Dan Ahwa: At NZ Fashion Week, a fresh perspective helped heal a deflated industry
Established names reasserted their mana and new designers gave us hope
If you’re reading this, New Zealand Fashion Week has just wrapped for another year.
Beyond the flurry of street style and activations on-site, there were some good clothes presented on the runway too. Designers displayed collections created
We also saw the type of clothes more attuned to our changing climate — shorter jackets and lighter coats, for example, and collective menswear that went beyond streetwear and suits. There was a strong display of Māori excellence from a range of designers, reinforcing the reimagined event’s commitment to its newly minted partnership with local iwi, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei.
There was a veritable assortment of other memorable moments too. A celebration of women and mothers, for example — specifically pregnant ones at Nicole Van Vurren and Kaister St, while at the finale of Campbell Luke’s show on Tuesday, maternal love took centre stage as The Casketeers star Kaiora Tipene appeared with newborn daughter Ngawaiata Irirangi Taimania Tipene.
Veteran model Amanda Bransgrove and Sarah Amos both shared the runway at Liz Mitchell with their daughters Yasmin Singh and Lucia Amos, while dancer and stylist Shona Wilson pirouetted down the runway, adding to the roster of dancers and choreographers who made catwalk cameos during the week at Kiri Nathan, Lontessa, One of None, Nineteen99 and Cecilia Kang.
Another familial/wholesome highlight came via Wednesday’s Graduate Show, featuring designs from Whitecliffe, Otago Polytechnic (Te Pūkenga), and Massey University. Whitecliffe designer Victoria Holyoake showcased joyful rosette dresses in white and shades of pink, celebrating breast cancer recovery. One rosette dress, in particular, was worn by her mother, who came down the runway beaming to a soundtrack of country-pop-rock. It was a pure joy to see.
It was family too at Zambesi — its wider “Zam fam” community was treated to an offsite show along the outside walkway by the Park Hyatt Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Viaduct Events Centre. There on Thursday evening, Auckland city aglow with a glorious sunset was the backdrop to a moving show curated by co-founder and designer Elisabeth Findlay, alongside husband Neville, and daughters Marissa and Sophie. It was a poignant collection showcasing the final menswear range from Dayne Johnston, who departed the brand after two decades in June.
And at Kate Sylvester, a triumphant collection that celebrated 30 years in business was a joyful look at some of her beloved patterns including the Sakura dress silhouette from autumn/winter 2018, rendered in a print revised from her spring/summer 2015 collection. A Royally Screwed spring/summer 2008 Roses print was also remixed and utilised on a slouchy maxi dress. A backdrop highlighting the brand’s paper patterns from over the years was a heartfelt reminder of the craft and work that goes into creating a collection. But it was at the end, when Sylvester’s partner Wayne Conway came out on the runway to give her flowers, that everyone was reminded of how the couple has played a major part in the success of New Zealand Fashion Week over many years.
Kate Sylvester and Zambesi, two powerhouse New Zealand fashion brands, have provided us with some of the most unforgettable fashion shows over the years, and this year they did not disappoint, reasserting their mana in a way that acknowledged their contributions, while keeping a focused eye on the future. Wayne and Kate have three sons — Ike, Cosmo and Tom — who each play an important part in the family business, charged with taking care of the show music, a pivotal part of Kate Sylvester’s shows.
Positive Vibes Only
We also felt a sense of positivity and community. There were smiles on the runway. Fashion Week owner Feroz Ali was seen at multiple shows throughout the week helping guests find their seats. General manager Yasmin Farry was even on hand to offer umbrellas as they walked out of the Viaduct Events Centre one rainy afternoon. Dame Pieter Stewart, founder of New Zealand Fashion Week, has also been integral to the reimagined event, guiding Farry along the way. She was there, attending every show, ensuring a smooth handover was complete.
