About Us

During a week in which International Women’s Day was celebrated, business editor Sally Rae talks to Oamaru designer Mary-Jane Hyde about coping with cancer, launching a new knitwear label and surrounding herself with women.

 When Mary-Jane Hyde opened a designer fashion boutique in Oamaru in 2014, it seemed a bold move.

It was tucked away from the main shopping centre, and she was the busy mother of four young children.

Called Mrs Hyde, the boutique soon found favour with local fashionistas who appreciated the opportunity to source leading labels locally. It outgrew its small premises, moving to a larger space in the main street.

Its owner had always had a passion for fashion. Originally from Lower Hutt, Ms Hyde did a fashion design course in Wellington and worked as a pattern-maker for a bridal boutique.

She then headed to London and worked at the likes of Harvey Nichols and Selfridges, and then to Sydney where she was a pattern-maker for Dotti and other labels.

She started her own label but once she had children — particularly when she had four under the age of 5 — everything was put on hold.

After her three oldest children started school, Ms Hyde decided she needed to do something. Mrs Hyde was named after her late mother, who had six children and died from breast cancer aged 49.

Ms Hyde observed how people in the South usually wore the ubiquitous puffer-jacket during the colder winter months. If they invested in anything for winter, it tended to be a piece of knitwear.

She herself loved knitwear and found there were not many New Zealanders making it. She looked into getting knitwear produced in New Zealand and doing it through Mrs Hyde.

But knitwear factories were already very busy and she was turned away. She got some samples made but she was too busy with her business, complicated by a marriage break-up and subsequent sale of the property where the family lived.

And then, aged 46, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was at home alone when she discovered a lump in her breast on October 29, 2020, a day on which she should have been celebrating the six-year anniversary of opening Mrs Hyde.

She had had a mammogram five years previously and was supposed to have them yearly but they were so painful she tended to put it off. She thought it had only been two or three years since her last.

When she felt the lump, she "just knew" and she recalled being surprisingly calm. She only told her sister and a close friend.

"Even though my mum had cancer, I just thought it wouldn’t happen to me. I was in shock but I’d accepted it at the same time."

When Ms Hyde saw a specialist in Dunedin, she was accompanied by her friend and her sister who had flown down from Wellington.

"He had a special appointment for me because the clinic was closed. We had to wait outside. I remember looking over at the car park and saw this man who looked like a doctor. I looked at him and said, ‘this guy looks like he’s about to give someone some bad news’," she recalled.

She was the recipient of that news, as she was told she had triple negative breast cancer and it was aggressive. The treatment plan that followed was not what she expected.

"I thought I’d just go in and . . . have an operation, get it [the tumour] removed, thinking in my mind, that was what was going to happen. No, it’s the whole kaboodle — chemo, surgery and radiation, and he said ‘this will take up a year of your life’."

She rang her family and close friends to tell them, and she also had to sit her children down and break the news to them.

For the now solo mother, it was a tough time to go through as life had to continue somewhat as normal, including taking her children to school. None of her family members lived locally, although she did have a lot of female friends.

"There were times I was on my own in the house, on my own with cancer, and it was hard. I had good moments but I had really low moments," she said.

To complicate matters, Ms Hyde had bought a house in Oamaru and moved in two days before she started chemotherapy.

On the day she started treatment, she was on her way out to her old house at 6am to "pick up the last bits" before returning to her new home, picking up a friend and driving to Dunedin.

"We were cleaning late at night. It was just go, go, go. And then, when I actually sat in the chemo chair, I could relax."

Just before Christmas that year, Ms Hyde had a scan which detected the cancer was in her lymph nodes, but she was unaware.

After seeing her children on the morning of Christmas Day, she was driving to Dunedin to catch a plane to Wellington to spend a week with family.

But she could not find her phone and had to leave without it. It turned out to be "quite a blessing" as medical staff were trying to get hold of her.

Breast cancer was something that ran in her family; three generations had the disease and there were two mother-daughter combinations where both mothers had died.

It was thought Ms Hyde could have the BRCA gene, in which case she would have to have a hysterectomy and both breasts removed. Her three daughters could also potentially have been affected but it was later found she did not have it.

In the meantime, her surgeon had emailed colleagues around the world and he got permission to use cutting-edge surgery on her.

Rather than losing her breast, a marker was put around the tumour — which had shrunk — and it was cut around.

Ms Hyde’s mother was a sales representative for a lingerie brand and was "very, very busy". She was about 44 when she was diagnosed with cancer and continued to work hard— "she didn’t change her life" — until she died.

