A fashion influencer, creative entrepreneur, wife, and mum of three. Claire is one of NZ's finest creators of headwear and contemporary millinery accessories for the races and high fashion.
We chat about how her fabulous brand came about, and the successes and struggles of owning your own business while juggling life and family. A fabulous lady with an artful approach to her work, I excitedly sit down to chat over 20 questions with Claire Hahn.
20 Questions with Claire Hahn
1. Tell me about your early beginnings, how did the Claire Hahn label start?
It was desperation really, because I was going to the races a lot, and I did a lot of judging for the fashion on the field competitions. Having to buy millinery there were only ever incredibly expensive pieces available in NZ, or pieces that were very dated or mass produced, mainstream and not on trend. The way around it was, why can’t I make my own pieces? It really taught me that there was there was a distinct lack of accessibly priced pieces available in the market. As someone who is considered a racewear innovator I am expected to wear a different outfit every time, so it all stemmed from there.
2. You have a background in theatre + costume design, how did that influence your work?
I have always been involved in fashion from a really young age, everything from makeup artistry and special effects. I have always kept a broad resume. I have done a lot of theatre work, putting together a costumes and looks and styling. I’ve also done a lot of styling work for personal clients. I’ve done many things before I’ve done this and they have all shaped where I am and what I am doing now. I have always wanted my own brand, that I can take in the direction I want it to go. It’s been a very natural evolution.
3. Was there a turning point that made you go this is what I want to do?
No, it’s been a gradual process. I had a wardrobe editing business. I started that from the day I left my old job, when I was pregnant with my son. It was a great business, a great money earner and was fun. But it also lacked creativity. There was nothing I was making or creating. So I sold the business when I had my second child. This business [Claire Hahn] really stemmed from where I was in my personal life and I saw this opportunity to do something different.
4. What’s the most awesome piece of feedback that a client has given you?
Sometimes it's not necessarily about the hat. A regular client of mine she recently said “Oh I just love this, there’s never any drama.” And that's what I don’t like, I don’t do drama. I want the customers to feel like they’re my friends. That feedback about customer experience and how they feel about working with me, that’s more important to me than it was just a really beautiful hat. It’s not just about the product or the purchase, it’s about the support around the purchase. If there are problems, because sometimes mistakes happen - I want people to walk away from the experience feeling “She couldn’t have done more for me.”
5. What’s really important to you to contribute to the creative industry. Three things point of difference.
That’s a hard one, I always want to be innovative in what I do. I see a lot of NZ designers now purchasing items out of china and putting their own labels on them, then charging a full design fee on it, and that to me is ethically wrong. I always want to maintain a high sense of ethics in my business. A lot of milliners loan pieces to celebrities and they sell them as a new product. I don’t do it, I think it’s morally wrong. The joy of a bespoke hat or a one of a kind head piece is that it hasn’t been seen before. I think it’s a disservice to the people that pay your bills. That’s something that’s really important to me in what I do. Always treating my customer and my clients with respect and dignity - how I want to be treated myself. It’s not about making a dollar for me. Yes, it has to be a business model that works but at the same time I want it to be ethical and honest. I’d rather not make money on a situation where I made a mistake, and mistakes happen - than have my customer lose out. It just makes sense to me, I’m going for longevity rather than the hard and fast way.
6. Where do you see the future of NZ designer fashion going, for yourself and others?
For me it’s about growing, becoming better and bigger and just that natural evolution. To keep going. We are now stocked in six different countries. One of my major wholesale partners is a store in the U.S. they are just catching on to our way of thinking when it comes to millinery. So that’s really exciting to see them showcasing my work with other amazing milliners that I look up to from Ireland, from the U.K. it’s really exciting for me to able to take that overseas. To push what we do down here, which is quite different from what they do in the states, so that’s very exciting. I’m focused on doing what I am doing and I’m not trying to keep up with other NZ designers and milliners. I just want to keep focusing on my creative journey rather than worrying about what they’re doing. It’s really frustrating when I see other milliners copying my work, it’s very frustrating. But at the same time, it pushes me to be more innovative, and just be better. I get inspired by people who are greater than me, but it's about being inspired by a trend or a movement and putting your own spin on it.
7. Who are your style icons?
In my own personal style I’m a huge fan of Miroslava Duma, Christine Centenera, Olivia Palermo. Those kind of people really inspire me. Edgy but still a bit glam. I’m definitely more inspired by international people.
8. Is there a designer here that’s inspired your work in any way?
Not so much my work, but my favourite NZ designer is TK store. I really like that it's seasonless, and there's something really timeless about it. I’m really inspired by other amazing milliners. My inspiration comes from the materials I use, I don’t just use traditional millinery resources, I’m just as likely to be at Bunnings finding something! So a lot of my work comes from the product that I’m working with. I started working with Eva foam recently and I love it. But I’m using it in the way I want to work with it so I’m teaching myself to use it. It’s been really good season for me. The product I’ve been creating has been really well received. I think that's because it’s such an individual way of using it.
9. Three words to describe your brand or your aesthetic?
Its contemporary, innovative, and on trend. I always want to be just pushing the boundaries just a little bit.
10. In a way your work’s also quite timeless, how do you walk that line?
I think it comes down to the person who’s wearing it, and how how they interpret it. Because you can take the same piece of work and give it to three different people and come out with very different results. For me when I am working with a client and making them a piece, I want them to feel like it is them, and they can make it their own. Because great racewear is about putting a spin on your own style and too often we see women who use this example of what they think they’re supposed to wear, and it never really looks authentic. But if you take your own personal style and put a racewear take on it, then it always looks great.
