Fashion in the genes

By Zoe Walker

The apple often doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to stylish mothers.

The other night, someone said I looked like a mum at the school gates, and I was, like, 'Thank you'." said TV presenter Alexa Chung recently.

From the recent "70s mum" trend to the fascination with celebrity mothers, the notion of a daughter dismissing her mother as embarrassingly unstylish and mumsy now seems oddly old-fashioned. More often than not, stylish modern women are crediting their own mothers with helping shape their fashion appreciation from an early age, whether it be via encouraging childhood dress-ups, lessons on how to sew or simply by having their own developed sense of style. But what happens when one grows up in style, with a mother who works in fashion?

Is there double the pressure to be stylish? An innate sense of how to present yourself to the world? Or perhaps an inclination to enter the industry, with fantastic contacts?

Internationally, industry mother-daughter combos and fashion dynasties abound. There's Donatella Versace and daughter Allegra, who inherited 50 per cent of the Italian fashion house, former Paris Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld and Julia Restion-Roitfeld, who has appeared in campaigns for everyone from Tom Ford to Esprit, and US Vogue's Anna Wintour and daughter Bee Shaffer, who says she isn't interested in working in fashion but attends shows and events with her powerful mother.

Vivienne Westwood's two sons have both made a foray into the fashion world: photographer Ben Westwood has launched a namesake fashion line and Joseph Corre co-founded lingerie brand Agent Provocateur; while the daughter of Perry Ellis has just launched a line of handbags. Then there's the less high-fashion but hilarious Joan Rivers, who has hosted many a red carpet fashion grilling with daughter Melissa.

Closer to home, we have World co-founder Denise L'Estrange Corbet and her stylist daughter Pebbles Hooper, style doyenne Paula Ryan and Bridget Hope, who took over the editorial reins at Ryan's Simply You magazine after Ryan stepped down (Hope is now based in Singapore); and no New Zealand Fashion Week front row is complete without the ubiquitous mother-daughter combination of Petra Bagust and mother Judi.

Paddy Walker wasconsidered a "promoter" of New Zealand fashion, long before the fashion PRs of today, and her daughter Michal McKay went on to become fashion editor of New Zealand Vogue in the 1960s. Sabatini is a staunch family business, with designer Margi Milich telling Sydney's The Sun Herald this past weekend, "Fifty years ago my mum started by knitting shawls and my dad went around from door to door selling them for two shillings. Now with three generations, it's a family business more so than ever, with my brother Tony and daughter Danielle also a part of the brand".

Then there are the destined to be stylish sons of fashion influencers: Fashion Quarterly editor Fiona Hawtin's son appears in a photo shoot in the current issue, and at Kate Sylvester's New Zealand Fashion Week shows you will often spot her young boys in the front row, seated next to Sylvester's proud mum and dad.

Auckland based designer Jaimie Webster works closely with her "individual and effortlessly glamorous" mother Dianne Armstrong, both frequent stylish presences in their Ponsonby Rd Jaimie Boutique. Armstrong's background in fashion includes owning a fashion boutique in the 1970s, which has led to Webster and her older sister inheriting several amazing vintage pieces, including Nina Ricci and Hermes neck scarves.

Webster credits her mother's enthusiasm with inspiring her to "be excited about the expression of style", and for teaching her about the importance of quality and workmanship in all things - an attitude Armstrong feels she too learnt from her mother. "My mother was a very stylish woman: very tall, beautiful, and proud. She wore quality and taught me to look for quality rather than quantity."

Of course, not all designers have mothers who worked in fashion - for every fashion family tree, there is a designer whose parents were not interested in fashion at all. For most designers though, a mother's influence in instilling an early appreciation of craft or a sense of creative curiosity is key, regardless of whether she may work in fashion or not. Designer Camille Howie and her older sister Frances both work in fashion - Camille with her namesake label and Frances who has worked at Lanvin in Paris - and Camille credits her mother's teaching with helping shape their fashion futures. "She made clothes for us when we were younger and also hand-sewn quilts. She was an artist so she put her creative energy into her landscape drawings before she passed away," she explains. Her grandmother's connection to textiles was another creative influence. "She was a weaver and hand-spun and dyed her own wool. Creativity definitely runs through the females in our family."

