Instant recognition: 15 years of iconic NZ fashion

By Zoe Walker

Viva celebrates the last 15 years of fashion and our leading designers most iconic garments - worn here by top models Penny Pickard and Ngahuia Williams.

(Left) Penny wears a Grecian printed dress by DNA from 1997. (Right) Ngahuia wears Kate Sylvester's red wool cape from 2007. Photo  / Babiche Martens
(Left) Penny wears a Grecian printed dress by DNA from 1997. (Right) Ngahuia wears Kate Sylvester's red wool cape from 2007. Photo / Babiche Martens

Fifteen years is a long time in fashion. That's roughly 30 seasons, with the many garments that make up each collection. Come season's end, most are forgotten as the designer and consumer move on to the next - but there are those pieces that stick around; somehow becoming symbolic of a designer or the season.

What makes a garment iconic? Ideally it's something that changes the course of fashion and how women dress - a new silhouette, direction, concept, technique (think of Christian Dior's New Look, a Chanel boucle jacket, or Yves Saint Lauren's Le Smoking suits). Although much like our fashion, our own iconic pieces in New Zealand are less groundbreaking; instead, they're often pieces that represent national pride or a moment in time. Something that symbolises a season, a year or decade in one easy garment. These are fashion garments removed from iconic Kiwi clothing - the Swanndri, black singlets, gumboots, jandals. Rather, think of them as representative symbols of our fashion industry over the past 15 years.

A style can become iconic if a designer revisits it enough times - classics like Zambesi's high-collared, cropped jackets or bloomers, or Trelise Cooper's sequins - or if it sells ridiculously well, like Juliette Hogan's floor-length pleated skirts or Kathryn Wilson's "Jimmy" motorcycle-style boots, both future classics in the making (pre-1997, Workshop's linen shirts are a perfect example).

Sometimes a garment becomes recognisable for perfectly representing a fashion designer's aesthetic years after it was initially created, while other times iconic status may be the result of a special moment - an unforgettable fashion show, a celebrity wearer, a notable image. Nom*D's famous half-cut dresses - vintage gowns cut in half with lurex mesh on the front or back from a 2002-2003 collection - have become iconic for nearly all these reasons: they represent designer Margi Robertson's continuing fascination with deconstruction; Kelly Osborne wanted to buy one from a London boutique, and Bic Runga wore one in a music video in 2002.

Designer Laurie Foon's 1997 collection, called Liberation, is another example of the power of fashion and image, memorably photographed against state housing in Wainuiomata - a concept Foon is still known for today. Being immortalised in print can solidify a garment's iconic status too, as with World's pink ruffle dress from 2006-2007 which made the cover of Angela Lassig's 2010 book New Zealand Fashion Design. When Kate Sylvester's hooded red cape appeared on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2006 as part of her Wolf collection, it instantly became a classic - and appearing on the cover of Fashion Quarterly months later also helped immortalise it as a defining piece of the season, back when making the cover represented such a thing.

Sylvester is a master of the iconic show too: from her 2000 Brighton Rock collection featuring the memorable doily prints and a show where models walked a runway fully set as a dinner table, to the emotional Stop Your Sobbing presentation in 2005 with its distinctive teardrop print and Victorian lace handkerchiefs. Memorable show presentations can help make a garment stand the test of time, through imagery and the memory of those who were there: like World's show at Ara Lodge in 2004, with its incredible glitter suits made in collaboration with artist Reuben Paterson. Many in the industry still look back fondly on Tanya Carlson's 2002 Sweet Child show complete with top hats, and Zambesi's rock 'n' roll show at the St James Theatre in 2005.

Sometimes it can be something as simple as a memorable print. The early print work from Doris de Pont and Adrienne Foote's label DNA is representative of the 1990s and early noughties, with distinctive graphics on simple garments - like the Grecian prints from 1997, their New Zealand-inspired prints including the South Pacific Rhapsody collection shown at Australian Fashion Week in 2001, or the snakeskin, lizard, plant and Pacific prints from the Where the Wild Things Are collection, shown memorably at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2002, their final collection together.

