The view from Row B: Everything a non-fashion person learned from Fashion Week

“I like your shoes,” I said to the woman standing next to my gin cocktail.

“Thanks,” she said. Then she lowered her voice. “They hurt.”

They were black and flat. Shiny patent leather with a pointed toe. The kind of shoe that could take you from a panel discussion about

How much longer, I inquired, did the woman estimate it would take for those shoes to stop hurting?

“I don’t know,” she replied. And then she fixed her gaze beyond me, beyond the bar crowd, and mouthed the terrible words she could not say out loud: “Maybe . . . NEVER?” I went online. Low stock in my size. I would definitely order two pairs. It’s so hard to find the perfect Fashion Week shoe.

Humans frequently suffer for fashion. For most of the 1980s, for example, the only place women could bend over was a jazzercise class. In the 1990s, when lycra finally moved from gym gear to jean fabric, we chopped 10 centimetres off our waistbands and required anyone who wanted to keep their stomach warm to wear a dress AND pants.

Last week, approximately one million shoes, dresses, pants and other garments I will never have the words for paraded Auckland’s Viaduct Events Centre. It was the first New Zealand Fashion Week since 2019; a collective celebration of sartorial style not seen for the past three Covid-plagued years.

During the pandemic, we mostly wore pyjamas. It was an era of elasticated bliss when those of us wary of words like “stacked” and “heel” could don statement earrings, apply eyebrows via a Zoom filter, wax absolutely nothing and consider ourselves presentable.

Re-entry was a shock. Clothes for work (pants) are very different to clothes for work-from-home (no pants). The world is, once again, a full-body experience – and I have apparently forgotten how to dress.

In these recalibrated times, does anybody care what you wear? Is a seasonal print an effective route to self-fulfillment? Will the width of a pant leg truly define you? On the final big runway day at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria, I went looking for inspiration. Seven shows, a dozen-plus designers and unlimited access to the cheap seats. What could a non-fashion person learn about fashion at Fashion Week?

“Please feel free to move forward,” says the pre-show announcement. “Take any seat – apart from the front row.”

Anyone who is anyone does not sit behind anyone. The man to impress is Murray Bevan. The founder of Showroom 22 (the country’s first fashion-focused public relations agency) is in charge of making sure the right faces are in the front row. Bevan ushers a deputy mayor here, an Instagrammer with suitable shoes there. His domain is the main runway and a smaller space on level two called The Studio. He wears a full-length, buttoned coat in a fabric that undoubtedly contains wool. It is approximately 400 degrees Celsius in The Studio. Lesson #1: Fashion is always cool.

“If I think hard enough, I could almost name that designer,” I say to Emma Gleason, Viva’s roving video reporter who is, right now, dressed in a green and brown chequered top. It looks a bit like my school ball dress, circa 1986, and reminiscent of a horse jockey’s silks. It is, of course, an actual horse jockey’s silks. This is why I am still in Row B.

Refashioned — and fashionable — blankets on the runway at the Viva Next Gen show for New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria. Photo / Getty Images
Refashioned — and fashionable — blankets on the runway at the Viva Next Gen show for New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria. Photo / Getty Images

Two things I thought while watching the Viva Next Gen show: Aotearoa’s woven blanket history should not be cut up and turned into cushions for the holiday homes of Matakana et al, when Flying Fox Clothing exists to turn those blankets into sublimely beautiful jackets. (Unrelated: Is that seersucker? Please don’t let that be seersucker).

At Fashion Week, you can eat sushi and drink green juice for breakfast. “What’s your biggest seller,” I ask, handing over $12 for a tray of salmon nigiri. “Pasta,” says the woman at the till. I take my food to a bar leaner (G.H. Mumm $20; San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water $5) and eavesdrop on a waiter. He spends 15 minutes on the phone recommending the most amazing almond croissants in the world, from a shop in Christchurch. I dip my salmon in soy and dream of southern pastry.

Australian-made and African-inspired label Bantu is showing at midday. The soundtrack is live and loud. I am seated directly adjacent to the man with the drum kit but I still hear the woman beside me when she says, “Oh no — I think the white people are going to try and clap in time.”

Jockey is to Fashion Week as the Frappuccino is to coffee. A delicious, guilty pleasure; an entry-level show that requires no specialist knowledge beyond the ability to recognise shirtless All Blacks. I take a photo and text it to my mum: “Sevu Reece,” she replies with alacrity. The provinces might not care about fashion, but they definitely care about rugby. (This year’s Jockey runway also welcomed models over a certain age, models in wheelchairs and models in plus-size undies and tank tops. I applaud the heterogeneity, but I also know it stops at a 20C bra).

“Is anybody going to the Kai-stort show?” In the Viva media room, beauty editor Ashleigh Cometti responds beautifully and kindly: “I think it’s Kaistor Street . . . “

If there is a discernible trend among Fashion Week audiences it is a propensity to pink. I can see pink houndstooth, pink gingham, pink denim, flamingo pink, baby pink and — in the chair immediately to my right — hot pink.

“What’s the inspiration,” I asked the twin sisters with identical pink satin pants, pink quilted handbags and fringed and feathered korowai. “Have you heard of the store Bras N Things?” one replied. “These are pyjama pants!” I spot a man in a swanndri and another in what appears to be full-length, high-fashion tinfoil. As Elsa Schiaparelli once said, “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”.

A fashion (foot) forward moment at the Miromoda show at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria. Photo / Getty Images
A fashion (foot) forward moment at the Miromoda show at New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria. Photo / Getty Images

4pm, and I finally have a front-row seat. The Miramoda Showcase supports indigenous, Māori-themed high fashion collections. Audiences support the kaupapa visibly and vocally — if what they are wearing can incorporate te reo and/or kōwhaiwhai patterns, it does. Designers are one step ahead. On the runway, if a garment can be deconstructed into strips and put back together to echo the strands of a piupiu, it is. (Absolutely nothing can explain why the models are wearing knee-high pantyhose over the top of their heels).

5pm, and everyone finally has a front-row seat. Zambesi Since 1979 (their slogan and also the name of their complimentary after show coconut milk, coriander, lemon juice and Scapegrace vodka-flavoured cocktail) runs a fashionable democracy. The rank and file sit single file along the long front deck of the Park Hyatt Hotel. The VIPs sit on the steps down by the water. The office commuters and curious tourists stand on the drawbridge that connects Wynyard Quarter to the Viaduct and watch the entire spectacle for free.

Zambesi, making Auckland more beautiful one runway show at a time. Photo / Getty Images
Zambesi, making Auckland more beautiful one runway show at a time. Photo / Getty Images

Zambesi brings the international. If a decade or two or three from now, people don’t remember the clothes, they will remember that they were here; that when the golden light hit the silver runway and the blue moon rose, they were part of this.

Who I am kidding? The Viva team never forgets a frock. Me: “So many people at this Kate Sylvester show are wearing a very particular red . . . ” Most of the Viva team, in unison and from the front row: “Wolf, AW ‘07.”

The backdrop drops. Crimson and Clover plays over and over. Hundreds of pattern pieces hang in silhouette as the models enter the runway. I am 11 years old again, on the bus from Barrytown and heading to Greymouth Intermediate School where all the kids from country towns go once a week to learn woodwork, metalwork, cooking and sewing. We thread our machines, pin tissue paper to fabric and cut carefully. Fashion is beautiful and inspiring and ugly and demonising. It starts with someone’s hand — and ends up in our hearts.

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