The event came in a year book-ended by a natural disaster and an election. Fashion as a tool to understand our identities felt like a timely inquiry and formed the basis of our cover story during the week, along with a supporting photoshoot featuring new and established designers photographed at Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Marae. What is New Zealand style now? It was a question posited at our Viva Talks panel discussion on the Friday of Fashion Week, where I was joined by host Damien Venuto of The New Zealand Herald’s Front Page podcast, Māori fashion pioneer Jeanine Clarkin, Viva contributing editor Jessica Beresford, Dr Margo Barton (creative director of iD Dunedin and principal lecturer and academic leader for Fashion at Otago Polytechnic), and Huffer co-founder and brand director Steve Dunstan. Each has played a vital part in promoting New Zealand style and fashion to the world.
Barton made a valid point about how — particularly in the past three years — much of the media focus has been on the doom and gloom of the industry, from the closure of businesses unable to withstand the real impacts of Covid to ongoing conversations around sustainability. She reminded us that events like Fashion Week are an opportunity for celebrating our fashion industry’s wins too, and it’s a message that was felt throughout the week.
For an industry that has no fashion council, it’s important to understand the purpose of a Fashion Week and what it is actually able to facilitate for the industry. I felt a sense of commiseration with those jaded about the week, because they’d missed the point entirely. Now wasn’t the time for viewing it with one arched brow and a glare of cynicism.
Instead, it opened with a contemplative start on Monday, where guests were invited to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Marae for the official opening. In attendance was Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, who spoke of her admiration for the industry’s creativity, particularly its Pasifika designers; as well as Auckland’s Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson, who gave an admirable speech in te reo.
(Genuine) Cultural Connection
Kiri Nathan delivered a show that masterfully showcased her ability to combine her love of streetwear with high fashion. Because of her consistency in implementing her culture into designs since the brand launched in 2010, the show felt like a genuine evolution, from the early days showing at Cult Couture and Style Pasifika to her most recent contribution to Māori businesses and fashion — opening the Te Āhuru Mōwai hub in Glen Innes, a flagship for Nathan’s designs along with the Kāhui Collective and other community projects.
Even more special was Nathan’s inclusion of the people who continue to inspire her work, including an opening performance from Ria Hall accompanied by dancer Kura Te Ua, while Viva cover star and soul singer Teeks and activist Qiane Matata-Sipu modelled some of Nathan’s new designs. Te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi was also on the runway, wearing a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1 mids sneakers criticised by Act party leader David Seymour in 2021 as not being appropriate Parliamentary attire.
But it was artist Graham Hoete aka Mr G’s cameo that perhaps summed up the mood of the week. Standing up from the front row during the show, Mr G proceeded to the front, where one of the models who was standing holding out her full circle skirt for him to spraypaint with the word “Tūmanako” (Hope).
What surprised me the most from Nathan’s collection, which was presented in sections marking a history of Māori dress, was the razor-sharp tailoring for both men and women. A denim blazer and matching wrap skirt was reminiscent of a formal lavalava, truly personifying Māori and Pacific fashion in the contemporary Aotearoa design vernacular. Tidy skirt suits made a convincing case for a type of professional dressing also found in the uniform she recently created for Kiwibank. This also displayed why she’s still a strong candidate for designing the updated uniforms of our national carrier, Air New Zealand.
Later that day, Dr Bobby Campbell presented his moving show, collaborating with another Māori-led business, Noa Blankets, founded by husband and wife team Whakaawa and Josh Te Kani in 2022. A lineup of the brand’s soulful blankets was suspended just above models weaving their way down the runway wearing Campbell’s designs, which were inspired by the nostalgia of his matriarchal upbringing. What made the show even more special was a soundtrack of live singing from the Hātea Kapa Haka group that tugged at the heartstrings.
Baby-doll dresses and pussy-bow blouses were complemented well by contemporary pieces. Model Rewa Hawker wore a voluminous collared dress with a slight tulip hem layered over a pair of white trousers which offered up a modern silhouette, while intricately cut, skin-baring lace doily dresses with spaghetti straps proved the designer was no one-trick pony.
