Veteran designer's Bridal Fashion Week retropspective

The long and successful career of accomplished New Zealand designer Annie Bonza will be celebrated at Auckland's Bridal Fashion Week.

Designer Annie Bonza with one the gowns she created for Bridal Fashion Week. Photo / Babiche Martens
Designer Annie Bonza with one the gowns she created for Bridal Fashion Week. Photo / Babiche Martens

On the eve of a retrospective of her best work at Auckland's inaugural Bridal Fashion Week, fashion designer Annie Bonza is talking about good luck.

Even with a career which has spanned 55 years, she still, mysteriously, attributes her success and longevity to fortuitous fortunes rather than good management. And it's something she doesn't take for granted. Her personal anthem is the song by Niuean reggae artist Unity Pacific (founder Tigilau Ness is Che Fu's father), with the chorus "Thank you, bless you Aotearoa".

"I get this wonderful feeling that I was lucky to be born and brought up in Te Kuiti. I'm eternally grateful because multiculturally it was fantastic," she says.

The first bit of luck for the artistic Bonza (then Annie Cole) was to study Maori weaving at school with Rangimarie Hetet. Learning a craft which had nearly died out gave her a life-long love for creating beautiful pieces out of simple materials.

"The family embraced me with so much aroha, I was so lucky. Rangimarie said I had clever hands," she says proudly.

"I was devious, I read career books, and looked at the costumes at the movies every Saturday. Designers were as much celebrities as the movie stars were. I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer."

Bonza was then lucky enough to have a friend of her mother's find the then 15-year-old an apprenticeship at Chadwick & Bray, a manufacturer who supplied to the smart department stores and drapers. She worked in the cutting room, learned pattern making and production, and within two years was helping suggest styles.

Inspiration came from magazines sold by a little old man in a pinstripe suit who unveiled international fashion journals from a battered suitcase. The hungry young designer would then have to complete the pictures in her mind from the grainy black and white photos and wordy descriptions of the garments.

Another couple of years working for a Grey Lynn company specialising in evening dresses gave the youngster the grounding in the arts of boning and working with yards of tulle and taffeta. A fortunate introduction through the Golden Shears competition to designer Robert White got Bonza a coveted position in his Sydney salon, where she designed for the wealthy and stylish.

When she returned to New Zealand in 1967 after five years in Sydney, with a young baby in tow, the glory days of New Zealand television production helped launch her into local living rooms. She had set up her boutique, 220, on Herne Bay's Jervois Rd on the smell of an oily rag. A friend loaned her $68 to buy fabric, another friend had found her the shop with flat above for a mere $22 a week and one of her salesladies had introduced her to a TV producer. By now groovily named Annie Bonza, she had the foresight to demand designer credits on the new hot pop show C'mon and her name was launched.

Bonza, now 71, laughs at her own chutzpah.

"Before C'mon there had been a very popular Victorian music hall programme - Irene Wood was the star - and I was commissioned to make five costumes a week. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, it set me on my feet for finance because I would never get into debt, I only ever paid cash for materials," she recalls.

When Auckland's young mods realised they could get the same dresses as they'd seen on the television, they descended on the store. Unlike today's designers, with myriad PRs and showrooms and lending to celebrities, Bonza was an unwitting marketer. Her windows were works of art and she would do fashion parades at the posh schools to attract the right buyers.

"My customers were a huge cross-section, but they were people who wanted to be individual, were confident to be outside of the mainstream and were a little ahead. A little bit bohemian, anything goes," she says. "But the Maori thing was strong; I got a lot of acknowledgement from Maori women for making that connection."

Bonza's skill was taking the crafts of traditional tailoring - boning, manipulating fabrics, embroidery and surface embellishment, particularly, cornelli work - and giving them a modern, slightly ethnic, twist. Artist Murray Grimsdale, a producer for the show, was hand-painting garments and Bonza was obsessed with creating beautiful things from simple materials ("mainly because I couldn't afford the gorgeous printed stuff," she laughs).

A brother had inspired Bonza's love of the Pacific, particularly the Cook Islands, so those colours and motifs appeared in her work well before the Pasifika revival in the 1990s. Bonza has twice-lived in Rarotonga, first in the mid-1970s and again from 1996. The Rarotongan word "mekameka" has been her guiding philosophy "Beautiful beyond description, beauteous to possess or hold," she says. "That's why I still love being creative. When I get the chance to create something beautiful I take the opportunity."

Until she returned last year, Bonza had been creating gowns for New Zealand and local clients from her studio in Rarotonga. Te Papa acknowledged her work and her wins at the Benson & Hedges fashion awards in 1971 and 1989 in a retrospective Annie Bonza: Fashion Explosion exhibition in 2006.

This week she is one of the invited designers showing at the Auckland Bridal Fashion Week at the Auckland Museum. She is sending down mens' shirts in fine linen, embroidered dresses and the finale, a hand-painted piece by Liz Mertens which expresses her philosophy about her beloved Aotearoa.

"I wanted to do a dress that said 'thank you', like the song," she says. "To take something ordinary and make it incredible." Indeed, like Bonza's own life of luck and beauty.

* Auckland Bridal Festival, April 1-5, Auckland War Memorial Museum

- NZ Herald

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