Michele Hewitson Interview: Kate Sylvester

By Michele Hewitson

After failing tertiary clothing and textile at polytech, Kate Sylvester is delighted with her honorary doctorate from Massey. Photo / Greg Bowker
After failing tertiary clothing and textile at polytech, Kate Sylvester is delighted with her honorary doctorate from Massey. Photo / Greg Bowker

The funny thing about Kate Sylvester - perhaps the funniest thing, other than her thing about knickers - is that she is a difficult person to interview, and I can't figure out quite why.

She said she was nervous, and I suppose as she is used to being asked about frocks, and as my questions about frocks were silly ones, she was possibly a bit wary.

Somebody who knows about fashion designers told me she manages to be both a bit frosty and friendly, and that's probably about right - it makes for an interesting mix.

She is also down-to-earth - she has three young boys and so muddy rugby boots on the front steps and scuffed-up couches - and lives in the fashion world which, she says, is almost impossible to explain. "It's the zeitgeist. It's in the ether."

The reason for going to see her is that she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University this week and she is over the moon about it.

She can now call herself Doctor, an idea which tickles her. It tickled me, too, because she didn't even pass her clothing and textile course (at what was then Wellington Polytech.) She didn't pass, she says, because she didn't do the papers in computing and she's still hopeless with them. "But I've done very well since!"

She will also be a sort of face of Massey and appear in promos for the university. They must want her for her glamour. "Yeah! And because, hopefully, I've done quite well in my field." She is quite good, too, at taking the mickey out of herself.

She also really loves the regalia and felt "very regal" in her capping gown because she loves pomp and ceremony and history, although her idea of being interested in history is a bit dotty. She is a "mad royalist". She collects royal wedding commemoration mugs and is particularly fond of the abdicator, Edward.

Why is she a mad royalist? "Well, I just love them. I mean, what's not to love, really. I love all the regalia and I love how dreadful they are, too! I love that Charles was so terrible and that he bonked Camilla and I love the idea that they topped Diana. I mean, that would be such a perfectly royal thing to do." She doesn't really believe this but you can tell she'd really like to.

She can't wait to see what Kate Middleton's wedding frock will be like, although she's not holding out great hopes for its fabulousness. I asked if Kate was a fashion icon and she wrinkled her elegant nose. "I don't really approve. She's Kate Middle-class. I think she's a bit trashy," she said, sounding like the Queen might if one asked to use the toilet instead of the loo.

Why were we talking about this? Oh, because of her regal regalia, and also because she has these obsessions and they might provide a clue to what she is like, beyond her brand. Although they are likely inextricably linked.

Anyway, I imagine she did look regal in red robes. I'd have liked to have seen her in them. But when I phoned she said they were at the dry cleaners. She'd worn them out to dinner after her capping ceremony (that's how much she loves them) and managed to get chicken teriyaki all over them. She blamed the kids but having met her I wouldn't be at all surprised if she'd managed a bit of spillage of her own.

I immediately liked her because you couldn't get less fashion designy, or snooty, than that. I also liked that she told me; it was a friendly thing to do.

This was also something of a relief because she looks a bit intimidating, even when she's not wearing regal red gowns. She is very tall, for one thing, and was wearing what appeared to be enormously high purple suede shoes, and she is very blonde and beautiful, in an apparently effortless but coolish way, for another.

She wasn't wearing anything particularly intimidating, except for the shoes. She said, "you cannot imagine how happy this jumper makes me!" I could, actually. It is a very nice jumper, one of hers, of course, but it would make some, aah, shorter rounder people, say, look as alluring as a pumpkin.

It was a hot day, so I had wondered why she was wearing a very woolly jumper, but it is her latest obsession. "I've just got to wear it." The thing she loves about this jumper is the stripes, mostly. She has an obsession with stripes and the jumper's stripes are, apparently, the perfect colours, and, in fact, the perfect stripes.

You should rush out and buy this jumper immediately although you won't look as good as she does in it, I wouldn't think. She would hope, obviously, that you don't buy it if it is going to make you look like a pumpkin but she has no control over these things, despite being a brand.