The Sharmas are, however, a family with fashion clearly in the blood. Christine Sharma is the general manager of the brands Ruby and Madame Hawke; the latter designed by her daughter Emily Miller-Sharma. The fashion gene also went to her youngest daughter Anna-Lise, who recently began working in fashion PR. And all of them may have inherited it from Christine's mother, who trained as a milliner. Anna-Lise credits growing up completely immersed in fashion through both her parents as shaping her move into fashion, as well as being given a healthy and realistic idea of the pitfalls of the industry. As a mother, Christine (who has sons as well) says it feels special to have two daughters doing so well in the industry - but she never really encouraged them to choose fashion as a career.

"Emily just naturally went through school doing art and then textiles so it was a natural progression for her. I encouraged her to sew when she was young as I could see how much she loved it and had a natural talent. Anna-Lise just absorbed fashion by osmosis living in a family that enjoys good style on many levels."

Though these fashion families love working together and having shared conversations about the business of fashion, most are conscious of not making their fashion life their family life. Dianne Armstrong says though she loves that her daughter Jaimie Webster keeps her up to date and introduces her to interesting friends, being busy in business together can sometimes mean they don't get much time to "just be mother and daughter". Christine Sharma too acknowledges the fine line between work and home, "making sure we are disciplined around family dinners - that they don't turn into a 'work' discussion and missing out on the other parts of our lives!"

The closest we may have to a true fashion family, however, is the close-knit one behind Zambesi, headed by a woman who has been described as the Godmother of New Zealand fashion. Elisabeth Findlay's daughters Marissa and Sophie both work in the business, on fashion week shows, campaign imagery, show music, model casting, collection videos, their upcoming e-store and more; and were brought up visiting the Zambesi workroom.

"When I think about the environment the girls grew up in, they were immersed in fabric, pattern card and garments because I worked from home until they were both at school," explains Findlay. "They were often drawing on bits of pattern card under the cutting table and always came with me on buying trips for components like zips, cottons, fabrics and so on. It was just part of our lives and I imagine it would have seemed quite normal to always be exploring and discussing work at home." Sophie too has fond memories of spending long days at the workroom with her mum as a child, "drawing with tailor's chalk, sleeping on rolls of fabric, nothing to read but old Vogue magazines, then running into the corner of a cutting table and being taken home".

Like most fashionable mothers, Findlay says she and partner Neville didn't actively encourage their girls into the fashion industry; it was more of a happy accident. Sophie's background is in film, while Marissa's foray into fashion photography (she also shoots for various magazines) was instigated by Zambesi and her mother - an assignment for a photography course required her to photograph a fashion shoot, "so naturally I borrowed some clothes from mum's work". Findlay loved the images so much she used them as a Zambesi ad in Pavement magazine, and Marissa continued to photograph the campaign each season.

Findlay's early fabric sourcing trips to Japan with her sister Margi Robertson of Nom*D were another key influencer on her daughters, with both remembering their mother bringing home incredible children's clothing for them - Sophie credits them with probably sparking her love of graphics. Some of these pieces are still worn by younger family members now; including Marissa's son Bruno. Some may even have a Zambesi label sewn into them, as insisted upon by a 4-year-old Sophie.

Like every daughter of a mother like Findlay, both girls have inherited lots of incredible pieces, with nothing ever too special for them to borrow. (There is also admittedly the added pressure of not living up to the style expectations of having a designer mother, as Marissa sometimes feels, "but I love working with the label and wear it in my own way which Zambesi lends itself to easily".)

The previous generation has been influential on the Zambesi DNA too: Findlay says her mother has been a huge influence on her even though she didn't recognise it for a long time. "She was the most amazing seamstress and very particular and was always sewing for us and taught us to sew and think creatively. If she was able she would still be doing the op shops and buying up large. I am so proud of her and what she achieved with a large family. My mother's life is a great story and I feel very humble when I think of how she coped and gave us this wonderful gift of believing in ourselves." One of the dresses created for Findlay as a young woman by her mother has since been "claimed" by Marissa. As Sophie explains, "the wardrobes are very fluid in our family, and some clothes have even been passed down from my Yaya. She is very stylish herself - she is always wanting to try on my shoes".

- NZ Herald

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