Miss Crabb's tired eyes belie a fiery creativity

By Zoe Walker

As boutique fashion store Miss Crabb celebrates its eight-year anniversary, Viva visits Kristine Crabb - a designer who has stayed true to her own vision - at home in St Marys Bay.

Kristine Crabb at her St Marys Bay home. Photo / Babiche Martens
Kristine Crabb at her St Marys Bay home. Photo / Babiche Martens

Kristine Crabb is tired, "dead on her feet", but her passion for design and creativity shines through even the most tired of eyes. The softly spoken fashion designer - and mother of three children under the age of 5, including a four-month-old, hence the exhaustion - opened her Miss Crabb store on Ponsonby Rd almost eight years ago to the day, and is set to mark the milestone with a limited edition run of her all-time most popular style, the Rise dress, made in silk velvet, each one numbered and signed like a piece of art.

That creative focus reflects how Crabb has built her label to be one of New Zealand's most interesting, with craft and experimentation at its heart.

Those eight years have seen the Waikato-born designer develop her alternative approach to fashion and build a very loyal fanbase - notable in the early days for consisting of cool creative girls about town like radio presenter Noelle McCarthy and musician and TV presenter Lorna Storm (who appeared in an early 2005 campaign).

Interestingly, Crabb has always sat a little outside the local fashion industry, seemingly more comfortable in the art world. That early independent spirit was personified by Crabb's off-schedule "secret show" held during NZ Fashion Week in 2006, in the early hours in a tiny underground bar that used to be a strip club.

The designer and label have grown up a lot since. In 2009 Crabb worked with Huffer to design their womenswear, a surprisingly mainstream diversion for the resolutely independent creative. In 2010 she joined forces with Ingrid Starnes, another designer focused on craft, hosting the label in store - something Crabb counts as a highlight. "Her love of design and dedication to quality - and the tenacity that being a newbie in business demands - totally reinvigorated my love for fashion and the business."

We are in Crabb's St Mary's Bay home, a large old stone house on a quiet street with an expansive view out on to the marina and city. There's art everywhere - on the walls, sitting on the floor of the creaky wooden stairwell, hanging from the ceiling in the lounge - much of it made by friends and collaborators like Richard Orjis, and Crabb's partner, the artist Andrew Barber. She is wearing one of her signature flowing silk dresses, and though her hair is dishevelled and she is clearly tired, she still exudes a kind of raw earth mother sexiness.

Crabb's clothes are sexy, but not in the stereotypical sense, and they can be difficult for some to "get" - perhaps because they're not obvious or trend-driven enough. Her signature flowing silk dresses have been described, rather meanly, as designer sacks, but this neglects to appreciate the sensuality of the cut and the fabric when you put one on. The best fashion feels good as well as looking good, and Crabb's garments embrace the idea of dressing for yourself rather than dressing for others. Indeed, her devotees talk about the transformative powers of her dresses, which make them feel feminine and powerful.

Leilani Heather is a fan and friend of the label, having worked with Crabb for more than two years, starting out in the store, now working as in-house photographer and looking after the computer and digital side of the business. Like many who work with Crabb, she describes her as brave and inspiring, and comments on her design process as being something wonderful to be a part of.

"She's not afraid to refine and simplify and the end results are always magical," explains Heather, who was initially drawn to the label by one dress in particular - a floral cotton voile "Rise" dress.

"It was and still is the dress of my dreams. From that first purchase I knew my Miss Crabb obsession was set in stone and I have never looked back. I think I have seven Rise dresses now!" In fact, look in the wardrobe of many Auckland creative types and you're likely to find one of these dresses, a seemingly simple voluminous T-shirt style dress that can be worn belted or full.

Something else Crabb has become known for is her nurturing of young creatives. Areez Katki, who creates incredible unique knitwear that is hand-dyed (the most recent with plants from his garden) and sold through Crabb's boutique, met her in 2009 and has been a fan of her design for much longer. "Her garments achieve the perfect balance between effortlessness in relation to drapery and attention to detail in terms of construction," he says. "There is an almost purist way by which the signature Crabb silk garments are cut and draped; a skill I very much admire."

Kate Megaw is another who has been taken under the Miss Crabb wing. She worked as Crabb's workroom assistant for a number of years, as well as producing pieces for own label Penny Sage which she now concentrates on full-time. She had been an admirer of Crabb's from the days of Rip Shit and Bust, Crabb's earlier venture. "I thought that store was the best thing ever! And her label in particular was so impressive," Megaw explains. "I think I was initially drawn to it for the same reasons I still am now: her clothes are beautiful, honest, strong, and can only be Miss Crabb."

Katki also counts her as a type of mentor figure. "Quite often, as I am in the process of designing a collection, I would show her initial samples and swatches. Her reactions to my work have always been positively constructive, and it is so wonderful to have that kind of a relationship with somebody whose intuition I have grown to trust and uphold.

"It is so very important for young designers to have that kind of support and, more so, it is very rare for that to occur so seamlessly in this day and age," he says.

Crabb's longstanding support is something Megaw comments on too. "Kristine has always been so supportive of my label and generous of her time, knowledge and contacts. I talk to her about all of my decisions big and small and her feedback on my collections is really important to me."

You could assume that motherhood led to this nurturing of young talent, but Crabb's creative generosity began earlier with Rip, Shit and Bust. Prior to Miss Crabb the designer ran the "fashion gallery" with Jonelle Janrahan, an upstairs space on K Rd, then a bastion of independent creativity. Here they sold Crabb's earlier label, Non, as well as work from art-focused designers like Maiangi Waitai of Who is Dead Martin? and jeweller Steph Lusted. "That was really experimental, on all fronts," she explains, "Well, the whole time's been pretty experimental really. But it was about trying things out and seeing where I sat in the fashion industry. I used to sell lots of other labels that were like me, fresh as!" Crabb says, laughing.

She doesn't think of herself as being a mentor type. "It's funny because I don't really think of it like that. I just choose things I like. Because people feel like they can approach me maybe, that's how it started."

Crabb's latest collection will arrive in stores in early August, and continues her art-led design approach. It is based around the work of her partner, artist Andrew Barber, using some of the devices he uses in garments. The pair haven't worked together before, but "I suppose our lives are so intense so we're always vibing off each other", she says. "This time it's obvious - it's a little bit of everything that he's done over the years. He has done these beautiful tartan works, and also stripes, so I've got this striped chiffon that we have made into a tartan by laying it together."

So does she ever think about throwing it all in and focusing solely on motherhood? "Yeah, very often!" she says, laughing.

"I kind of thought last year when I got pregnant, 'oh maybe I should just focus'. But we had a really good year, so I thought that I probably should keep going. There's always just something awesome that keeps me going.

"It's like anything that's worthwhile or intense," she explains, "you have really bad days and really good days. I feel like it has made me a better person and a better designer."

Describing herself as obsessed with creating, you get the feeling Crabb would continue even if she didn't have the store or the label. "It's just always been about the clothes. I'm just obsessed.

"And I think as I've gotten older and more experienced, I feel like the clothes are just getting better and better."

- NZ Herald

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