Tantrums and tiaras

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Put the Bolly on ice, dahlings, next month's New Zealand Fashion Week will be the 10th. To celebrate, Fashion Week creator and leading dahling Pieter Stewart allowed Canvas exclusive access to her photographic archive.

Pamela Anderson walked down A*Muse's runway show with only a scarf, giving last year's Fashion Week a fabulously flirty edge. Photo / Babiche Martens
Pamela Anderson walked down A*Muse's runway show with only a scarf, giving last year's Fashion Week a fabulously flirty edge. Photo / Babiche Martens

The designers were ready, the models prepped, and the international buyers booked. But New Zealand Fashion Week almost didn't happen. It was 2001 and organiser Pieter Stewart had spent two painstaking years preparing to launch a new platform for designers after the demise of TV events the Wella Fashion Report and Smokefree Fashion Awards. Then 9/11 happened. Virtually overnight, travel-phobic buyers began to cancel. Stewart almost pulled the plug too. Instead, buoyed by encouragement from the design community, she reconfigured the event with an Australasian focus and pushed ahead, launching the inaugural trade show at the Auckland Town Hall.

"Although it wasn't Paris Fashion Week, it felt a bit like it was," says former Herald fashion journalist Fiona Hawtin, now editor of Fashion Quarterly, who fondly remembers the powder room pampering. "It was a very exclusive place to be."

A decade on, it's arguably less exclusive - the public now has access to some shows and the rise of the blogger means the best are uploaded immediately on the net - but it still captures our imagination, providing a peek into next season's collections and reinforcing our appreciation of a maturing New Zealand style.

This year's New Zealand Fashion Week celebrates its 10th birthday with a retrospective show (open to the public) a time capsule of the event's most consistent participants.

Although the shows are just one small cog in a much bigger wheel to propel Kiwi designers into the international market, for the public they're also a window into the hierarchical world of the beautiful people and New Zealand's, ahem, celebrity culture. There's often as much discussion about who's in the front row, who's stormed out at learning they're not in the front row and which front-row regular hiffed a glass of red wine over another guest (Aja Rock on Bridget Saunders, 2007).

That's not to say there haven't been many memorable shows featuring outstanding collections. In 2005, Zambesi's models glowed in devilishly bold pinks against the darkened runway at the St James, as Pluto provided a live, rock 'n' roll soundtrack.

In 2006 Kate Sylvester wowed with a sexy, wolf-inspired collection in a high-energy show at Britomart's Old Sofrana House. And in 2008 World sent models down the runway in divine suits and skin caked with Swarovski crystals, a runway show-turned-stage-performance that earned a standing ovation.

Still, there's a fine line between a memorable fashion show and gimmicky stunt. In the former camp: a fierce Nicky Watson showing off her natural and not-so-natural assets in an exquisite diamante bikini for IPG, 2003. In the latter, designer Annah Stretton, who earned the ire of animal rights activists and feminists for putting one model in a boar's head, and others in garments embellished with stuffed budgies, in 2004.

The jury's still out on Michael Pattison's 2008 shock-value circus show featuring a scooter-riding dwarf and a male model with facial sword piercing. Pamela Anderson also divided fashionistas last year with a fabulously flirty sashay down in the runway in not much more than a scarf.

"Some designers did get upset because here they were putting on a serious show and this was all entertainment and taking fashion's name in vain," says Hawtin.

"But there's got to be an element of that for everyone at a successful fashion week. She brought mainstream media with her from overseas, so it was a very astute move."

That international impact is vital to the event, not least because it promotes New Zealand fashion far and wide. When respected blogger Diane Pernet was spotted in the front row in her signature black robes, black mantilla and black sunglasses in 2005, it was apparent not only that Fashion Week was not just about the clothes on the runway but that it had courted interest from elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph's Hilary Alexander, Vogue's Tim Blanks and blogger Bryan Boy are among the VIP guests who have added a splash of star power over the years. The guests appreciate the intimacy and convenience New Zealand Fashion Week offers, with the majority of shows now held at the Viaduct Harbour Marine Village, compared with the sprawling, impersonal event across the ditch, says Canvas fashion editor Alice Rycroft.

Although the scale of our four-day event hasn't really changed, an industry has blossomed in Fashion Week's wake as stylists, models, makeup artists, hairdressers, technicians and fashion PRs all do their bit to ensure the event runs smoothly albeit consistently - and fashionably - late.

"No matter how many times I've done it, it's always a struggle for designers to get their clothes there on time," says Stewart. "It's always a last-minute struggle."

If there wasn't so much standing around, you'd never know. Designers have come a long way since the early days and, with the help of talented stylists, have become adept at putting on polished runway shows enhanced by cool music. Stylist Karen Inderbitzen-Waller's contribution to Annah Stretton's show last year helped elevate the designer's appeal.

There's also an improvement in tailoring, with less of the frayed hems and sloppy stitching of early years. But even well-rehearsed shows have suffered. During the second Fashion Week, Robin Jones Clothing had a Russian winter theme in which fake snow fell on the catwalk. The models, teetering in platforms, did too. What had gone smoothly in rehearsal was now melting in the heat of the crowd, creating one long slip 'n' slide.

The following year, designer Roisin Kearney walked off the end of the runway in rehearsal and broke her leg. And in 2007, Trelise Cooper, a stalwart of the event, was pinged for showcasing a top that looked identical to a garment from British chain store Topshop.

Amid the fracas and spectacle we've been privy to a taste of New Zealand's most inspirational creatives, and in a country where we're hesitant to put our most talented on a pedestal, the designers behind our best-known labels - the likes of Kate Sylvester, Trelise Cooper, Zambesi, Yvonne Bennetti, Karen Walker, Helen Cherry, Liz Mitchell, Nom*d, Carlson and World - have become stars.

Younger labels such as Cybele, Hailwood, Stolen Girlfriends Club, Huffer, Sera Lilly, Alexandra Owen and Juliette Hogan have also earned their place among New Zealand fashion's most revered.

Plenty have fallen by the wayside, too. Designer Gaye Bartlett, who Stewart says was a huge support getting the event off the ground, no longer works in fashion; Nicholas Blanchet's label went bust in 2004 and Jason Crawford of Insidious Fix was charged with serious drug offences in 2006. But Fashion Week's biggest achievement has been creating infrastructure where there was none previously.

In the grander scheme, we are small-fry abroad but Trelise Cooper, Karen Walker and Sabatini are among those who have successfully ventured into foreign territories.

"Fashion Week gives a total overview of the industry in one hit," says Rycroft. "Rather than trailing around showrooms and seeing things on clothes hangers, you get to see them on the body, how they move, how the designers visualise it all put together. You also get to see the models, who's looking good, the new faces. And it's a chance to network in the industry with people you wouldn't normally. I don't usually speak to buyers but at shows I end up chatting to buyers from Tauranga, Wellington, the internationals. It gives you a global perspective: who are they buying, and what. You get the big picture in one fell swoop."

What's trickier to gauge is the impact Fashion Week has had on us.

"I think New Zealand women support New Zealand fashion," says Hawtin. "Our designers interpret what international designers are doing. They keep an eye on it and make it specific for New Zealand women to wear. We have a slightly darker viewpoint. You'd never get some of the slinky stuff that Australians do past New Zealand women. And everyone wears black. It's a safe bet for us and I think we all need to start taking more fashion risks." Just don't wear white. It doesn't go well with red wine.

New Zealand Fashion Week runs September 21-25, Viaduct Harbour, Marine Village, Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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