What is New Zealand's fashion identity?

By Zoe Walker

Dark and moody, or have we moved on? Two experts examine our New Zealand fashion identity.

Cybele 2011. Photo / Supplied
Cybele 2011. Photo / Supplied

Contemporary New Zealand fashion was once defined by the "dark and intellectual" label given to us by the international press in 1999, after the "New Zealand Four" presented their clothes at London Fashion Week. It was a term eventually so overused it began to mean nothing; a description that the industry both embraced and resented. Dark and intellectual? What a cliché. We're all unique. Yet despite protests that one size, or label, didn't fit all - designers like World and Karen Walker use heaps of colour, people would argue, and where's the intellectualism in a pretty floral dress from Trelise Cooper? - underneath it all there still lies a darker mood, whether it be Karen Walker's angsty outsider tendencies, Kate Sylvester's smarty-pants muse, or Nom*D's long-lasting penchant for black.

But then, five or so years ago, a new wave of young designers entered the industry and began to slowly change the way we perceive the New Zealand look. So where does our industry stand in 2011: what is the New Zealand look now? Some would be hard-pressed to find the darkness in some of the young labels who now form the strength and future of the local industry - think of Juliette Hogan's floaty pleated skirts, Stolen Girlfriends Club's cheeky irreverence or Ruby's girlish, youthful spirit.

But look deeper and you'll see that even today there is an underlying moodiness. Those dark and intellectual ideas are there, hidden within the quirks - the angst-trimmed nostalgia of Twenty-seven Names, Lonely Hearts' love affair with the outsider, Salasai's unassuming androgyny. Then there are those where the moodiness and intellectualism is obvious; labels like Cybele, Jimmy D, Maaike and Company of Strangers.

What could define the New Zealand "look" now is modesty, practicality, a stylish take on the casual - and a strong sense of contrast. It is diaphanous silk chiffon teamed with leather; a pair of boots that toughen up a girlish dress - that balance between the masculine and feminine, dark and cute; a pretty awkwardness. But what do some of our experts think? Two doyennes offer their take on New Zealand fashion now.

Doris de Pont

Doris is the curator of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, who has organised a fashion exhibition examining New Zealand's fascination with the colour black.

What is New Zealand style in 2011?
I differentiate between fashion and style. Fashion is what the designers create, while style is what we make of it, how we interpret and wear it. I am loving seeing the fun people are having at the moment creating their own style by mixing up high fashion offerings with opshop, often customised and definitely not worn as was intended back in the day. On the streets the looks can be very individual, which perhaps is the fashion of the moment, a licence to be creative and express your own spirit.

Sum up the New Zealand "look" in five words:
Individual, edgy, easy, modest, black.

New Zealand fashion is traditionally known as being "dark and intellectual" - does that still hold true?
I think the "dark and intellectual" description was earned because of the seriousness with which we approach our design and that has not changed. New Zealand fashion design tends not to be skimpy or overly feminine, rather it is often modest and considered. Even when designers like Trelise Cooper and World are flamboyant and having fun, there remains a self-consciousness and demureness because our fashion expresses our character and that's how we are.

What are some of the key things that have influenced this change in aesthetic?
I believe that the biggest influence on the style of the moment is the recession. When the budget permits there is a tendency to purchase the complete "look" of the moment; when budgets are challenged, those who enjoy fashion rise to that challenge by being inventive.

Why are we so fascinated with the colour black?
This is an interesting question and surprisingly one that hasn't really been asked by our historians to date. It is, however one, that I have been thinking about intensively for the last year as part of the research for the upcoming exhibition I am curating for the New Zealand Fashion Museum called Black in Fashion. There are no simple answers but by showing how, who, where and when black clothing has been worn every day in NZ for sport, in our films, by our musicians, in our fashions, this exhibition will shed some light on the question.

What is your favourite New Zealand city, in terms of style?
I love that our cities have each evolved a distinctive style because it shows New Zealanders are not a homogeneous, undistinguished mass. Each city and its people not only respond to the physical climate but also to their unique social and cultural environment and give expression to that local personality in how they choose to dress. I am an Aucklander born and bred and this is my favourite city. I really value the diversity of dressing that you see here with the influences new migrants have brought from the Pacific, and more recently from Asia. I think being open to other cultures is enriching and can lead to new, unexpected outcomes in fashion and other design.

