Twelve Questions: Caroline Marr

By Sarah Stuart

Caroline Marr was a teenage mum-turned-store detective who set up The Carpenter's Daughter plus-size clothing stores and now dresses many prominent Kiwi women. She is unimpressed by Kiwi fashion crimes such as socks and jandals

Caroline Marr says she was allowed to roam anywhere in Port Chalmers during a happy childhood. Photo / Natalie Slade
Caroline Marr says she was allowed to roam anywhere in Port Chalmers during a happy childhood. Photo / Natalie Slade

1. How has your Chatham Islands heritage shaped your life?

I never understood why when I was growing up as the middle child that I was the one who always tried to make the peace. Knowing now what I know of my ancestors and their history, I am still that peacemaker. I am well known for gathering while out wandering in the bush, or on the beach. Not a hunter but a gatherer. Two traits from my ancestors. But I was never brought up as Maori and I felt like I missed out on my Maoridom.

2. Describe your childhood.

I was born in Port Chalmers [near Dunedin], my father was a fisherman, my mother a homemaker and the local postie. We moved houses a lot and knew everyone. I was allowed to roam anywhere and everywhere, I had no fear and still have none today. I would be making huts and riding to Aramoana for a swim and picnics with my sister and our friends. I would come home with treasures such as my collection of old bottles that Mum cleaned and looked after and gave back to me when I got my first house.

I had the best childhood.

3. Ralph Hotere was your neighbour - what are your early memories of him?

My first memories of Ralph was he had a red wine in hand and a younger woman at his side. His house was always fascinating - art and objects all over the place. He had grey, unruly hair like mine, which he'd try to tame under his beret. Barry Brickell built a kiln, Hone Tuwhare was sitting at his kitchen table and there were papers all over the place - a creative mess. You had to listen hard for what Ralph was saying. He was a quiet man who loved his friends and his golf.

4. Did fashion feature highly in your teenage years?

Not really. My Mum sewed all our clothes and knitted our jumpers. I hated the fact that my sister was wearing the same as me sometimes. I started making my own skirts at 8.

5. You were size 24 when you started The Carpenter's Daughter: what was in your wardrobe then?

I made all my own clothes then, too, until I opened my first store. People used to come up to me and ask me where I'd got them so I could see there was a business there. I had simple A-line dresses - one colour (usually purple), no pattern, no zips and no buttons - and I would adjust them to show my bust and waist. I made clothes that were practical and showed my curves. I had a man that adored me then and still have today.

6. Did you always know you were a businesswoman?

No. I was a mum at 17, got married and had no school qualifications. But I always worked - at the local rest home or in retail. I became a store detective for Smith & Caughey, Farmers, lots of places. That was the most exciting job. I didn't realise how nosy I am with people. How inquisitive. And the adrenalin rush was great.

7. Did you catch many crooks?

I can spot a shoplifter anywhere. Still can. You don't watch them, you watch their hands. It could be scary, too - I walked one gang member, a Storm Trooper, from the Farmers store in Onehunga to the police station. I was only 24 but I was a big girl. People didn't push me over. I was the business.

8. Do bigger women feel invisible in public or do they sometimes want to be?

How can something big be invisible? We encourage women to take up their space beautifully - to be seen and not measured. Sometimes big women don't dress themselves to be admired. My partner, Yaw, my toyboy - he's 12 years younger than me - is Ghanian and in his culture nothing is measured. People don't know how old they are, how tall they are, the weight they are. They don't measure. All they see is shape and a woman's shape is sexy. They think European women are too straight.

9. Has there been much of a culture clash between you two?

I was married to a Fijiian-Indian-Chinese-New Zealander for 23 years. We're grandparents now and still the best of friends. The biggest clash for us was accommodating all the cultures. With Yaw I struggled more with the age gap, worrying about that. But he's interesting, adventurous and a creative as well. I don't know what other people think of us. I don't really care.

10. You've dressed actors (Geraldine Brophy), politicians (Paula Bennett and Tariana Turia) and other prominent women. Have you felt prejudice from the New Zealand fashion community?

Absolutely. When was the last time you saw a plus-size page in the fashion pages? And if so, are they New Zealand or overseas brands. The Carpenter's Daughter has been around a long time but we aren't invited to be part of the fashion stuff.

11. Do you think New Zealanders generally make enough effort with their clothes?

We're terrible. I've been on red carpets where people are wearing hoodies and jeans; on Ponsonby Rd and seen men wearing socks and jandals. I think it's about taking pride in yourself and we have no excuses here not to make the effort. In New Zealand we have running water and electricity. Third World countries don't yet people dress beautifully, they are pristine.

12. What is sexy to you?

I am sexy. A man with good shoes is sexy. My friends are sexy, messy hair is sexy, food is sexy, big bums and thick thighs are damned sexy.

- NZ Herald

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