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Josie Bidwill scorns suggestions her patterned organic cotton undies could be made in Vietnam or somewhere similar. She cheerfully insists that if her label Thunderpants is sold in New Zealand they should be made in New Zealand and they should be as sustainable as possible.
She chats to John Bristed about how she began the business.
Thunderpants? Why Thunderpants?
Because that’s what we used to call them at school.
“Underpants that don’t go up your bum” – where did that come from?
Our Thunderpants are cut for women by women, with enough fabric to actually cover the bum, so they stay where they’re meant to be, and if they don’t …!
You’re a Wairarapa farm girl. How did you move into making clothes?
I’ve always been a maker, right from five or six I was making things. I liked stitching things. My grandmother taught me how to make little felt mice, and I made so many of them that later I managed to buy myself a ticket to London. Then at school I was interested in design on fabrics so I did a lot of screen printing.
What’d you do when you left school?
I went to Christchurch for my six-week university career. I ended up in kitchens. My mother taught me well and I had quite a good career in kitchens until my early 30s and then I decided that working in hospitality was incredibly antisocial and quite bad for me. I went back to my original passion which was textile design. I was living in Port Douglas (Queensland) at the time, and screen printing things for the tourist market there, and I soon became limited by my lack of skill, and came back to New Zealand and went back to school. I went to Nelson where I had two sisters, and studied clothing and textile design for three years as a mid-30s student, which was great; a really good time to study. We were allowed into the classroom at any time and had our own keys; I pretty much spent three years in that building. I loved it.
During the second year there was a lingerie component. Victoria McKenzie, my flatmate at the time, and I started making undies – we were screen printing them at the polytech – and gave some away for birthday presents. People wanted more, and when I was at home for the holidays, my mother drove Victoria and me to Levin with $30 each in our pockets and took us to the Levana factory shop, where we spent those dollars on fabric, and that’s how we began making our things. People wanted to buy them. Then in the third year of the polytech course there was a business component, so I used Thunderpants and set it up as a real business.
It was hilarious trying to persuade the bank manager that “comfy, styly undies that don’t go up your bum” was a viable business model. That was twenty something years ago.
Do you think women need to change their approach to careers and money?
I’m not sure women need to change their approach – maybe men need to change their approach to women.
How did you sell those first undies?
In our holidays we’d do road trips throughout New Zealand, with the mocked-up cardboard display units, photocopied packaging, and hand printed sample garments and get orders from shops to back up the loan request to the bank. Advertising was word of mouth and guerrilla paste-ups in cities, plus we had an exhibition of our printed undies that got national press coverage – some good, some not so much: mail order was done literally by mail or telephone.
What did you do after Polytech?
I moved home to the Wairarapa. Victoria was in Auckland, so I took over the company debt and the company. A couple of years later my sister Sophie joined the business and we haven’t looked back since.
How did you get started?
I opened a weekend shop in Martinborough in a hairdresser’s premises. I hired the shop for $20 a day, and for six weekends in a row went in on Friday evening and moved the old barber’s chair and all the furniture around and I turned the hairdresser into an underpants shop for Saturday mornings and then on Sunday nights back into a hairdresser so they could use it on Monday.
On the strength of those six weekends we opened Thrive, a full-time shop in Martinborough, which we ran for eighteen years. We stocked all sorts of fabulous New Zealand labels alongside Thunderpants, and our own Thrive label, which we designed and had made in New Zealand as well. Thrive grew and there came a point where we needed to decide if we were to be fashion people or underpants people. We chose Thunderpants because it was less risk, more potential, we already had a niche market, and for our own sanity which was really quite high on the list.
Where are your customers from?
Closing our physical store and moving all our sales online was the best business decision ever. We lost a third of our turnover overnight and found that bigger is not always better. By the end of the first year our were back to roughly the same turnover with less stress, fewer working hours, steady cashflow, and more money in the bank.
