The early years
Back in 1985/86 a friend, Geoff White asked me if I'd have a go at making him a few wetsuits. He was sales manager for Allan G Mitchell and had the South Island as his territory. At that time wetsuits were a new item in their product line—initially they were imported from the United States and then they starting making them in Auckland. He'd tell me how they would sell out as soon as they came in and that they were always delivered late (not to mention other problems with supply). Geoff knew there was a gap in the market, and that demand would only increase as kiwi water sport enthusiasts cottoned on to the wetsuit revolution.
I had been in the backpack manufacturing business since 1975, starting TAZ Backpacks and building it up over 9 years. At TAZ we made small Uni-style backpacks—not exactly wetsuits. But being a doer type of person who loves 'making stuff' (my favorite toy as a kid was my meccano set), when Geoff asked me about wetsuits I thought, 'let's give this a go.' I sold the business and then in June 1987 we started the Canterbury Wetsuit Company.
Feeling nervous but excited about our new project, we got ready to start figuring out how to actually make make wetsuits. And then BANG: mere months later the 1987 share market crash hit New Zealand. Wetsuits were still relatively new—not many people had them as they'd only been in New Zealand stores since about 1985—and we were worried. But things picked up and so did the fun bit, making wetsuits.
At first we simply didn't know what to do. We had to work everything out from scratch: neoprene, patterns, machines, processes and all the bits in between. However we'd heard how good Yamamoto limestone neoprene
from Japan was, so we took the punt and ordered a shipment direct to Lyttelton. We also ordered another lot from Sheico in Taiwan.
Having neoprene meant we could actually face our first order: 300 kid's spring suits for R&R Sports. We found a factory; we took on staff; we bought sewing machines (an overlocker, Zig Zag and a straight sewer); and we made patterns and samples. Then we made the order for summer delivery. It took us a few months.
Next we tackled adult models and styles, learning and experimenting with designs as we went. At this stage our range of wetsuits were all sewn together using breatheable seams
—basically summer-style wetsuits. We soon exhausted the Yamamoto neoprene so we got more, sewing a relationship that has continued until the present.
During these first few years we also started receiving torn and damaged wetsuits from shops and customers all over New Zealand. So we worked out how to repair wetsuits
—easier than it sounds but believe me, it took time.
Here, there & everywhere
Geoff's first sales trip of the South Island came back with orders from most of the retailers. Feeling stoked, we supplied all the orders and waited for reorders. Nothing happened. On the next sales trip we found out why. All our wetsuits had sold out but the retailers had previously indented other stock, and now that they'd arrived they didn't want to get any more until these sold. At this time the main opposition brands in New Zealand were Rip Curl and O'Neill. And RipCurl followers were very dedicated. They simply believed everything that RipCurl told them and would not listen to the new kids on their block.
However we soon found our niche. Surfers and other water sport punters in New Zealand wanted super warm wetsuits. And although our first models were relatively easy to make and great for the summer months they, like other brands, were simply not warm enough for the winter waters of the South Island. People wanted to score the uncrowded, optimum swells of the winter wearing the warmest models available... so we developed our glued and blindstitched (G&S) range, the 4/3 and the 5/3. We also developed a dive suit: the OffShore 7mm, made from diamond stud nylon. This sold well and, thanks to our construction methods and limestone neoprene, our winter models became recognized as exceptionally warm and very hard wearing suits.
By the mid-90s we'd not only developed our own models (like the Viper 3/3 Titanium ZB Steamer
which back then had a velcro neck-entry closure) but were producing wetsuits for other brands. Apollo dive suits for the Australian market were followed by Bodyglove in 1992 (this was before the Warehouse stocked them). Over 20 years later, these suits sometimes come back to us, not only in one piece, but in great condition.
Custom-fit, name changes, and adventures in Auckland
Around this time we were supplying wetsuits wholesale to approximately 30-40 shops across New Zealand. We were also getting swamped with requests to make custom-fit wetsuits
—wetsuits that actually fit more than just the standard sizes. These were difficult to do, especially as people's measurements were coming from an often-busy retailer not practiced in the fitting process.
Racks of slightly-off customs caused by not having direct contact with the customer was the catalyst to a major change in direction. As a result we decided to cut back on wholesale, take charge of the custom-fitting process and deal directly with the customer, and try and build a loyal customer base of our own. The business changed its name and Seventhwave Wetsuits was born.
Distribution became the key, so in July 1996 Seventhwave moved to its home for the next 14 years: Ferrymead. We finally had a shop of our own, complete with wetsuits, surf accessories, and real people to talk with. In fact, the development of the detachable hood system
on our neck entry models was thanks to a customer suggestion written on the back of a banking slip!
By the new millennium Seventhwave had grown. We had a full range of breathable and glued suits, were making customs for a larger number of customers, and even developed a snowboarding range (as you can see by our current website, it didn't last long). In 1999 I left Geoff to watch over Christchurch operations, packed my bags (and family) and made the trip north to Auckland, opening stores in Takapuna (2000) and Montego (2002).
Having survived Y2K, Seventhwave jumped online with the rest of the world, launching a basic website in November 2000 complete with tiny images, haphazard fonts and no online sales capabilities (e-commerce came to us a bit later). With the help of Dan Redman we also developed two of our most popular modern models: the Surf All Day Vest
and the MAX Titanium ZB Steamer
. Also around this time Geoff left Seventhwave for Trade Aid (he still brings us Trade Aid chocolate every so often)?????
The end of the beginning
I was really enjoying dealing directly with the public, so in the mid-2000s Seventhwave made the decision to focus on great customer service, custom-fittings, and making the warmest wetsuits possible. The building of a Dreamweaver website (with online shopping) and an extensive custom chart library at the Ferrymead store coincided with the closure of our Auckland stores and my move back to Christchurch.
The focus on directly meeting customer needs saw our custom-fit service streamlined into the easy process we offer today. A massive factor was the development of a better website that could provide our custom-fit option to people all around the world. This was done in late 2008, and finally launched in April 2009. We soon joined the social media craze and started a Facebook page
, making videos for YouTube
, and Tweets
became a normal part of our vocabulary. We also said goodbye to our Ferrymead store, moving to the Dyers Road shop
on 3 September 2010.
One day after moving to our new location, Christchurch was rocked by a massive 7.1 magnitude earthquake
—causing extensive damage to buildings and infastructure but without any loss of life. Thankfully our shop and staff escaped major damage, and we got on with settling in to our new home. Then the February 2011 earthquake
stuck. Sadly, it was far more deadly than September—killing 185 people and leaving the city in ruins. Again Seventhwave was lucky, a few scary moments and cracks in the pavement being the main extent of damage. However our local livelyhood—the ocean—was polluted and deemed unsafe for close to a year, causing a marked decline in local action.
Polluted surf only strengthened our resolve to create an exceptional, functional website serving those outside of New Zealand. At the time of writing (November 2012) Seventhwave gear has made people happy in over 20 countries
; our custom-fit service and Yamamoto limestone neoprene being a unique difference to most other wetsuit manufacturers. Back in New Zealand, people continue to turn to a company 100% locally owned and operated, and as long as water sport enthusiasts need wetsuits with maximum warmth and flexibility, the best custom fit and durability to match, Seventhwave will continue to please.
Paul and the Team @ Seventhwave