Sara Munro could run her internationally acclaimed fashion brand Company of Strangers from anywhere. So she runs it from her hometown, Dunedin.
As a third-generation Dunedinite intent on running her fashion business from her hometown, it made sense for Sara Munro of Company of Strangers to set up in an historic building in the original business district.
“There’s a lot of history and historic buildings around here,” says Sara, standing in front of the majestic sash windows on the third floor of Victoria Chambers, which face out onto a sea of similarly elegant turn-of-the-century facades and rooftops.
“My grandfather used to have an office around here, years ago, when this was the business area filled with law firms and banks and the chief post office,” she says. “But then ‘town’ moved towards the Octagon, leaving all these places mostly empty for years. We had this whole building to ourselves for about five years. Now it’s starting to creep back, with people creating offices and apartments and artists’ studios.”
Company of Strangers has been based in this 100-year-old building since its conception. “We’ve been upstairs for a year and before that downstairs,” says Sara. “We just threw everything in the lift and moved up!”
A need for more space was the main catalyst for the move upstairs, as the original workroom was a warren of small, dark spaces, which didn’t suit Company of Strangers’ collaborative feel or the creative flow of a growing fashion brand.
“We’d been looking around, but then this building changed hands and the landlord suggested we move upstairs, agreeing to knock out all the walls for us. My grandfather remembers it being an accounting firm originally, but it had obviously had a series of ugly incarnations since then!” laughs Sara. “Everything was painted red and this deep, dark purple, it was pretty gross! We
just covered everything in white paint.”
These days the workroom is much more fitting of a fashion label. Large, bright and airy, it features artworks by current and former Dunedin artists, with plenty of space for desks, drawing and cutting tables, magazines, moodboards, racks of clothing and patterns, a revolving collections of retro furniture and knick knacks – and the Company of Strangers’ “plant hospital”.
“We’ve got quite a lot of plants,” Sara admits. “We have lots of plants in the store, but they don’t really get any sun, so this is like the plant hospital – we rotate them when they’re starting to look sick and bring them here to recuperate. But we get them from all over the place. I walk around the neighbourhood where I live and there’s heaps of cool succulents and things, and I just gather little bits, stick them in my pocket and keep walking, so I’ve propagated heaps of stuff.”
The same goes for the mostly mid-century vintage pieces that punctuate all that white space and contemporary art. “We kind of rotate stuff between the store and here and my home, every few months or when I get bored. We’re always going to auctions – there are quite good auctions here – and op shops, so you’re always picking up something.”
Art plays a strong part not only in the aesthetic of Company of Strangers’ store and workroom, but also as the inspiration for collections. As with so many elements of the brand, this stemmed from Sara’s determination to stay a loyal resident of Dunedin.
“We always start from something to do with art: a colour, a painting, a piece of work I’ve seen while travelling, or a photo I’ve found. When I was deciding what to study I originally wanted to go to art school and learn to be a photographer, but that would have meant moving and I wanted to be here at home – so I did fashion!” companyofstrangers.co.nz