Karen Walker also develops her own exclusive prints each season, many of which have gone on to symbolise collections and her brand. Tailoring is key to her collections - the black wool trousers worn by Madonna at the MTV Awards in 1998 are another iconic New Zealand fashion piece - but her prints are always instantly identifiable as Karen Walker. Those from earlier seasons especially, whether it be the colourful hearts print from 2003-04, the carousel horses and deranged clown in 2004, or the maple leaf print from 2004-2005. But it's a simple print of a broken strand of pearls that appeared in 2000 that is probably best representative of the Karen Walker aesthetic, an off-kilter femininity that still underlies her collections today. The broken strand of pearls originally featured on dresses, T-shirts and shirts in the 2000 collection Etiquette, but Walker revisited the archival print in 2009 with her collection She's Cracked.

The printed T-shirt also offers a powerful platform to showcase a simple idea. There's a reason why so many of our now beloved brands began as humble T-shirt labels: affordable to produce, and an effective way to brand. Coupled with New Zealanders' soft spot for the garment, it's unsurprising that so many tees have become iconic pieces. Think of Laurie Foon's "Bypass My Ass" T-shirt, World's "Muldoon 83 per cent" T-shirts from 2005, or Workshop Denim's Tiki tees. Stolen Girlfriends Club's first garment was a simple white T-shirt with the now iconic phrase "Stolen Girlfriends Club Says Relax" - their take on the classic 1980s line - instantly setting the cheeky tone for the label moving forward. Nom*D have reversed the idea somewhat, taking archival prints originally featured on sweatshirting and re-issuing them on T-shirts that continue to sell today, like the iconic monster and skeleton Soviet propaganda prints and the famous "Don't Shoot", both from 2003.

But Huffer can probably claim our most iconic T-shirt, with help from Orlando Bloom. The actor wore their patriotic "I Huff NZ" T-shirt to the 2003 premiere of The Lord of The Rings: Return of the King - the label's Kiwi take on the classic "I Heart NY", featuring its three-dot logo in the place of a heart. It gained, reported this very newspaper, "overnight cult fashion status and hundreds of people wanted one". There were none available in stores though, and they decided not to produce more, adding to the story and mystique of the piece. Bingo: iconic. But, like Karen Walker and her pearls, Huffer did eventually revisit the print with a small collection released last year to coincide with the surge of patriotism brought on by the Rugby World Cup.

Revisiting or reissuing a piece from the archive can also be a sign that something has become iconic - or has sold so well the designer wants to use that popularity.

The difference is when the piece represents something more significant. Zambesi, whose 30-plus year archive is extensive (unlike many designers, they keep most pieces that have been produced in the back of their workroom; racks and racks of beautiful clothes that make fashion editors go weak at the knees), often revisit ideas or styles from past collections, more as an evolution of their aesthetic rather than purely for profit. It's difficult to define just one iconic piece from them over the last 15 years - but arguably the most iconic moment for New Zealand fashion since 1997 was when Zambesi and three other designers (World, Karen Walker and Nom*D) showed at London Fashion Week in 1999.

Shown at that show was a distinctively Zambesi look: a textured wool floral black and white top teamed with a structured hoop skirt made of lace - a piece revisited by designer Elisabeth Findlay in 2008, and still instantly recognisable as hers.

Stockists: Country Road, Forever New, Helen Cherry at Workshop (09) 524 6844, Karen Walker (09) 522 4286, Kathryn Wilson (09) 446 1004, Pat Menzies (09) 373 4955, Stolen Girlfriends Club, Topshop at The Department Store (09) 489 4229, Twenty-seven Names (04) 384 1152, Workshop (09) 524 6844, Zambesi (09) 523 1000.

Credits: Photographer: Babiche Martens. Stylist: Rachel Morton. Models: Penny Pickard and Ngahuia Williams from N Model Management. Hair: Sky Cripps-Jackson from Stephen Marr. Makeup: Meggie Mapper for M.A.C. Cosmetics

- NZ Herald

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