings, a place that I reference a lot in terms of informing who I am, because I feel so proud to come from Aotearoa and be a New Zealander, and also come from a place like Northland. It’s also a big part of where I find sanctuary and solace, a place that I go to design, especially when I feel I've hit a wall; a place that I go to regain my strength and creative energy. It's one of those places when you arrive that is a sigh of relief; you can breathe again. I get that from the land and also from the people.
On a window or an aisle seat
I prefer a window seat, because I love being able to see the view.
On Bay of Islands in one word
I had the privilege to travel all around the world, but I’d describe the Bay of Islands as the place that I most feel at peace. I hope that anyone that travels there feels this sense of calm.