She set out to give New Zealand women the opportunity to wear the very highest quality cashmere in the world, without having to travel abroad to find it. And that’s exactly what Jo Lloyd has done – all from her Hawke’s Bay base. The entrepreneur, who started her business in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, explains her motivation – and how she fell in love with the luxury yarn dubbed ‘soft gold’.
“Have a feel!” offers Jo Lloyd, leaning over the table with one beautiful cashmere clad arm extended. “And look – I don’t say that to just anybody…”
Jo is the founder and owner of Modern Love Cashmere – a digital-first, ethical, and traceable cashmere garment business run out of her renovated villa in Napier South.
The super soft jumpers, capes, cardigans, scarves and socks are of the highest quality available to consumers anywhere in the world. But don’t ask Jo what the latest knitwear trends are, because she refuses to concern herself with that. “The whole ethos of my brand is delivering outstanding design, so women can slowly build a collection piece by piece,” she explains. “The garments last practically forever, and never date.”
Deeply entrenched in the world of fashion from a young age, Jo says she’s always been committed to buying carefully, buying once, and extending a garment’s life with meticulous maintenance and gentle laundering. She describes her childhood spent growing up within the many small towns and communities dotted around the east of the North Island. “Gisborne, Hastings, Dannevirke…” she recounts, admitting none of them was exactly a hub of haute couture. “But I’d save my pocket money and spend it on magazines like Elle, Vogue, and feast my eyes on the wonderful design of Prada and Dior.
“It was a time when all my friends were wearing those disgusting canvas kung fu shoes,” she continues, “but I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to be the same as everybody else. I had rainbow coloured ballet slippers. I think people thought I was a bit rebellious, but I saw that as a really good thing, and I decided to nurture that curiosity for fashion and see where it went.”
Jo left Hawke’s Bay bound for Wellington, gaining a degree in marketing, amassing enough in the savings account from her first job to head to London. Clothes were still a passion, but she was selective. “I remember buying a beautiful black blazer, and a stretch pencil skirt that I still own today,” she says. “My priority was to travel – to see the world and have adventures.”
Taking marketing roles in luxury resorts across the globe – including in Hong Kong and the Maldives – put Jo smack bang in the middle of the sort of clientele she would eventually cater to with Modern Love Cashmere. “Worldly, often privileged, and particular!” she says. “I met really interesting people but equally, some of the immensely wealthy could be absolutely awful to deal with.”
Back in New Zealand in the late 1990s, Jo took roles as the Australasian marketing manager for Qantas and as director of marketing for Harrisons, but the idea of working for herself and starting something new was always fermenting in her mind. “I left my last role, moved to Hawke’s Bay with my partner to be closer to family and friends, and really took the foot off the pedal to allow myself to think, and dream,” says Jo. “I knew personally, and was hearing anecdotally, that there was a gap in the market for cashmere.”
Jo already had her own curated collection of cashmere, each piece lovingly selected and purchased overseas. “My very first experience of cashmere was a pink sweater I found in New York when I was 23 – bought from a vintage boutique in Soho. Honestly, I felt like a supermodel when I wore it!” she says. “It had a real impact on me.”
But she says, she couldn’t get the same quality, softness and design aesthetic in New Zealand she was accessing abroad. It was time to do some research.
“I’d never been involved in manufacturing or importing,” says Jo. “So to begin with, I started to explore those avenues, really asking myself, ‘Is this something I can do?’ I needed to be sure I could source the cashmere yarn, and have the garments I wanted created, before I determined if there would in fact be a market for them.”
The quality of the yarn was “paramount”, says Jo, “and it was obvious to me that it had to come from inner Mongolia.” So, with the help of a friend in Shanghai, Jo began searching for a supplier who could fit her strict criteria and deliver her ethical, sustainable, traceable cashmere “right down to knowing which farm, and which goat it came from.”
Indeed, each goat has its own code, so batches of yarn are able to be followed back to the farm. And farming practices are also a priority. “That means better grassland management and controlling the number of goats being farmed.”
Manufacturing was her next challenge. “You can’t manufacture cashmere in New Zealand – it’s not possible,” Jo explains. “Even if there was someone doing it, the cost would be exorbitantly expensive, and nobody is going to pay $3,000 for a cashmere jumper! It took me a while, but eventually, I found the right manufacturer in China – a boutique firm that didn’t demand I order 500 of every piece in every colour, and somewhere that could knit my designs, with all the detail I required. I needed true craftsmanship.”
Finally, she engaged research company Colmar Brunton to establish whether the stylish women of New Zealand – and around the world – would wear her cashmere. Jo was determined not to fall into the trap countless others had – where a wannabe business owner’s confirmation bias gives them a false sense of security that their idea will fly.
“Cashmere is an expensive start-up – you buy the yarn by the gram!” says Jo with a laugh. “Yes, it was pricey to involve a third-party insights business. But the expense of investing in a website and buying the stock and kicking off the marketing, only to have the venture fail, would have been far greater.”
After working hard behind the scenes for a year, and using up a large chunk of savings, Jo debuted Modern Love Cashmere just ahead of winter 2021, and right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Others might have baulked, but Jo was unflinching in her view that there would still be an appetite for cashmere. “It was actually quite timely – more and more people were shopping online, and mine is a digital brand,” she tells. “Also, people love to be cosy when they’re at home, so I made sure that alongside the more highly designed items, I also made comfortable, soft cashmere sweaters and pants for lounging in.”
Of course, Jo’s marketing background has been a great help when it comes to shooting campaigns, writing copy, working with photographers, and choosing models. “I have a strong sense of what I want, and who I like to work with.”
But there are challenges, and they are many, as with any business. “My raw costs have gone up exponentially,” Jo admits, “and I’m able to absorb them for now. Just. But that will change.”
Sometimes she can’t get the exact colour she wants. “For instance, all the greys my manufacturer could supply were too dark and too harsh against the skin. So I had them create a soft, bespoke grey for my pieces, which was a big investment. But I love the shade, my customers love it, and it’s completely unique to Modern Love Cashmere – mine and mine alone.”
An at-home business works for now, says Jo, with warehousing facilities offsite to house stock. She’s sometimes asked about the possibility of a bricks and mortar retail store but that isn’t on the cards at this stage. “I’ve set myself strict KPIs, and I adhere to the stringent business plan I set myself at the very beginning of my journey.”
At each fork in the road, Jo says she is able to refer back to her original goal – of being a 100% self-sustaining business that never compromises on quality. And so far, it’s working.
Her special garments – ranging in price from under $100 (socks and scarves) to over $600 (intricate textured cape) are coveted by women near and far. There are loose plans afoot to expand the range – perhaps into babywear, or a handful of men’s styles – but Jo’s in no rush. After many heady years in the corporate world, the slower pace of life, and the flexibility of having her own business, is suiting her well. “I love to sleep in,” she says with a smile. “It’s still a thrill not to have to be awake at dawn’s crack each day! But I do tend to work almost every day.”
“The main thing for me is to maintain the lovely balance I’ve found between doing what I love and making a business work,” she decides. “And for me, that means great business partners and suppliers and very few employees. And having time to travel, go to Pilates twice a week, live life, be with friends. Things that are meaningful to me.”
Photo: Florence Charvin