How the wheel has turned for fashion advertising – even in the last year since the pandemic hit. As retailers worldwide have all become to rely more on digital channels to communicate with their customers, it sometimes pays to look back and appreciate how far things have come since the advent of fashion advertising in the early 20th century up until now. 

Before the big old world wide web the biggest player in advertising for fashion was the printed medium – everything from newspapers to magazines. In many ways we are seeing retailers and designers really grab a hold of their destinies by communicating their brand stories directly to the customer.

But back in the day – before surge of imagery and fashion photogreaphy became the norm, retailers really had to look after themselves in house. The same was true for Thomas’s who once had their very own illustrator. She would come to work and hand draw apparel for printed ads.

FASHION ADVERTISING: Looking back and moving forward.

We talked to Michael Thomas – retail guru and grandson of the store’s founder J.E. Thomas – about what things were really like before Facebook and Instagram:

Advertising has changed at Thomas's over the years, hasn't it? As far as imagery is concerned?

"Well, the whole world has changed, and retailing adapts significantly. Originally, we had an artist here called Lily Wotton. And she used to sketch garments, and the express converted them into plates that they could print. And so, they formed the basis of the whole advertising and marketing campaign. So, yeah, a very different era, but in those days, it worked very well. Today, although it's still feasible to advertise like that, time has overtaken that sort of medium, and probably the cost too, because it would be an extremely expensive way of promoting goods."

How long would it take her to draw one outfit?

"Oh, it probably took her a couple of hours. But she was very talented artist. A little bit eccentric, which often those sort of people are, but very, very talented. She lived at Renwick and she would come to work every day, and not only did she sketch the garments, but she also wrote a lot of copy."


FASHION ADVERTISING: Looking back and moving forward.


How do you see the future of marketing heading?

"Well, the retail trade, particularly the apparel business in the part of the market where Thomas's operate, is a particularly tricky part of the business. And there's plenty of opportunities now, and there will be into the future, but it requires a great deal of skill because it's a very competitive market. You've got to have the right people to operate, and over the years, Thomas's has adapted. That's why it's still in business. Quite frankly, there's not many businesses like Thomas's left in New Zealand."


FASHION ADVERTISING: Looking back and moving forward.


Nowadays, a set of images created by a brand can be in the hands of retailers within minutes thanks to the digital age. And more and more the expectation is that brands and retailers support each other as much as they can in communicating a new collection. Designers typically provide what retailers call ‘collateral’ support for their new collection before it hits the racks and shelves of a store in the form of imagery or videos and the like. And the store now uses that collateral for their advertising or website.


FASHION ADVERTISING: Looking back and moving forward.


"Yeah, 100%. And in today's terms, if you don't have it, you're going to get left behind." Says Hamish Thomas. "And days gone by where we had to photo-shoot our own models or have staff create the marketing materials, those days are gone. It's like, it's still fine to go and do it. But it's the norm nowadays that the brands handle the collateral for retailers like us, so we can use it to market their product."

"If you look at most millennials, 27% of purchases are still done on a phone." Says Hamish. "It's not like they're sitting down at their desktop computer either. That's still being done, but generally people have got phones with them 24/7. And be able to send stuff out to a mobile device, through Instagram, Facebook, different forms of media, that's where everything's going. And you'd be able to click on those images, see what you like and then you buy it."

So things have changed. In some ways for the better - life is little more efficient. But it's still romantic to consider the good old days when everything was done in house and driven by a handful of talented people.

Stay tuned for more on the history of marketing at Thomas's.