Because of that, Ms Hyde wanted to eliminate stress from her own life which included running her much-loved business.

Local girl Becky Dennison was working for her at the time and expressed interest in buying the business. Within a week, it was sold — on December 1 that year.

"It was hard work, I sold my business, bought a new house, there was so much going on," she said.

But she was also thrilled that it was Miss Dennison who bought it and her family was touched that she continued the Mrs Hyde name.

"It’s amazing; Mrs Hyde was named after my mother who died of breast cancer, I have breast cancer and sell it to Becky, she carries on the name.

"For me to see this amazing young woman just going from strength to strength, it’s really heartwarming for me.

"People say to me, you must miss it. I say, no, I don’t, because she’s doing such an amazing job."

"I said [to Becky], I’ve set you up for your dream and you will be helping me setting me up to do my own dream of my own label. It’s just meant to be, it’s a blessing. I always know I’m going to be OK and that things happen for a reason."

Between surgery and radiation, Ms Hyde found out she had to do another six months of chemotherapy, this time the oral version. That was one of her lowest moments.

"I took it with a smile . . . but, when I drove home, I cried all the way. It was like, ‘oh, my God, an extra six months — 18 months having a cancer journey. That six months is another six months that my life is put on hold and, also, ‘oh my God, how serious is this?’."

For the sake of her children, she wanted them to know that she had "tried everything". But during her first round, she got very sick and landed in hospital with colitis. "Even my gut was like, ‘I’m not going taking any more."

For her radiation, she drove herself to and from Dunedin for appointments, on her own, and found it productive for her mind.

During that travel time, she was thinking about her knitwear label — having rebooted her plans to launch it —and she would do one thing a day towards it; it might simply be sending an email.

"I was just taking everything slowly. The big thing was . . . ‘OK, I’ve got cancer, I’m on my own’. This is what kept me awake at night — how do I support four kids? What am I going to do?"

She decided for her label Ohae that she did not need to take in the big picture, just focus on one thing at a time.

In order to wholesale it, she said she could not afford to do it in New Zealand; there was no succession in the industry with ageing machinists, and she would love to see the likes of an apprenticeship scheme developed.

So manufacturing was being done in China, which she said she did not see as a negative; it was an expert in all industries, machinery, training and quality of materials, overseen by ethical standards.

When Ms Hyde’s samples arrived, an all-women team was involved in a photoshoot at Parkside Quarries, near Weston — the home of Oamaru stone — with her eldest daughter Emma as one of the two models.

"I felt like I was in some faraway land, it was just stunning. It was such a lovely time. I hadn’t been long out of treatment and just threw myself into it.

"It’s just like women supporting women, there was amazing camaraderie and it was fun. We lifted each other up," she said.

Ms Hyde now had stockists in Dunedin (Chapman), Wellington, Petone, Cambridge and Auckland as well as, of course, Mrs Hyde in Oamaru, and she was talking to several other potential stockists.

Throughout the process, she had only ever really dealt with women, from the bank to her lawyer, her manufacturers in China, and to her stockists.

"Everything is women-led. I really like that idea ... every single process I’ve dealt with."

Ohae was named for the first initials of her children, Oscar, Holly, Amelia and Emma.

"Obviously I’m a sentimental old fool. The shop is named after my mother and this is about my children."

When it came to naming each style, she asked close friends for the names of their cherished grandmothers, including Helen and Beryl.

"I want to celebrate women that came before us and who shaped us to who we are today. I want that concept going forward ... celebrating women, not just about clothing [but about] relationships and connecting with other women."

"Doing this cancer thing on my own, it just showed me how strong I am ... I always knew that something would come from it.

"I’ve had sleepless nights thinking ... ‘how am I going to pay for this?’ ... but it’s actually done really well so far and I’ve just had support from so many different women. It’s been amazing," she said.

Shipping delays meant the garments could have taken three months to reach New Zealand so she had to decide whether to postpone the launch for a year, or pay the costly price of air-freighting them.

She chose the latter — "I feel like I paid first-class seats" — and they had now safely landed in the country.

Ms Hyde described knitwear as a "statement piece" while also being very practical.

"When I’m designing, I think [about] something you can just throw on and you don’t have to think too hard. It makes you feel good in it and stylish."

Her "pipedream" was to one day have her own knitwear factory in New Zealand. In the meantime, she was excited about the launch of Ohae next week.

Ms Hyde had a mammogram several weeks ago and, while she was nervous, it was "all good", she said.

Feeling good these days, her focus is not on cancer — "but what I do now".