The epitome of creativity

World of Wearable Art creator Dame Suzie Moncrieff is the winner of the Deloitte Top 200 2015 Visionary Leader Award.

Her World of Wearable Art Awards Show has been running since 1987. It started in Nelson as a promotional event for a rural art gallery before moving to Wellington. Today it is Wellington's biggest single event, selling more tickets than the Rugby Sevens, attracting designers and visitors from around the world and putting the city on the global map as a creative centre.

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Former Air New Zealand chairman John Palmer is Moncrieff's brother-in-law and has closely watched how she developed her high profile arts business. He says: "Visionary is exactly the right word when talking about Suzie. She had the idea for the show in the first place and a rough vision of what it might one day become. It took drive and determination to deal with tough, and at many times, impossible odds as she pursued the idea of what WOW should look like and become what it is today."


Palmer says when the show first started many people thought it was a crazy idea. "She wanted to take art off the wall and on to the body. Suzie never accepted there were limits to how far she could take that idea," he says.

There were times when Moncrieff had to live on the smell of an oily rag: "In the early days there was little money and next to no income. She got through that with persistence and determination while never deviating from the view that the show had to be an artistic success."

Moncrieff's sister Heather Palmer has worked with her on WOW since the early days and saw how that business developed. She says Moncrieff began her career as a sculptor and in the 1980s held a successful show in Wellington where she sold her work. At the time she was shocked that dealers could take 35 per cent of the sale price and decided to open her own gallery to cut out the middle man.

She says: "Suzie found a suitable place in Spring Grove near Wakefield. It was one of the oldest buildings in the country. She walked in off the street and asked if she could buy it. The owner rented it to her and helped pay for restoration. It became a gallery and something of an artists' co-op."

"Her success arrived because she seized opportunities and made the right spontaneous decisions. She has an intuitive grasp of marketing. She never gets hung up on the what-ifs and has the enthusiasm to continually try new ideas. Along the way her vision has been supported by a lot of talented individuals."


Moncrieff was looking for ideas and heard there was a wearable art show in Auckland. Heather Palmer says: "She flew there and found a show that was mainly hand-painted dresses, not what she expected to see. On the way back she made her own notes about a wearable art event to promote the gallery. Ever the optimist, she gambled on it being a success and paying for itself."

Palmer describes her sister as an accidental businesswoman. "Her success arrived because she seized opportunities and made the right spontaneous decisions. She has an intuitive grasp of marketing. She never gets hung up on the what-ifs and has the enthusiasm to continually try new ideas. Along the way her vision has been supported by a lot of talented individuals."

While the two sisters formed the company and have worked together on WOW for years, Palmer says the vision is all Moncrieff's.

Today the business employs 12 full time staff and six part-timers in Nelson. This grows to around 400 people during show time. Palmer says for years much of the work was done by family and friends, with Moncrieff taking a hands-on role.

"Although we appointed an artistic director, Suzie is still very much involved today. She continues to write scripts and compile the show's music, while acting as a mentor to the artistic director."

Heather Palmer says Moncrieff had international ambitions for WOW from after the very first show. By the time of the third show in Nelson's Trafalgar Centre, people were turning up from overseas. "We knew we had something special by then and Suzie was sure it would be an international success. We couldn't develop the show any more without moving from Nelson so we decided to move elsewhere. When the show went to Wellington we started seeing the commercial success we needed to develop things further."

Kerry Prendergast was Wellington mayor at the time the WOW awards show moved there from Nelson. She says at the time Wellington was working hard to attract major events and build on its reputation and a cultural and creative centre. "When an intermediary came and asked if we were interested in WOW, we jumped at the chance. For me it represents the very epitome of creativity. It met every one of our strategic objectives and gave us a huge reach both nationally and internationally. It was clearly a marriage made in heaven," she says.

The marriage worked both ways. Prendergast says after the initial contact, the next step was for Moncrieff to visit her office for a meeting. "She could hear we were supportive, but the moment she heard me talking with enthusiasm about creativity, we sealed the deal."

Prendergast describes Moncrieff as "an amazing woman" saying she is full of creativity and blessed with an incredible vision.

"Suzie wanted to take WOW to the world and saw Wellington as a first step after Nelson.

"The creativity is still there -- each year she comes up with a fresh show, the choreography and organisation to do that is a major achievement. People seeing the show for the first time find it is an arts and cultural extravaganza."

Judges' comments:
Dame Suzie Moncrieff is a self-made business leader in the best traditions of Kiwi entrepreneuralism. She is the creator and founder of the World of Wearable Art Awards Show which has been running since 1987 and has become a New Zealand institution. She was the Artistic Director and Scriptwriter for 22 years and continues to be the driving force behind the WOW concept. In 1999, World of Wearable Arts won the Supreme NZ Tourism Award. Now the show is also presented internationally with shows in Hong Kong and exhibitions in Australia and Hawaii. She is truly a global phenomenon mixing creativity with entrepreneurial verve to create a show that has put not just Nelson and Wellington but New Zealand on the map. In essence, a truly visionary leader.