If you believe NZFW is all about clothes, think again: there's a lot more that goes into a hit show than a pretty dress ...
Question: What do Prince, an iceberg and 100kg of salt have in common?
Answer: They've all had supporting roles in fashion week. (At Matthew Williamson, Chanel and Nom*D, fact fans.) Yes, in the weeks running up to the 10th NZFW, designers are putting the finishing touches on their winter collections. They're also auditioning DJs, scouring the city for the prettiest boatshed, deciding between trapeze artists or fire-breathers, choosing which latex finish to coat the runway in, and debating the merits of kino versus standard fluorescent lighting.
"For most designers, the idea is to get talked about, and a stunt that can pull you a front page image or a news clip is golden," says Denise Cohen, NZFW's front of house manager. "It's not the goal of every designer, but the theatrics of the past 10 years speak for themselves: we've had a grass catwalk complete with farmyard gate, giant inflatable rabbits and taxidermy boar heads."
There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to fashion week theatrics. The first camp believes the clothes should be allowed to speak for themselves, adopts a minimalist aesthetic and eschews anything that could be considered remotely gimmicky. (Consider yourself lucky that there's a DJ.) The second camp embraces spectacle, relishing the opportunity to create a mood and experience where the collection can be showcased to best advantage.
Murray Bevan of Showroom 22, who represents the likes of Twenty-seven Names, Sera Lilly and Alexandra Owen, explains, "Working with up-and-coming designers, we've got to view fashion week as a pragmatic sales tool. My clients don't have the luxury of being able to throw a show for entertainment purposes. Investing in some huge set-piece or airy-fairy light pattern just for the hype is a waste of time and money. In previous years, Juliette Hogan and Alexandra Owen have produced chic, subtle and sophisticated runway presentations that have delivered what they wanted from a business point of view."
In the opposite camp we have World's Denise L'Estrange Corbet. "The audience want to be thrilled and enlightened, not bored out of their brains. And the show is about the brand, and what the designer is thinking, and where we're heading. If it was just about seeing the clothes, I'd send them to the shop and avoid the expense of a show!"
Here in New Zealand, we're insulated from some of the show trends that blow through Paris, Milan, London and New York. But we're in no way immune. Music-wise, a few years ago every show had to have a VJ (a DJ who can work a projector), then live performances became de rigeur, and more recently celeb DJs like Sam and Mark Ronson or the Geldof sisters were heavily in demand. There's been a shift from slick showrooms to spaces with a more industrial, raw edge. There's also been the growth of digital media, since Nom*D first did it almost a decade ago.
"Nevertheless, here in New Zealand it's less about trends and more about the brands," says Chris Lorimer, who runs one-stop styling, PR and show production agency, Ciel PR. "The music, the venue, the makeup, the stage-set, is all about defining the brand. For example, last year we put on a really ethereal production for Cybele, with a glossy back runway, sending models down with giant mothwings and fairylights that pulsed and glowed. But this year I'm doing a contrasting show for Jimmy D [with] a pared back, minimalist, sparse feel."
Two long-standing New Zealand brands whose shows wear brand values on their sleeve are Trelise Cooper and Zambesi. "I'm very much from the Dior and Alexander McQueen school of showmanship; I love the theatre of fashion, and I want my shows to have a sense of occasion about them," says Cooper. "My favourite show yet featured a giant gold frame to create what looked like a still life painting on a grand scale, which the models then wandered through"
She considers the theatrical nature of her shows a no-brainer: a Trelise Cooper stage set with a minimalist, industrial feel would be completely at odds with the garments. "Decadence, beauty and theatre are the personality of the brand, it's in our DNA."
Zambesi are similarly famous for their highly memorable, invariably off-site shows during NZFW. Marissa Findlay, daughter of founding duo Elisabeth and Neville, has been producing the shows for years. "I start with an incredible venue, and then brainstorm about what I can do with it. The aim isn't to overshadow the clothes, but we want to create a mood and atmosphere that projects a certain emotion, and deliver an experience through which the collection can be appreciated.
"I'd say our shows - like the collections - are dark, dramatic, mysterious and twistedly beautiful, with a sense of humour - like when we used the Jaws soundtrack to introduce our show at Pier 21 inside the dry dock boatyards."
So what are trends we can expect to see on the catwalk this year? Well, in previous years we saw a lot of props used which weren't necessarily anything to do with the collections. That's set to change, if Adrian Hailwood knows what he's talking about, and we suspect he does. In previous years Hailwood shows were memorable for strikingly original stage-sets.
"That was great for the time, but today I'm more interested in creating drama on the catwalk itself. I always include a few outfits that won't go into production, but make a huge impact, like Nicky Watson's Rio outfit," he explains.
And live bands might be a thing of the past. "Last year we worked with spaghetti western soundtracks from the 1970s, and this year we're looking at classical music," he says.
Kirsha Whitcher from Salasai has a similar take on music. "I found an amazing punk band which would have been a great match for the brand, but did I really [want to] pit four charismatic, good-looking boys wielding guitars against the models? Nope." Finally, for every trend, there's an equal and opposite backlash: this year's Salasai show, held in an underground exhibition area in the Hilton, is resolutely non-digital. "Instead of a projector, we're using a huge 22m mirror as a backdrop," says Whitcher. "So much nicer."
One thing's for certain: NZFW 2010 won't be matchy-matchy. "Every designer is looking for a point of difference which makes their brand unique," says Lorimer. "On and off the catwalk, this is what keeps fashion alive."