Which New Zealand fashion institution, "icon" or heritage brand would you revive?
As a fashion designer I always wanted to design for Canterbury. For me it is the brand that epitomises the essence of New Zealandness, a sort of relaxed weekend dress culture available everyday. Contemporary labels like Twenty-seven Names have captured and modernised that essential "relaxed but urban" vibe. I believe New Zealand has shown the way in establishing the pre-eminence of the dress style described, in common parlance, as "smart casual" - that combination of easy stylishness without sacrifice of comfort.

Is there a person who represents or symbolises New Zealand style?
Karen Walker has always said she sees herself as an international designer. While she has achieved that goal, in my view her collections are firmly grounded in her understanding of her heritage. It is her ability to expand, refine and reinterpret that in a modern way that makes her work authentic and successful.

What are some iconic pieces that represent New Zealand style?
How can you go past the black singlet? Unpretentious, practical, stylish, funny, timeless, androgynous, easy, versatile - if you were asked to describe a New Zealander, the black singlet could say it all.

* Black in Fashion, September 9 - October 24, cnr Gore and Galway Sts, Britomart Precinct, Auckland.

Margi Robertson

Margi is the designer of New Zealand label Nom*D, and based in Dunedin.

Sum up New Zealand's "look", in five words.
Modern, urban, laid-back, quality conscious, wearable.

What is New Zealand style in 2011?
Having been in retail since 1975, it has been interesting to see the progression of what was quite a conservative approach to fashion in the 1970s, through to the denim age of the 1980s, the introduction of minimalism of the 1990s, and pretty much anything goes now. There is a element of individualism and a freedom to create which equals or surpasses any upmarket designer in the world. New Zealand has a group of designers who don't just copy what is happening in the Northern Hemisphere, they are original and creative, and the public, who are discerning, enthusiastically support them.

New Zealand fashion has traditionally been known as "dark and intellectual" - do you think that is accurate? Where did it come from?
When I think about it, we were given this tag back in 1999 when the New Zealand Four showed at London Fashion Week. To be honest it was possibly picked up by comparing us to the Antwerp Six out of Belgium, who were dark and intellectual - however the only darkness really was coming from Zambesi and ourselves. World and Karen Walker, although intellectual in their designs, would not be considered "dark".

Does that still hold true? What is our national style now?
Not really. There is no national style, we are like any other country in the fashion world; either a brand does have a leaning towards "dark" or not. Each label usually establishes the "feel" early in their careers and to keep the signature of the brand it is important to keep that style.

What do you think has influenced the evolution of our national aesthetic?
New Zealand Fashion Week has been an amazing platform on which to display the aesthetic and atmosphere of your collection, it has pushed ourselves and many other designers to think outside of making clothes and selling them - it brings collaborators into the picture, like stylists, photographers, production companies. It's great to work with those types of people, all working towards the same goal. International brands, over the past 10 years especially, have become increasingly part of the retail world, with the availability of online shopping. The world is a global market. It's important that we give customers who do like to shop personally a great retail experience.

Why do you think we are still so fascinated with the colour black?
It's so easy to wear, takes you anywhere, can be as casual or formal as you wish and fits any occasion. It's also the most flattering to the figure. It can represent various sub-cultures - like Gothic - or indicate formality and respect, at black tie events or funerals.

Your favourite New Zealand city, in terms of style?
Dunedin of course! Because I live here, we have a successful fashion store here, with a very loyal fan club. For a city of this size we sell some amazing avant-garde designs. I love the fact that it is not over-populated, so the lifestyle is laid-back, there are great restaurants, art galleries and the nature is very close and amazing.

Which New Zealand fashion institution, "icon" or heritage brand would you revive?
In my teens I used to really like buying Peppertree or Hullabaloo garments - I suppose they were pretty much mass-produced for the times, but the Estacel crepe fabrics and "Biba" type influences impressed me. Many brands at that time were European but made under licence. I'm not sure how those brands would stand up today, but they were New Zealand brands.

- NZ Herald

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