Unzipped part 1: Following Trelise Cooper

By Zoe Walker

In a new eight-part TV series, Trelise Cooper allows the cameras to capture what goes on behind fashionable doors.

Trelise Cooper opens the doors to her work and life in Unzipped. Photo / Babiche Martens
Trelise Cooper opens the doors to her work and life in Unzipped. Photo / Babiche Martens

What's it like behind the scenes at Trelise Cooper HQ? Well, it smells like flowers, there's a small statue of a dog in the entrance, there are clothes everywhere, and there's a sign on the design room door telling others to stay out.

I'm here to talk to Cooper about her part in Unzipped, a documentary series starting next week that follows four local designers on their journey to NZ Fashion Week and beyond. Stolen Girlfriends Club, Sera Lilly and emerging label Maaike join Cooper in the eight-part series, which began filming in the lead-up to last year's Fashion Week.

We're in a beautifully laid-out meeting room downstairs in Cooper's Newmarket head office, that's both minimal and pretty - sheer lace curtains, a large glass table in the middle of the room, rail of clothes to the side and a bouquet of flowers in the corner - they see to scent the air everywhere in her workroom. This is where her team have twice-weekly yoga classes, something Cooper encourages to try to balance out the busy pace of the workplace (there was mandatory meditation as well, but that has gone by the wayside a bit lately).

Like the 1995 Isaac Mizrahi documentary of the same name, Unzipped goes behind the scenes to see what it takes to put on a show; reflecting the huge level of public interest in the fashion world (see: NZ's Next Top Model and Kathryn Wilson's planned giant public runway show at NZFW). Cooper hopes that the series showcases the high stakes of Fashion Week. "I think a lot of people have the misunderstanding that it's sort of frivolous - but it's high stakes, and it's big business."

Cooper's involvement in the series came about following a conversation between her company's then-CEO, and producer Julie Christie, who discussed a one-episode special that looked at what it takes to put on a Fashion Week show. It soon grew into something much bigger "and I got cold feet at that point", explains Cooper - due in part to nerves over being filmed, and the polarising nature of TV.

"I am quite shy, and the more profile that I've got the more vulnerable I feel. I know that's weird, but it's like the more well-known I've become, it has brought out that shyness more. I know a lot of people don't think that about me, but actually I don't seek out media - a lot of people think I push for it." That is true: Cooper, nor anyone from her company, has ever approached any of the publications I've worked at for stories (although she is always open when approached). Younger designers are much more proactive about seeking out coverage.

Despite her misgivings, Cooper eventually came around and allowed cameras to follow her sporadically for almost a year; a busy time that she says stretched her and her team greatly. She welcomed cameras into the workroom backstage at last year's Fashion Week show; to Amsterdam where she opened a store in August last year; allowed access to various people in her life (even staff at the store where she buys makeup were interviewed); and was filmed as she launched the new Air New Zealand uniforms.

Ah yes, let's talk about those uniforms. When images of the prototypes leaked last year, there was a bit of an outcry. Our national carrier in pink? Cooper admits to being anxious about it, because it is something that is close to everyone's heart - "everyone, not just the wearers, the whole of New Zealand!"

"What I decided is that one size does not fit all," Cooper explains of the uniforms, which is an attitude that informs her own brands. "There are so many shapes and sizes and personalities, so I created a wardrobe within the restraints." That meant mixing up the formula of the uniform, offering staff a variety of ideas within the wardrobe - say instead of having four of the same jacket, they can choose from three jackets; instead of having a pant and a skirt, they can choose from two skirts, a dress and a pant.

"And then there's the print dress which of course caused all the controversy," she laughs. She's talking about the "twilight pink" koru print dress that had the notoriously black-loving New Zealand public scoffing into their flat whites. Cooper says she understands people's reactions to it, "but the staff's reaction has been amazing. The thing about the dress is that it's a really comfortable dress that fits all sorts of bodies - pregnant girls, it allows for flying bloat - which is part of what they [air hostesses] have! When you do a dress, the problem with a plain fabric is that it shows every lump and bump, so I wanted to create a print that was of the flora and fauna of New Zealand - but I didn't want it to be like a print that you might find in a tourist shop." Interestingly, Cooper originally offered it in black and white, but Air NZ were keen on colour.

Cooper herself has shown a penchant for black for some time now - somewhat at odds with the over-the-top frou-frou that many people think she represents. The frills and glamour are still there of course - that's what her customer loves - but the Trelise Cooper aesthetic has evolved into something more pared-back. Or her version of pared-back.

"The thing I'm asked for mostly is 'can we have some more Trelise frills and frou-frou?' It's not what I wear now, it was a phase I went through in the 90s, early 2000s. And I loved it back then! But it's not for me now. I'll always be feminine though. I like to have a modern, contemporary feel for the essence of what my brand is - which means that the lines have been cleaner, and there hasn't been as much fuss." That doesn't necessarily mean the frills won't come back though; as Cooper says, it has been an evolution of an aesthetic, but that doesn't mean it will stay that way.

Today she is in black, with more than a hint of that Trelise glamour: a black coat worn over the sequinned stained glass window dress from her winter 2011 collection,.

So what next for Cooper? The day after we met, she flew to Europe to launch her brand on to the Queen Elizabeth II luxury ocean liner. The Air NZ uniforms are being rolled out, and there is the launch of a new, younger-focused label from the Trelise Cooper stable, Coop - a seperate brand not stocked in her boutiques, and designed by two girls who have worked with her for around four years. "David Jones requested that we come up with a younger brand; I think they were wanting to fill their Sass and Bide niche."

Cooper will also show again at NZ Fashion Week later this month, with 2000 people attending two shows for trade and customers. There won't be, however, the incredibly popular Trelise Cooper Kids show - Cooper says it is on hold for a while; they are not not doing a range "because it's difficult business at the moment", instead focusing on Coop.

Mainly though, she will be keeping incredibly busy, something she jokes that she must love. She credits her loyal team with helping her get it all done.

"I have a real core team of people who have been here a long time. Everybody here works really hard; and it's probably my regret that people work too hard. But you get caught up in what has to be done, deadlines that need to be met - and there's no way we're not going to meet the deadlines, so everybody pulls together and does it. The culture of our business is that it's not a place you can cruise in. I guess it's stimulating; we're never bored, there's always something new on the horizon - and I think momentum in business is really important."

* Unzipped, August 12, 9:30pm, TV One.

- NZ Herald

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