Our customers are all over New Zealand and Australia. We wholesale all around New Zealand; it doesn’t make us any money, but it does get the product in the face of new customers. We look at it like paid advertising.
To export we separated the company into a trading company and an intellectual property company and now Thunderpants NZ, Thunderpants USA, and Thunderpants UK or wherever, make under licence, and pay a royalty to our IPC.
We’ve now got these people overseas who sell our product, and we’ve never even met them. We’ve never skyped or telephoned, we’ve done it all with emails. We’re friends on Facebook though.
Why don’t you manufacture overseas? It might be cheaper.
There is a huge difference between New Zealand-made and New Zealand-designed. It’s really important that we support New Zealand manufacturing. Our undies are sewn in Carterton. Sandra, the business owner, has worked with us for 20 years and her business has grown with ours. I constantly want to educate people on the importance of buying New Zealand-made quality products, or at least understanding what goes into it and the benefit of buying New Zealand-made. Directly and indirectly we employ seven people in Martinborough, seven in Carterton and more in Auckland, where we’re very keen to keep our primary screen-printer going.
We are proud to be a provincial rurally-based company in an urban type of industry, and it would be awesome if there were incentives from the government to encourage more businesses like this in the provinces.
Should we have a buy NZ-made rule for the Government such as they’re trying in Queensland?
I think that uniforms for police and so on should have some New Zealand component.
We’ve lost nearly all our manufacturing base and it’s sad. It would be much harder to start up now. In the past 20 years the ability to get smallish quantities of fabric printed or these buttons or those zips has almost disappeared. Creativity shouldn’t be defined by cost. We used to muck around trying things and it might cost $50; these days to do the same thing might cost ten times as much.
Nobody knits cotton here anymore. We get our cottons shipped in from Australia which is good because we use a stretch material made of 90% fair-trade cotton and 10% spandex, there are a lot of processes, and it’s highly scientific. They’re putting a lot of work into developing our product to a better standard.
How did you learn about that?
I’ve just picked it up over the years. I don’t know exactly how they do it, but I know when it’s right or not. They’re a team of keen young guys.
You said you are as “green as possible”. How?
We’re zero waste. We send no offcuts to landfill – rather give them away to crafters. And we sell bags of scrap at pretty much freight-only prices. Our bundle ties become garden ties.
Did you have pocket money as a child?
No, I made things and sold them, as well as doing jobs and pinching Dad’s loose change out of his pockets.
I know you think it’s important to be philanthropic.
Yes, very. We’re always getting asked for undies, and every year we do a thing called Philanthropants, a two-month campaign. And for two years we’ve done it with All Good bananas, supporting Kaibosh, and this last season we teamed with Pakaraka Permaculture, small-plot farmers in the Thames area, supporting Project Grow which creates community gardens around New Zealand. We, ridiculously, gave away more in money and product last year, than dropped out the bottom as profit.
Did you have trouble borrowing money from that bank manager?
I got turned down by multiple bank managers. It had to be underwritten by my father really. But we got rid of that quite quickly and since then it’s always been growth on cash flow. It’s only since we’ve bought property and built a building here that we’ve actually been in a borrowing situation.
What do you invest in other than Thunderpants?
My twelve-year-old daughter.
Did your attitude to money change once you became a parent?
Yes. I’d been single for a long time, and been able to whip off here and there and do whatever I liked, but as soon as there were two dependents, because my partner hasn’t been able to work much because of his health … but he’s getting back into his groove.
Have you got health insurance?
Have you got a Kiwsaver account?
Do you invest in shares?
No but I quite fancy the idea. Wait until I get rid of my mortgage.
What made you motivated to work so hard?
Being self-employed is much preferable to working for someone else. I think I’m unemployable now.
There must have been some stressful times?
The mantra, when the world gets a bit out of perspective, is “It’s only pants”.
Where do you go from here?
Maybe some more customers in Australia would be good. There’s Europe to do – that will be under licence though – and it could involve quite a lot of travelling. We’ll like that.