Another designer who displayed their culture in a way that felt truly connected to the clothes was Hamilton-based designer Nichola Te Kiri (Ngāi Tūhoe) of Kaistor St. We’ve had the pleasure of featuring Nichola’s perspex jewellery designs over the years in Viva, and her well-edited collection of clothes felt like a natural segue from that popular line. Many of the jewellery’s geometric patterns, inspired by tāniko weaving, made their way onto wool cloaks, capes and dresses.
At the Miromoda showcase on Thursday, Nelson-based label Wanoa Four was another great Māori label fusing tradition with contemporary designs and a unique take on knitwear. A knit skirt inspired by piupiu was a highlight, along with a collection of high-collared cardigans.
Natalie Xenita, the vice-president-managing director for IMG Fashion Events and Properties, Asia-Pacific, was in town on Monday and Tuesday at the invitation of NZ Fashion Week owner Feroz Ali and was interested to see how culture — particularly Māori designers and their businesses — were included in the event. It was a positive learning experience for the Sydney-based Xenita who has travelled extensively around the world to look at how other fashion weeks are run, and a chance to gain further support for Australian Fashion Week’s commitment to its community of First Nations fashion designers.
OurViva Next Gen cohort was an impressive mix of designers on Thursday morning. It was great to see how they were all at varying stages of their business. Each was prepared to deliver a slick runway presentation, working together to create a group show that clearly presented their individual design aesthetics and personalities.
Following the show, the designers were invited to set up a pop-up retail space in Britomart over the weekend hosted by Space For, a great business model that allows people to activate a real-life showroom for their brands. It was heartening to see the designers play shop for a weekend and to imagine what it could be like if they had their own retail spaces.
Nicole Van Vuuren proved you can recycle textiles and fashion these into garments you actually want to wear. Growing up with a father who worked in a furniture factory and would come home with offcuts spurred the designer to develop a strong connection to textiles, which will stand her in good stead for the future. Tapping into her community of friends and muses to model in the show was a smart move, and her styling was on point — Crocs embellished with the help of local jeweller Padspearls reinforced the brand’s sense of playful irreverence. A patchwork houndstooth bomber and trouser set was one of my favourite looks.
Phillip Heketoa of Lipo also made use of casting friends and muses. While there was talk of diversity on the runway (there could have been more), it was good to see several designers look beyond model agencies to the people who actually wear their clothes. There were several great pieces, along with the designer’s custom jewellery, but it was the floor-length finale gown, a modern take on a muumuu, that made heads turn.
Nicole Hadfield of Oosterom’s sharp styling with complementary accessories from Bronwyn shoes and Jasmin Sparrow jewellery was another great highlight from a designer with potential. Not only was the Whitecliffe alumni able to deliver a cohesive capsule collection, but her ability to style a look for the runway was great too. An opaque top worn underneath a halter bib with a skirt over trousers was one of the best examples of layering seen during the week. And it was great to see a finale bride come out towards the end, displaying her ability to cater to an entirely engaged demographic.
James Bush’s collection under his label J.Bush was another highlight. The designer completed his MA in menswear at the University of Westminster in London, and after gaining a place on the British Fashion Council’s prestigious graduate programme, launched his eponymous brand in 2021. A red satin bomber worn with a black bra and dress trousers was a standout look, as was a satin opera coat; as the model walked down the runway clutching its lapels, everyone’s heads turned. Bush’s aesthetic takes me back to another designer who hailed from Wellington, Alexandra Owen, who also had a strong European aesthetic. Bush’s perspective is much softer and elegant though with a real sense of not only creating conceptual, design-centric clothes but the type of sophistication that works for the New Zealand market.
Tess McCone from Su’mar also delivered a very slick collection that breezed on by, expertly styled with Havaianas. A wrap dress worn by Viva cover star Isabella Moore was a standout, as was a coral-coloured crinkle dress. A pale blue slip dress cut on the bias was another confident display and McCone’s complementary assortment of handbags were some of the best accessories of the week.
