Denise L'Estrange-Corbet
To be a made a dame companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit

When Denise L'Estrange-Corbet received an official-looking letter in the mail her first reaction was, "Oh God, what have I done now and how much trouble am I in?"

Upon reading she was to be made a dame in recognition of the philanthropic work she and her fashion house WORLD have carried out over the past 28 years, she had to lean against her car for fear of falling over.

"I am both flabbergasted and humbled to receive such an incredible honour," she says. "And I'm delighted not to be in any trouble for a change."

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"Dame Den" - she thinks it has a better ring to it than Dame Denise - says WORLD's anti-establishment approach and her own firebrand reputation would have excluded her from any such honour.

"We don't care," she says of her organisation's approach to business. "Maybe that's our problem but it's also our strength."

L'Estrange-Corbet, 57, founded WORLD with former husband and still-best friend Francis Hooper in 1989 when the pair became fed up with their jobs at Auckland fashion retail outlets.

In an absolute "sink or swim" move, they spent all they had - $200 each - on a lease for a 9.3 square metre shop on Auckland's High St where they sold their wares, designing and sewing into the early hours to make sure there was enough stock for the morning.

"If we had gone to our bank manager and said, 'We have $200 each, we live in rented accommodation, we both work part-time, we've got a car that leaks with windscreen wipers that don't work. We want to start a business'. They'd just say, 'You're completely bonkers'."

Fortunately, they did not seek the bank manager's opinion.

However, it was a hand-to-mouth existence for the pair and their new baby, Pebbles, for many years before they received any real recognition or an income to speak of.

"We'd lie awake at night sometimes thinking, 'Oh my God, if we don't get enough money soon we're not going to be able to pay the rent on Monday'. That's how close to the wire we were," she says

It wasn't until 1995 that their avant-garde, off-the-wall designs caught the fashion world's attention and they won the prestigious Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Award and the then-unthinkable sum of $5000.

So hectic were their lives in those days, WORLD's outfit for the awards was knocked together in a last-minute panic, made out of bits and bobs L'Estrange-Corbet picked up at Whitcoulls some 24 hours prior to the big night. The outfit now sits in the Auckland Museum.

"It's never been about the money for us - that outfit cost us $10 - it's always been about the idea," L'Estrange-Corbet says.

"That's when New Zealand heard about us and we started to become known. It's been a whole life's journey of being gobsmacked ever since."

L'Estrange-Corbet was born to an abusive, alcoholic father and left New Zealand with her mother and sister for England aged 3.

There, as the daughter of a poor solo-mother where anything but a nuclear family was scorned, she experienced what it was like to be stigmatised.

The little girl from New Zealand got a different-coloured lunch ticket to the other kids at school, indicating her meal was free.

"It was very much, 'Ugh, they're the poor children', and it always really stuck with me that I was never quite good enough," she says.

But it was that adversity, she says, which gave her the drive to succeed, and also a sincere desire to help the struggling and marginalised.

"I'm sure if we'd stayed in New Zealand and been brought up in a very normal, middle-class family I wouldn't have had the edge, drive or courage to face the things I've faced; and to be so opinionated."

She has always disregarded the norms of the fashion industry yet often finds herself in the spotlight.

"We push the boat out and I suppose that's why we get a lot of attention," she says. "We don't think, 'Let's do this because it'll be really wacky and it'll get some media'. There's always a story behind what we're doing and ... we've never tried to be anything we're not."

WORLD has remained committed to keeping its operations firmly in New Zealand, something L'Estrange-Corbet sees as repayment for the help she received as a struggling entrepreneur.

"If it was about money we would have gone offshore many years ago, and, believe me, that carrot has been dangled so many times," she says.

"Francis and I have always said, 'Then what? We'd have money but we wouldn't feel good about what we've done'. I wouldn't want to think that some poor child is making my clothes, some poor woman or man is sleeping on the floor of a factory because I want to be rich."

In 2015 WORLD became the first fashion brand to be endorsed by the United Nations.

Among her many charitable ventures, L'Estrange-Corbet has worked closely with the Starship Foundation since 2005, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the children's hospital.

She has worked with the Leukaemia and Blood Cancer Foundation, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Duffy Books in Homes, Eat My Lunch, the IHC Art Awards, Diabetes New Zealand, the Mental Health Foundation, and is a member of Global Women.

She is an honorary fellow of the Universal College of Learning and was named the Westpac Women of Influence for Arts & Culture in 2017.

"We've always thought that if our profile can help a charity then we'll use it for that and not by throwing money at them because, believe it or not, we don't have any," she says.

"If you're doing something and you can get money out of people to give to a charity then why wouldn't you?"