Gus Fisher was one of the most prominent figures in the New Zealand fashion industry from the 1950s to the 1980s. His company, El-Jay, produced Christian Dior clothing in New Zealand, bringing a touch of European glamour to the local fashion scene. Gus was a well-known art collector, and his philanthropic work supported both the local arts scene and medical research.
Gurshon Fisher was born on 11 December 1920 in Paraparaumu, the youngest of the six children of Fanny Dabscheck and her husband, storekeeper Michael Fisher, a Jewish immigrant from Shums’k, in the Ukraine. Named after his paternal grandfather, Gurshon was known throughout his life as Gus. In the mid-1920s the Fisher family moved to Auckland, where Gus later attended Auckland Grammar School.
In 1938 Gus went to work for his brother, Lou, who had established the whiteware importing business El-Jay New Zealand Limited (based on his initials L. J.); another brother, Woolf, had co-founded the Fisher and Paykel whiteware firm in 1934. The introduction of import licensing prompted Lou to shift the focus of El-Jay to producing inexpensive cotton print dresses from imported fabric. This move suited Gus’s interest in clothing design; as a child he had sketched dresses for his mother, who had them made up by her dressmaker.
Gus and Lou’s move to clothing manufacture was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Both brothers enlisted for military service and Gus, who listed his occupation as cutter, served as a gunnery sergeant with 58 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment in the Pacific theatre from 1941 to 1943.
Following the war, Lou turned his attention to developing new materials for the building industry. Gus returned to El-Jay as managing director, and began working towards transforming the company from an economically-priced manufacturing firm into a high-end fashion label. From 1947 he travelled regularly to London, Paris and New York to keep abreast of the latest trends and foster direct relationships with fabric suppliers.
By 1953, Gus Fisher had built El-Jay’s reputation for quality to such a high level that iconic French fashion designer Christian Dior invited him to manufacture Dior clothing under licence in New Zealand. In 1954 Gus signed a licensing agreement with the House of Dior for four years, with a right of renewal, and produced his first Dior collection the following year. Fisher held the prestigious Dior licence for 33 consecutive years of production, proudly stating, ‘Ours are not copies; they’re reproductions’.1 He went on to work with Dior’s successors Yves Saint Laurent and then Marc Bohan, whose last collection for Dior in 1988 coincided with Fisher’s own retirement.
El-Jay broke with industry tradition by combining the design and manufacturing of clothing in a single business; previously high-end fashion had been the preserve of private dressmakers and salons. El-Jay garments were retailed through leading department stores across the country, and from Gus’s own French Shop in Remuera and El-Jay boutique in Queen Street’s ‘246’ shopping centre from the early 1960s. Its apparel was produced in a succession of premises in central Auckland and the North Shore until El-Jay found a permanent home in Kingston Street, in downtown Auckland, in the mid-1960s. There Gus created a series of presentation rooms based on Dior’s Grand Boutique in Paris, right down to the dove-grey paint work, furniture and fittings. The sign outside read ‘El-Jay – Manufacturer Under License of Christian Dior – Prêt-à-Porter’. The Dior workroom was based on the first floor, while the El-Jay workrooms, which were run by a different manager, were situated on the second and third floors.2
By the 1960s, Fisher had firmly established himself as a business leader in the growing New Zealand apparel industry and was greatly admired for his pursuit of perfection. As well as producing Dior under licence, he continued to build El-Jay’s reputation as a quality label, translating international fashion trends into ‘clothes most suited to New Zealand conditions’.3 In 1960 he won the supreme award for ‘most outstanding entry’ at the inaugural New Zealand Wool Awards for an El-Jay coat and skirt ensemble; he was awarded gold medals annually.4 In 1973 Fisher won three apple awards at the Eve Fashion Awards, which were sponsored by the magazine.
Gus Fisher had married Irene (Rene) Margaret Watson on 22 January 1965 at the Registrar’s Office in Auckland. He was 44, she was 38. The couple had a son, Michael Fisher, the following year.
In 1988, at the age of 68, Gus Fisher retired. He was beginning to suffer from Raynaud syndrome, which made travelling increasingly difficult, and he was keen to pursue other interests. His licence to manufacture Dior was non-transferable, and he could not find a suitable successor. Gus decided to close the El-Jay factory rather than sell it, though he retained ownership of the retail shops.
Following his retirement, Gus pursued his interests in antiques, art and interior design. Gus focused primarily on collecting paintings by New Zealand artists, such as Frances Hodgkins and John Weeks, as well as contemporary figurative painters such as Jeffrey Harris. Gus and Irene also became patrons of the arts and supported drug education and rehabilitation, and medical research. Gus credited his philanthropic zeal to his parents, who in keeping with the Jewish practice of tikkun olam – ‘repairing the world’ – believed that those with means were ethically obliged to support worthy causes.5
In particular, Fisher became a benefactor of the University of Auckland. He generously contributed to the refurbishment of the 1YA building in Shortland Street, which the university transformed into the Kenneth Myers Centre for the creative and performing arts. Fisher’s contribution resulted in the establishment of the Gus Fisher Gallery within the Kenneth Myers Centre in 2001.
In 2004 he established the Gus Fisher Postdoctoral Fellowship for researchers specialising in neurodegenerative diseases in memory of his mother, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He also became the founding donor of the Hoods Fellowship Fund, a programme supporting international academic exchange.
In 2005, Gus Fisher was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Auckland in recognition of his contribution to the academic, research and cultural life of the university. In 2007 he was presented with a Living Legend award by the Mayor of Auckland, and in 2009 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to philanthropy. In April 2010 Gus and Irene received the Arts Foundation of New Zealand Award for Patronage in honour of their contributions to the arts.
Gus Fisher died in Auckland on 20 July 2010, aged 89, shortly after a major exhibition of El-Jay clothing had been held at the Gus Fisher Gallery.