I had the privilege and delight to meet Peri Drysdale, an exceptional woman, a Kiwi, and a pioneer of sustainable fashion. She is the founder of Untouched World, an absolutely iconic New Zealand brand.
Peri was the guest speaker at the One Summit Fashion Revolution that I co-hosted. She took us through her 20-year journey to building a sustainable brand. I was utterly inspired. Here’s a little bit about her and the Untouched World story.
Untouched World started back in 1981 as Snowy Peak. The origin story of the brand starts with Peri leaving her career in specialist medicine to become a stay-at-home mum with two babies. But with a low tolerance for boredom, and the kids being a bit older she put her “free brain and energy space” to good use.
“Although it seems common now, in the 70s, no one was making beautiful wool garments out of our sheep,” she says.
“New Zealand was shipping our unprocessed wool offshore and our meat in whole carcasses, along with butter and milk powder.
“I decided that we needed to add value to our primary product. I thought if I developed our wool into beautiful items and wrapped the New Zealand values around these – that relaxed idyllic lifestyle – then people from other parts of the world would like to have a part of that.”
It turns out she was right.
Peri, who grew up in Canterbury’s rural Rakaia Gorge, started with capital of just $200, no business practice whatsoever and no idea how to knit. So she recruited 10 outworker knitters and subsequently grew the team to 500 within four years!
Within six months they went from toddler handknits to adult knits, and the first of Snow Peak’s fibre and yarn innovations were being developed. By 1983 they were exporting to the USA, followed by Australia. Ten years later and they were exporting to Japan, Canada, Europe and other Asian countries. In 1995, the undyed, certified organic wool collection was launched under the brand name Untouched World.
Here was a young Kiwi woman traveling around the world to market fine wool clothing, using her intellect – and I can tell you she is razor sharp – that Kiwi DIY attitude and a thick skin. Remember, in 1995, the term sustainable fashion didn’t even exist.
It was during Peri’s travels that she identified the need to create these products ethically.
“I had become extremely concerned about the trajectory the planet was on. I could see environmental degradation going on, with governments and businesses talking only of GDP and the financial bottom line. I wanted a brand that would model a new way of doing business, that would highlight that style and quality could be achieved without pollution to water and air and filling landfills.”
I just want to make a point here – a lot of people travel around the world for their business, fashion or what not. Many see what Peri has seen and still, they choose not to change. It takes courage to do business differently, to stand out, to choose the right way.
Untouched World looks at every aspect of the business, she says.
“That means considering the total life impact of what we produce, from the sustainably grown fibres we use, to our GOTS certified organic dyes and water-based prints, right through to how our team dispose of their banana skins after lunch. We look at the total product life cycle and work hard to minimise our water use and maximise recycling and waste recovery.”
Peri was incredibly strategic, too. Not only did she think about how to take New Zealand-made to the world, as well as change the fast fashion industry model, but doing so with a product that would get the message out to important people. And it worked!
As well as being influential locally – time and time again Untouched World is selected as the best of New Zealand with, for example, gifts for dignitaries, celebrities and royals – Peri has worked with Bill Clinton, and the Clinton Global Initiative, led and spoken at conferences at the United Nations and APEC conferences and been involved with UNESCO in the area of education for sustainable development (ESD) in relation to the Untouched World Foundation. And let’s not forget that famous shot of the previous (and sorely missed) President of the United States, Barack Obama in an Untouched World jersey.
The Foundation delivers groundbreaking sustainability leadership programmes for young adults, and in 2015 was honoured by UNESCO in Paris as one of three global exemplars in ESD, and one of 25 best projects in the world for education for sustainable development. Peri seems more proud of setting up the foundation because of how it nurtures Kiwi talent, rather than its global accolades.
Peri says the focus now is to establish the Untouched World programmes overseas, starting in India in partnership with the Mahatma Ghandi Institute and UNESCO. “It is a lot of work, but I always reflect that that is what we set out to do, to reach the ears and eyes of people who could effect change.”
I asked her how being a Kiwi was beneficial in the fashion world at a time where people had barely heard of New Zealand. She said it was exactly that can-do Kiwi attitude and an almost naivety that helped.
“We’re such a non-hierarchical society that we’re not easily intimidated, and so I just kept going and going. Many times, I have had to put aside my conservative, don’t-rock-the-boat farming background, develop a thick skin, and ask for help.”
It hasn’t always been easy, she concedes.
“Building a legacy brand is really worth getting out of bed for in the morning and drive, belief and passion will carry you through many seemingly insurmountable challenges.”
There are so many sustainable fashion brands out there started by inspired and intelligent women who are creative, innovative and caring, but otherwise inexperienced in the business of fashion. Peri has led the charge here.
Can you believe that this seasoned businesswoman, who has grandkids, says there is still much to do? She still displays all the signs of a low threshold for boredom!
While new stores are opening, Untouched World is looking at innovative new fabrics and will continue to create beautiful, high-quality garments that capture the New Zealand lifestyle.
For me, the following anecdote sums up what Peri and Untouched World are doing. She was once told at the turn of the millennium that Untouched World was ahead of its time, to which she replied: “Someone has to be, or there will never be ‘a time’.”
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Title image of former President Barack Obama wearing Untouched World Estuary Zip Front in the White House. Credit: Untouched World.