11. What do the races mean to you in terms of fashion?
It’s a huge part of what I’ve done. It’s a massive way that my work gets exposed. Sometimes it's me turning up in a statement piece, which is always fun. It’s a great opportunity to get dressed up, and really put some thought into your outfit, because we have very few opportunities to do that now. The races is that perfect time to preplan what you’re going to wear, and really put effort into the shoe, the bag, the dress, the headpiece, the hair. You don’t do that for a Saturday night in town, we have a very few opportunities to get to go through that process. If you’re a fashion lover that process is really fun. I love it. You just don’t get to do that anymore. Where else do you get to wear gloves and a hat? It can be really stressful; but I really enjoy the process of putting my look together. The people watching, and appreciating of other women that have gone to the same effort that you have but still look completely different than you. So everyone has their own interpretation of what’s on trend.
12. In your work and personal life, what would you say your greatest strength is and where does that come from?
My greatest strength in both would be my work ethic. I have been known to get up at four in the morning (laughs) and do a couple of hours work before the kids get up and 6.30. It's really important to me from a financial standpoint that I want to work as hard as I can so I can provide more for my kids. I’ve never put my kids in daycare, so it's about working hard, and achieving that balance to get the work done while looking after the kids as well. I work really hard. That gives me a sense of self appreciation. That makes me proud of myself. I show my children exactly what it’s like to have your own business, and it's not easy, it’s hard. And sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and during October my friends don’t see me! But that’s what we do so I can have the lifestyle I want outside of work as well.
13. What was your biggest failure along your journey so far and what did you learn from it?
Sometimes I look back at my old business, and I wasn’t as attentive to my oldest child because I was really consumed by it. It was part of the reason I sold it when I had my second daughter because I feel guilty for those first three years I was on the computer. I guess going forward I want to be present at the same time. So that's what I was getting back to, about getting up early in the morning and working so I can be present during the day. Because it isn’t just about work, you’ve gotta live life at the same time. I think every single working mother has the same guilt, and the same issues, and the constant need to find balance and give yourself evenly. But I don’t think I’m alone on that one!
14. What was your proudest moment?
I had this moment two weeks ago, as I’d always wanted my own brand, I wanted it to be recognisable. I never realised I had actually achieved that. I was down in hastings for a race day with some friends and to see so many people walking around in my brand, having people come up to me saying “Hey Claire thank you, I bought this piece on the website.” Just to see SO many of my pieces at a track in Hastings, was a massive wakeup call to say well actually, you’ve already achieved that, and I hadn’t realised that already, for myself. So that was really cool. There’s lots of proud moments along the way, you know you can win an award here and an award there and it’s great but I don't spend a lot of my time to seek pride.
15. Where does your pride come from?
I think it comes down to that real honest thanks when they are happy and satisfied and they really appreciate when I went the extra mile. When I get that feedback from them, that’s when that pride is the most valued, awards are really nice but at the end of the day, somebody else will win it next year.
I think that long term sustainability in a business comes from getting that pride from the feedback from your customers and that customer loyalty back to the brand.
That’s really important, it takes you through to next season and it's something I’ve worked really hard on. Customer loyalty is something that NZ businesses don’t put enough effort into.
16. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My husband is a really amazing business advisor, and that’s what he does in his life he creates and develops business. But when you’re a creative and you're a business person, and obviously we are both invested in this company, we are both shareholders in this company. We tend to butt heads a lot. He does give a lot of really good advice I just have to think I came up with it myself. Because I’m creative, and a little bit out there, a little bit here there and everywhere, he’s a really great person to bounce ideas off but he is very opinionated. It doesn’t always go down well, I’m sure he’s given me lots of great advice over the years.
17. Can you give me an example of something valuable you’ve learned from your business relationship?
He’s the one who said to me, don’t go chasing the awards. It’s a waste of focus and a waste of time, for a prize. Don’t put your heart into something that comes down to personal taste, don’t get too attached.
18. Where do you see your brand in five years?
At the moment I have one person who works for me full time, and she's amazing. I’d like to have a showroom, I want to have built bigger wholesale accounts and numbers, and that’s naturally evolving especially over the last year. But I see myself focusing more on wholesale rather than point to point retail. More business to business relationships rather than orders for individual customers. I think there is a real opportunity to for what I do to be bigger and expand it in a wholesale relationship. That’s where i see it going. But when it comes to the fashion in such a niche industry though, if you can still be doing what you’re doing I think you’re really blessed.
I’m really lucky to have what I do already. If we don’t grow, and we’re still there doing what we love, then that’s enough as well. You can’t ask for much more than that.
19. What advice would you give to any other creatives starting in your position?
Just be prepared to work really hard, and if you want it to be easy then go work for somebody else, and go to work at 9 in the morning and go home at 5. But if you want to have your own thing and have it for life, you have to be prepared to put the hours in, and sometimes it’s really really hard. Sometimes I wake up and I realise I won’t be able to do anything creative today because I have to pay accounts, I have to order materials, I have to chase up things, pay my GST, there's a whole lot more than just having that creative outlet. If you’re not prepared to do all the boring stuff, then don’t expect to do all the fun stuff as well. I popped down to NZ fashion week earlier this year, and I saw a number of young designers who were really arrogant and behaving really poorly. There’s a lot to say about being humble, and honest and kind. I think it really goes a long way. If you put in the effort the results will come, even if it doesn’t at least you know you gave it 100%.
20. Do you have a favourite piece at the moment?
No, but I have got some really cool pieces coming up that I am really looking forward to getting stuck into. I’m really looking forward to working with a client in Australia who’s really well known, kind of a fashionista. So i’m really looking forward to getting stuck into her piece as it’s really different, and really creative. I’m doing more work with gelatin this season and just keeping evolving, one step ahead.
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