Haute couture is French for high dressmaking, with members selected by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. To qualify as an official haute couture house, members must design made-to-order clothes for private clients, with more than one fitting, using an atelier. The atelier must employ at least 15 full-time staff, with 20 full-time technical workers in one of their workshops. Haute couture houses must also present a collection of no less than 50 original designs — both day and evening garments — to the public every season, in January and July.
Two designers from the schedule who have used the term haute couture to promote their designs are Jacqueline Anne and Kharl Wirepa. Jacqueline Anne’s Instagram bio says she’s “a Māori fashion designer who creates elegant, sophisticated and timeless style, that implements solutions to the environmental crisis”, and who, in a press release, was described as “an exceptional talent on the cusp of haute couture recognition, having applied to be a ‘guest’ member of the prestigious Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.” According to her PR, she has passed the admission stage, and needs one more haute couture runway to be approved.
Rotorua-based designer Kharl Wirepa is the star of reality Gowns N Geysers, available to watch on TVNZ On Demand. He presented two shows during the week: the first, on Wednesday night, included a 20-minute presentation of sponsor videos including one from an American pharmaceutical company; the second, on Saturday night, celebrated his Māori heritage with a performance from Te Matatini champions, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui.
Wednesday’s night show featured garments that came down the runway unsteamed. A model agent I spoke to earlier that day had two models walking for the show who hadn’t had a fitting. This was evident on the runway.
Remember The Fun
At a conversation talk with her best friend Kathryn Wilson on Friday, designer Juliette Hogan was frank about the reality that this year has been a lot harder to manage than the past two years. Showing on Tuesday night, the designer’s mix of in-season looks with one-off show pieces was a quietly confident display of signature pieces, including languid tailoring and printed dresses.
Wilson, who celebrated the brand’s 20th birthday with an unapologetic display of camp and nostalgia (the soundtrack alone deserves a round of applause), had come straight to the talk from opening her newly renovated store on Jervois Rd, at the former site of Dominion Books. Both women have relied on their long-standing friendship — one that started before they became designers — to help them navigate the business of being a designer in New Zealand. At Kathryn’s show was a front-row lineup of some of her loyal customers, all of whom were having a great time, even chair dancing as the models came out in quick succession wearing the brand’s cheerful collection of shoes. When fashion gets too cerebral or pretentious, designers like Wilson remind us of the celebratory nature of fashion, and make us smile.
Some Good Menswear
Menswear has evolved in the past four years and this was reflected on the runway at Fashion Week. Some of the most interesting designers pushed boundaries by showcasing genderless fashion, a concept that isn’t new, but still felt fresh and promising, particularly where there was a sense of romance: at Rory William Docherty, models walked in chic painter’s blouses tucked inside relaxed trousers.
At Kiri Nathan, one male model stood out for his floor-sweeping Victorian coat, while at Liz Mitchell, it was a lovely surprise to see her commitment to wool extend to a selection of menswear. A tonal cable knit cardigan layered over linen culottes was a standout.
From the Viva Next Gen show, it was great to see menswear designer Sandra Tupu stay true to her vision of menswear. Over the years, she’s stood out as someone with a distinct aesthetic, one that feels even more relevant today. A sheer organza painter’s shirt in sage worn over a pair of boucle trousers was a confident display of Sandra’s love of texture.
“I was inspired by the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009; that from the ashes of devastation comes a frenzy of new life. I visited the Kinglake area one year on, in 2010, and was astonished at some of the regeneration of the bush area. Out of such a disaster, there seemed to be real hope and such a vibrant amount of new growth after such a short time.”
Josh Jozsef by designer Josh Bognar was another menswear highlight showing as part of the graduate show on Wednesday. The Massey University graduate’s collage medley of denim and shirting was a fresh take on subverting menswear dress codes.
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