28-year-old fashion designer Amber Pinto says the point of difference of her womenswear label Amber Whitecliffe is the fabric. As a “fabric magpie” (with a passport!), she is drawn to high quality one-of-a-kinds that she sees on her travels around the globe.

At the back of her boutique in Parnell, the fabric sits in a growing nest with rolls and rolls of previously collected materials. They wait for the imminent moment when Amber’s intuition that the cloth will release something beautiful proves to be right.

But unlike the proverbial magpie, Amber never steals the striking things that she sees on her travels. Respecting the line between inspiration and cultural appropriation, she is careful to only take snippets from a culture.

In her Mrs. Pinto range and Aroha range she also named her garments with Portuguese and Māori words, which was a small step in learning about the cultures. Marrying her Portuguese-Indian husband one and a half years ago, and looking more at her own Māori culture after the passing of her father, opened Amber’s mascaraed eyes wider to the beauty of other cultures. And she’s still taking it all in.

“There’s just so much richness from cultures that you can put into creative elements, so it’s a great way to start. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a good way to learn,” she says.

Amber’s dark lashes are splayed like butterfly wings and accentuate her attentive eyes. She’s somebody for whom fashion is a means of personal expression, and she is constantly observing and admiring the world – and people – around her.

It makes you wonder how much of her upbringing might have influenced her aesthetic. Having grown up in a creative environment – her parents founded the Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design – Amber has always been surrounded by art. Though she denies much formal education in art history besides looking at the works of Piet Mondrian, and says there aren’t any art periods that particularly sway her work, she believes she has probably been subconsciously influenced by it all.

Amber is an incredibly visual person, and her creative process starts with her eyes, as she gathers swatches of fabric and assembles an interesting colour palette. But when it comes to listening to her customers, she’s all ears.

“My main philosophy is the customer comes first, which is what you learn in most retail jobs and I’ve worked in retail since I was 14. And that’s so true because they’re the people that make you successful. You really have to listen to your customers because you learn so much about your brand.”

This openness to feedback in conjunction with her work ethic has led to her finding her niche in the NZ fashion industry.

“I love tailored things. I love things that fit a woman’s body. Because [my business is] small I can offer my custom-made and made-to-measure. Which is really cool because it’s really hard to find, and no woman fits into a size any more. Everyone is different, and everyone’s body changes as well.”

An understanding of the female form and how to best flatter it is something she learned during her fashion degree, and took to heart. Designing clothes that will highlight her customers’ best features makes it easier to nudge them into leaving their comfort zones and try designs they might have been hesitant about, and it helps empower them to feel confident.

Helping others is all a part of the bigger picture of where Amber wants to take her label in the future. Recently she held a fashion show fundraiser showcasing her latest high summer 2015/2016 collection The Garden City, inspired by Christchurch’s botanical beauty.

“Everyone that came had to donate to Tearfund, and we had a raffle and stuff. It was really good to be able to give back,” says Amber with a grin. “Hopefully as I grow and become profitable, I can give to causes like that so that it’s not just about fashion and about clothes, but that it’s really about helping women feel good.”

5 Tips for Aspiring Fashion Designers


#1. Treat your customers like gold

Even if they just buy a candle, they should be appreciated and thanked. Amber tries to remember all her customers and keeps a record of what they buy, what event the purchase was for, who made the purchase if it was a gift… it means a lot that someone is willing to buy your garment.

#2. Get some work experience

As well as allowing you to try out different roles – because there are so many roles you can do in fashion besides designer (there’s styling, marketing etc) – work experience can help you learn and develop the skills and qualities that you need to be able to start your own label. Prior to opening up her boutique, some of the many things Amber did was work in retail, work at a textile wholesaler, blogged, and worked with designers like Trelise Cooper, all of which gave her insight into the different facets of the fashion industry.

#3. Be resourceful

You have to budget wisely when you start off. When Amber has expensive fabric, she panels it or uses it for detailing in the clothes so that she can still make the design interesting (it also means people don’t have to pay a fortune for the garment!). Social media is saturated with ads, so if you don’t have a huge amount of money to invest, word of mouth is still the most important way of getting your brand out there. Amber also now always wears Amber Whitecliffe clothes to promote her clothes.

#4. Loyalty matters

When it comes to the candles and jewellery brands she sells in her store, Amber thinks loyalty is important. Once you’re with a brand, you should stick to loyalty of that [brand] and not chop and change all the time,” says Amber. “I think that just shows consistency and shows that you’re a loyal person to work with.”

#5. Be authentic

People can see through fake recommendations that have only been made due to sponsorships. You should love the products you advertise/sell. If you genuinely enjoy using the products you endorse, then it’s not difficult to stay loyal to them, either!