She does sometimes, not too often, thankfully, she says, see women in her clobber and think they've squeezed themselves into a size too small, or the colour's wrong on them. She never says so, of course. "Oh, God no! No, no, no." I bet she'd like to, because wouldn't you, if people squeezed into your clobber, a size too small, were walking around being a bad advertisement?

Being a brand is a strange thing to be and sometimes she finds it strange, too - when she has to ring someone and say her name, and the phone call has nothing to do with clothes: "Calling as a mum or something."

This would be like that jumper ringing you up, or a pair of her knickers, perhaps, so you can see it would be a bit odd. "I think that's been quite a weird thing, to learn to deal with having a name. I'm sure people will have examples of me being off-brand, but I like to think that because what I do is very personal, basically, if I'm breathing and I'm alive, I'm on brand."

That might mean that I am effectively, and somewhat disconcertingly, interviewing a jumper. Never mind. It really is a very nice jumper. She said, at the end, that she'd see whether she still liked me after she'd read this. I said that it wouldn't really matter, would it? She got her jumper in the paper.

She also said, to her husband, Wayne Conway, who popped in at the end, that I was going to make her out to be snobby. Oh, ha, ha. She is snobby. At least she is snooty about some things, clothes mostly, and why shouldn't she be? She is a fashion designer. I'd have been terribly disappointed if she wasn't snooty about clothes.

I asked what this brand of hers was and she said she "always likes to think that my customers are pretty intelligent individuals". Told you she was snooty. So, she doesn't want dumb customers? "Well, I'll take them as they come! But I like to think it's a bigger story, you know. That people who really love the brand love the story around the themes and the concepts of the collection."

Right. So she really doesn't want thick people buying her clothes. "Mmm, as I said ..." She'll take thick people's money? "I'll take the money, yeah!" Her customers are "women who are interested in fashion but who aren't fashion victims".

I have no idea what the difference is. "Well, being a fashion victim is, you know, the whole obsession with what is in season and wearing whatever's out and about at the moment and not thinking about what suits you as a person."

So, she really is snooty about fashion. "Umm. In what way?" That she likes intelligent people to buy her clothes might be fairly snooty. "I guess so. Yeah, maybe I am!"

Another of her obsessions is the Mitford sisters, and so she designed a collection around them. This might have been a thick question (and she might have wanted to take my Kate Sylvester sunnies off me for not being the ideal customer), but would anyone know her collection was inspired by the Mitford gals if she didn't tell them? "No, probably not, but I mean, what I really hope is incredibly cool is that we do a collection and customers actually go out and read the books ..."

Her Mitford collection was intended to evoke a certain age of English aristocrats and their style. But how was Unity, the bonkers Hitler-loving fascist, represented? "That was probably the very strict pleated skirts. That could have been Unity: Very Precise Pleating!"

Now, about those knickers. She really does have an obsession with lingerie and has to match certain coloured knickers with certain frocks or she feels she's not properly dressed. She once designed feathered knickers. On what occasion might one wear feathered knickers? I wondered. "It depends completely on what kind of girl you are. And what state your bum is in, really."

What could she mean? "Well, I just wouldn't walk around in my knickers in public." So that clears that up. She has never worn a pair of her feathered knickers. I think I'm glad to hear that. Almost the only clothing she buys is knickers. From Farmers? "No! They're a bit nicer than that."

I wanted to see her wardrobe but she said, no way. Is it a disgrace? "It's terrible. And there are probably knickers on the floor." I got up and went to have a look. It is a disgrace. There may have been knickers on the floor but I'm not sure because she forcibly (and fair enough, too) pushed me out and shut the door.

She might be a little eccentric. She once wore a faux fur tramping the Routeburn track. Didn't she look like an idiot? "No, I looked so great!" The annoying thing is that she probably did, but I still like her. It's hard not to like a brand who is snooty and funny about being snooty and who throws her underwear on the floor.

And one who, when offered the chance to talk all sorts of fashion nonsense, said: "It's only frocks."

- NZ Herald

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