How Francesca King went from the costume department in the film industry to launching NZ-made brand, Smith & Western

This Queenstown-based designer has charted a course to success by creating a lifestyle brand straight from her heart. 

Words: Leanne Moore  Photos: Helen Bankers

Who: Francesca King, founder and director of Smith & Western, a clothing and lifestyle brand
Where: Smith & Western stores in Arrowtown and Ponsonby, and online at

Q: Why and when did you launch Smith & Western?

I was always interested in working creatively for myself and generating my income. I grew up with super-creative parents. My mum is artist Virginia King and my dad, Mike, is an architect, builder and creative. Growing up in Ponsonby in the 1970s, creating art and objects from original thought was encouraged in a dynamic and multicultural community full of charismatic and passionate characters. My parents and their friends worked hard, but they also wanted to change society, in line with their beliefs about freedom of thought and action.

After finishing an arts degree, I went into the film industry, working as “key costume” (an industry term), running some of the central wardrobe units on productions such as Hercules, Xena: Warrior Princess and Lord of the Rings. It was a formative time of my life, working alongside some amazing industry people, many of whom are still my closest friends.

By 2001, I was living in Queenstown with my partner Sebastian Smith and our new baby Lucia. I was still doing some film work on smaller features and commercials. My restless nature kicked in, and I designed and made a range of clothes, held an invite-only event and everything sold. The Smith & Western label was born.

Q: What is it about the work that makes you excited?

I like creative problem-solving, refining the beauty in a garment or a space, without making it feel manicured. I enjoy the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, such as reworking a pattern to get it right or sourcing treasures from obscure places. I love creating an aesthetic that goes with the clothing, a feeling of the life we all want to be living.

Q: What qualities do you need to start a business?

The Buddha in her office is a “reminder to take a moment”.

Tenacity, a love of what you do, and belief that if you work hard, you will succeed. At the same time, you have to have trust in others, engage them in your vision, and not be wholly consumed by your work. Raising a family (our son Marley was born in 2006) and running a business challenges the
work-life balance. You also need to keep yourself healthy in mind and body while on the journey.

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Q: What financial challenges did you face in the early days?

In the beginning, I continued my freelance work in commercials and film. The first big job paid me enough to buy fabric and make a small range. I remember how excited and anxious I felt going into production at a factory. Everything had to be paid for upfront, and the scale of the bills was next-level. I had to have faith that the range would sell.

Luckily for me, it did. But if there were ever any mistakes or production issues, the losses did hit home. The precariousness elevates as the business grows and you go further out on a limb but, over time, you get used to “tree climbing”.

Q: Do you need to be a risk-taker?

Cooking is another way for her to relax. “As a family, we eat mostly vegetarian meals, so there is a lot of colour and creativity in my cooking.”

I’ve never felt that it was a risk. You need to evaluate risk continually and hope you make the right decisions. Running a small business is tough. They don’t usually have a lot of fat in them, and they have to be run carefully.

Q: What was your big break?

Francesca loves climbing the hill on the couple’s as-yet-undeveloped rural block to enjoy the views.

There wasn’t a defining moment. I have always been quite low-key, operating under the radar as a designer, but there was a point when I realized I had a significant following. The reward is that Smith & Western is a loved, self-sufficient brand that is still made in New Zealand after 20 years.

Q: Did you have any moments of self-doubt?

Yes, absolutely. Perhaps self-doubt is the curse of the creative, but it can also provide the inspiration to overcome challenges. But you need to be more than a creative to survive in a business landscape, especially in a fashion and retail environment.

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Q: What was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

Wherever she is, whether it’s at home in Queenstown, or in her Auckland office and apartment, Francesca surrounds herself with plants of all varieties. She believes plants have an uplifting effect.

Keeping the dream alive and continuing to work while raising two young children. The hurdles continue as your team grows – there is just more to take care of. You are never really off-duty. I learned to be like water, moving with and around the obstacles that came my way. That’s still my rule.

Q: Have you experienced burnout?

Life can be stressful and hard at times. Running two stores in different parts of the country has been tricky to maintain while raising a family, but it’s also given us some fantastic lessons in freedom and independence. For me, it requires a lot of commuting between Queenstown and Auckland.

Q: Have you ever considered giving up? 

The other recurring themes in her interiors, both at work and home (like her Auckland apartment, pictured), are a combination of diverse pieces, textiles in soft earthy tones, wood and white walls. “I aim to create a sense of calm and grace, then step back and observe the result.”

No. But I have considered curbing the way I work. The thought of simplifying the business and reducing the overheads and complexities that are part of Smith & Western’s growth and expansion has some appeal. To me, that would not be giving up but a move to redefine what I want from the brand. In saying that, I have never been good at slowing down.

Q: Have you ever had a business mentor?

Yes, in the first few years. I have always been open to advice, new directions, and evolving how I work. But some of my most influential mentors have not been business people. It’s been my parents, their friends, my brothers, friends and lovers, who have all taught me along the way. Philosophy and spirituality have also offered guidance.

Q: How important are holiday breaks?

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In an ideal world, I would take more holidays as good things come from them. Taking a break allows me to be more objective about how I’ve been operating and see things more clearly. My dream holiday is beach time with my family and no internet, lots of sunshine, falling in and out of the sea, walking on the beach, talking, reading, drinks at sunset and making beautiful food – just enjoying the simple things in life.

Q: How do you take care of your physical health and mental wellness?

The best way for me to relieve stress and cultivate inner happiness is with exercise and spending time with my family. They make me laugh and support me. Being outdoors is something we treasure and value as a way to keep calm and connected. I need to be outside every day, walking or biking in the bush or by the water. I’m sure my love of the outdoors comes from spending a lot of time camping at the beach as a child. Yoga is a must-have in my life, and I find cooking calming and cathartic.

Q: How do you stay connected to family and friends?

The next project for Francesca and partner Sebastian is to build a home on land they own near Coronet Peak. For now, they have a caravan on the property, allowing them to spend time there whenever they can. “We like the idea of living more simply and enjoying life more.” 

I make it a priority. Friends and family are what matters most to me. I get to see my treasured family and friends in Auckland when I’m visiting for work, and my diverse Queenstown friends help to keep the work-life balance. Laughter with them is the best medicine.

Q: How do you define success?

Success is being happy in what you do and having a balance between your work and other things that make your life joyful. Being creatively fulfilled is hugely important to me. Being healthy is at the top of the list, too. Without that, there is no success.

Q: What was your vision for Smith & Western? 

Initially, it was to create the clothing I wanted to wear. I felt something was missing in the market at the time, and it turned out that this resonated with others. Having worked in film for many years, I wanted to design pieces that were practical and beautiful, with a great cut – clothing for getting things done while still looking good. Smith & Western was just an extension of myself at the time and still is. Some clients have been with me since the start almost 20 years ago.

Q: Does your work make you happy?

Yes, when things are running smoothly. I love it when we get a garment right, creating a critical piece that people treasure, something that lasts for years. Equally, I enjoy expanding on the vibe and atmosphere of the brand with homewares. My aim has always been to design something that provides a sense of happiness.


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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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