Designing online retail spaces with New Zealand studio Sons and Co.

Published:  March 1, 2016


Founded in 2008 by Matt Arnold and Tim Kelleher, Sons & Co. is a Christchurch-based web studio of four, ranking good design and simplicity above all else.

With a folio boasting original work, it was the studio’s online boutique for New Zealand fashion designer Beth Ellery, built by Greg Brown, that caught desktop’s attention.


In the online retail space, visiting feels like coming up for air. With an uncluttered structure, large-format photography plus a clever navigational click-through, Sons and Co. makes the whole thing look easy.

Matthew Arnold, co-founder of Sons and Co. reflects on the project, and designing content as interface.

Words by
Matthew Arnold

Website design by Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery.

Website design by Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery.

The client and the context

Beth Ellery is a designer whose commercial success is inversely proportional to her critical acclaim. In the book New Zealand Fashion Design, Ellery is referred to as “the fashion designer’s fashion designer”. Her timeless garments have been exhibited in New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, and held in the collection of the New Zealand Fashion Museum. Yet she manages to remain, in her words, “an epic fail”.

Ellery is a lovely, modest, talented woman making garments by hand in New Zealand – a country a long way from anywhere. Her process is creatively rewarding, but it’s a tough way to make a living, and potentially financially ruinous. But her response has always been to shrug her shoulders, smile and keep on making clothes.

Unusually for a fashion designer, Ellery doesn’t follow fashion closely and is amusingly unaware of what’s going down the catwalk and circulating within the industry. She works the same way she always has: in a tiny workroom at the back of her Auckland house, with two young children climbing over the top of everything and an underlying system of chaos and disorder.

We’ve known Ellery for over 10 years – she’s a friend – and in all that time we’ve never spoken about a website. She’s never had one and isn’t really the computer-y type at all. But she bought her first laptop last year after making the hard decision to break from the established model of selling her designs through boutiques and to go it alone, online. That’s when she called. Actually, she emailed, and then called to say, “I sent you an email, but I don’t know how to check if you replied.”

Unless a designer has the means or opportunity to set up their own retail store, they typically sell through other people. But retailers often add a margin of 100 percent or more to clothing, while the designer’s profit is minuscule. It was heartbreaking for Ellery to see her clothes with price tags that were unaffordable to most, while she herself struggled to make a living. Her idea to sell online wasn’t groundbreaking, but it made sense. With a website, she could drastically reduce the retail cost of her clothing, make a proper and deserving profit, and have more direct contact with her customers.

Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery_004

Website design by Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery.

The brief

The brief from Ellery was a little unusual, but all the better for it. It wasn’t a list of functional or technical things, and had no references or a particular graphic feel, but was instead a statement about herself. The brief to us (which became part of the text on her website) was this:

“After studying architecture, I sidestepped and began a career in fashion under the guidance of Marilyn Sainty, starting my own label in 2002. In Marilyn’s workroom I learned traditional tailoring techniques and an appreciation for natural materials needed to create modern clothing of the highest standard.

“My collections remain limited: they’re small – very low key, without fanfare – but I try very hard to make them as good as I possibly can. Instead of a collection based on a look or narrative, I like clothing that is more about the wearer and less about the development of a theme. In some ways it’s easy to make elegant and classical clothes because these designs already exist. And on the other hand it’s not too difficult to be original, as anything goes. But my hope is to make clothing that is both elegant and original.

“All Beth Ellery garments are handmade in New Zealand by skilled and trusted craftswomen, which, I think, accounts for their quality. It’s a slow and expensive process, but the standard of production here is extremely high and I don’t want to sacrifice that. I’ve been designing, making and selling clothes in this way since the very start.

“My hope? In 20 years’ time I still want to be making things that are new and interesting to me. I would like the label to continue to grow, slowly, and end up with an archive of beautiful clothing and a good bunch of satisfied customers and friends.”

The direction

We loved the brief. It was typical of Ellery, who is an extremely polite and gentle non-conformist, and we didn’t approach the job any differently to any other that arrives at the studio: we talked over coffee, discarded a lot of silly ideas (the obvious, the ridiculous and the unoriginal), talked some more, had a laugh, became distracted, gossiped for a while, then finally – when we realised how much time we’d wasted – got serious.

The whole thing had to be simple (there was no time or money for fanfare), which suits us fine. We like uncomplicated things. Quite often we’ll ask, “What’s the least we can do?” We’re not minimalists, nor are we lazy, but we are very enthusiastic about cutting corners. That’s not to say we’re prepared to compromise on quality, heaven forbid, but anything that is superfluous can happily go.

The design began with a system for photography – something that was easy for Ellery to set up and repeat (two seasons a year), forever. We decided on a rough and ready style that fashion designers have used forever: the creation of a quick lookbook – those flipbook previews of collections shown to buyers ahead of the season. The set-up is as straightforward as can be: find a light, sunny room (whatever space is free and available), lock off the camera and shoot all the garments on a model in various combinations and poses. Do some details to show off the workmanship, but no need for individual garment shots in a studio, no clear-cutting or fiddly post-production. And certainly no campaign or thematic imagery required.

Once we had a photography style, we worked on the website design itself. We always try our very best to create an original and memorable experience, something that is distinct and enjoyable to play around with. I guess you could call it UX (user experience) design, but we tend to shy away from the term as it’s fashionable, and creating an experience has always been a part of good design. It’s all just graphic design. Or graphic design for the screen, in our case.

We really enjoy the idea of content as interface, where website and work are intertwined, and the design is only complete once a person interacts with it. We’re quite opposed to the wireframe-first process, where design and content is added somewhere down the production line. That’s not us at all, we think and we write and we jump straight in to design. We like work that begins with an idea, where content precedes design, and the result is something new and surprising and beautiful.

Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery_002

Website design by Sons and Co. for Beth Ellery.

The result

Ellery’s website was awarded a Gold Pin at the New Zealand Best Design Awards and a Judges’ Choice award and Distinction at the AGDA Awards this year. We let her know the good news and she sent a text message saying, “I’m still coming to grips with having a website, let alone an award-winning one.” It’s a little project for a little business that, we think, made a difference.

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