Established in 1858, merchant wholesalers Bing, Harris & Co grew a manufacturing empire that became so greatly respected by its employees any of them seldom left.
That changed in 1979 when a shift in New Zealand’s import laws forced the hand of then CEO, Sir Christopher Harris, to restructure the business, put 1,100 people off the pay roll and announce a loss of more than $1 million.
Fast forward 33 years and Bing, Harris & Co is re-emerging as a fresh menswear brand with an on-trend design focus. Melbourne-based menswear designer Alistair Ramsay, who has been tasked with reinventing the brand, says he jumped at the chance after being head-hunted by the brand’s owner, Michael Beagley in January 2012.
When Ramsay first walked into the New Zealand flagship store in Albany, Auckland he admits “holding back the tears” at seeing his designs on the racks.
At age 15, Ramsay made his own jeans on his mother’s Springer sewing machine. He also created his own suit, and his then girlfriend’s dress for the school prom. It turned out the dress wasn’t the best made, and the suit was very bright because she’d dared him to make it in the same fabric. While the relationship didn’t last, his love affair with menswear did.
Ramsay studied fashion design at RMIT in Melbourne. At school, he was always in the graphic and art room, and finally decided he wanted to be an architect or do something creative that had a functional purpose.
“That’s when I started thinking about fashion. Unlike wall art, you can actually wear it. I geared everything I did in school towards that goal,” Ramsay says.
His goal is to make guys look good, describing Bing, Harris & Co as a “very city brand” with a “well crafted urban street edge.” Ramsay’s summer 2012 debut collection for Bing, Harris & Co drew on the brand’s heritage. Shirts with their sleeves rolled up secured by braces clips, are reminiscent of the Wiretwist “untearable, unshrinkable” shirt promoted by the brand in 1926.
“I want the brand to be based on the present, with a little snippet of the past,” he says.
The campaign for winter 2013 was shot in abandoned areas in Detroit. Ramsay has also collaborated with Soho, New York-based photographer Dylan Forsberg, whose prints feature on a few T-shirts in the collection. Other key pieces include denim shirts, hooded cable knits, camo drop crotch chinos, and a black leather “shirt jacket”.
“The range is inspired by the lone wolfs of the world, those people who walk their own path and block out the noise around them, true creative types, those that unintentionally shape popular culture,” Ramsay says.
Sir Christopher, who attended the official re-launch of the brand held at the Sylvia Park store, Auckland said he found it bizarre to be back in a world he left in 1980 when Bing, Harris & Co was bought out.
“People still remember Bing, Harris & Co,” Ramsay says.
“We’ve had people come into the Christchurch store that used to work in the store in Dunedin. There’s huge nostalgia and that’s what’s really cool about the brand.”