How do you keep a 30-year-old creative design show — already seen by some 700,000 people — fresh, relevant and jaw-droppingly good to the point where even its creator remains surprised by what she sees?

Ask Dame Suzie Moncrieff, the founder of the World of Wearable Art, and she'll tell you it's a combination of legacy and firm foundations as well as ensuring you have people, with innovative ideas, who can stay at the cutting edge of fashion, art, design, costume and theatre.

This year, Moncrieff is reflecting on 30 years at the helm of a creative endeavour which now includes an annual awards show, a travelling international exhibition and, in Nelson, a museum of classic cars and unforgettable outfits.

As she and a team ready the 2018 show, a second squad is preparing to take the international touring exhibition of 32 garments from North America to Russia, where it opens next month at the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art Museum in St Petersburg. In Australia and the United States, the exhibition has been seen by some 600,000.


"We're off to WOW the Russians," Moncrieff jokes.

It's almost natural that WOW stays ahead of the game; ever-changing technology mean designers have a whole suite of new tools and materials at their disposable as they craft fabulous and fantastical garments for an annual-awards show which puts the "theatre" into theatrical spectacular.

"Art is obviously a big part of our culture; New Zealand is a young country and, as New Zealanders, we still very much have that pioneer spirit and that's part of our DNA. We do tend to be innovative and entrepreneurial in our approach and we're not scared to embrace the new."

But designers' creations still continue to amaze Moncrieff, once a sculptor and solo parent who launched a wearable arts show to drum up publicity for the gallery she started in the late 1980s on the outskirts of Nelson.

"Every year, I am completely blown away by the entries coming in because, every year, you think, 'how much better can they get?'" she says. "Judging this does your head in sometimes because there are just so many incredible works of art so beautifully made with some people spending up to two years to create one piece; my mind is blown when I see these things going in front of me and I think, 'gosh, how can you pick the supreme winner out of so many fantastic pieces?'"

But pick finalists and category winners a judging team does; Moncrieff says they are the designers who well and truly grasp the concept of taking unbelievable art and putting it on the body. In WOW's 30 years, Moncrieff acknowledges there have been some standout creations which have left her speechless.

Lady Of The Wood, David Walker, Alaska, 2009
Lady Of The Wood, David Walker, Alaska, 2009

They include Lady of the Wood, a 17th century-style ballgown made of wood by Alaskan artist and carpenter David Walker. In 2009, Walker was the first international WOW winner; he was back three years later — and won the Wellington International Award for the Americans Region — with Beast in the Beauty, a highly personal work which referenced his wife's ultimately unsuccessful fight against cancer.

"… the way he portrayed the suffering of his wife was truly sad but beautiful at the same time, if I can explain it like that," says Moncrieff.

Then there's Susan Holmes' Dragon Fish which carried off the WOW supreme award in 1996 as Holmes, now in her late 70s and the record-holder for the most WOW wins, was on her way to becoming one of New Zealand's most highly-recognised fabric artists.

Moncrieff laughs when she recalls Simon Hames' Superminx, a pair of lively chairs that the movie prop-maker and float designer made out of opossum fur: "When those fabulous chairs came galloping in…"

She likes that you don't have to be an art or fashion school graduate to enter WOW which keeps the competition as democratic and representative of the audiences — 60,000 expected this year — who come to see it.

"Well, we've certainly created, I believe, a new genre of art not only unique to New Zealand but overseas," she says.

"We've got that wide and eclectic mix of people entering from fashion designers, who are in London Fashion Week, to boat builders in Motueka.

"That's the thing I love most about it; it's accessible and it gives everybody the chance to re-ignite the creativity they might have had within them but was doused early in their lives by having to go on and do other things that they possibly didn't want to. WOW certainly gives an opportunity to so many people to find their creative spirit."

Dragon Fish, Susan Holmes, Auckland, New Zealand, 1996
Dragon Fish, Susan Holmes, Auckland, New Zealand, 1996

The creative spirit also has to be at the fore in a show where the garments take centre stage. This year, Moncrieff returns to a more hands-on role than she's had in the last few years.

"One of the great joys is to be back involved with it again! I've worked on the script this year along with the show director Malia Johnson, who I've been working with now for 14 years and is a beautiful, clever young woman.

"We have a great time together creating the world that we're going to place these garments in the and we've also got the most wonderful creative team. I love the passion and the collaboration of working within a team and that we're all involved, in some way or another along the way, in the journey of what the show is going to look like."

Superminx, Simon Hames, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999
Superminx, Simon Hames, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999

Moncrieff is especially excited about the soundtrack to WOW '18, with musician/composer Paul McLaney steering compositions by Claire Cowan, Sean James Donnelly, Paddy Free, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, Shane Clayton, Eden Mulholland and Bryce Lynch into the body of the show.

She sees WOW as a chance for the composers, like the designers, to have their work before a vast audience and, as Moncrieff points out, you never know who's in that audience and the opportunities that may arise.

"We've got to continue to evolve creatively and push boundaries, just as our designers do. Each year the show has to be different, it has to be new and that's the great challenge to create that whole new environment to exhibit the next up and coming finalists' garments.

"Without collaboration, WOW would never have got off the ground. It was that thing of everyone being as important as the other and keeping an open dialogue with everyone is why it's worked so well."

What has Moncrieff learned about herself during the three decades she's been growing WOW? For starters, self-belief and confidence in her ability to launch herself into areas she'd never worked in and, ultimately, the power of determination and bringing others — equally committed — into the fold.

"It's pushed me into areas and roles that I knew I was capable of but probably would never have done if it wasn't for WOW," she says. "In those early days, I had to become a businessperson overnight and deal with things like raising sponsorship. I guess my passion for WOW and my determination to make it work has meant that I've had to do all these things and conquer any fears that I had about going into areas that I didn't have any training in.

"The one thing that scared me most — and if I'd seen this in a dream I might have run a mile — was public speaking. It's crazy, isn't it? It's one area that I've found very difficult and that's having to stand up and speak in front of life audiences! I've had to do simply because it's been all part of our growth and I guess it's given me more confidence."

Tracing the threads of the WOW journey

It may be the oldest Cob house — made of materials like soil, water and straw — in New Zealand and it's been standing in Wakefield, slightly more than a stone's throw from Nelson, since the 1840s when it housed British emigrant William Higgins and his family.

You're a world away from that Cob House if you fast forward 170 years and cross Cooks Strait to the TSB Arena in Wellington for the World of Wearable Arts (WOW), the high-tech extravaganza where design-meets-art-meets-dance and theatre in the shape of the most fantastical garments you'll see anywhere.

But that house is pivotal to the WOW journey, says Moncrieff. She's not sure it would have happened without that cob house, the once derelict building she took over in the late 1980s to convert into an art gallery — aptly named the William Higgins — and from which she launched the region's first wearable arts show.

As it happened, Baigents had been approached by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust to restore the cottage and an art gallery fitted well with plans. But it was on the outskirts of Nelson and Moncrieff, and the other artists she recruited, needed to drum up publicity about their gallery. She'd heard about a wearable arts show in Auckland and figured they could do something similar, so she hopped on a plane to see what it was all about.

"In my imagination, I saw amazing sculptures and paintings worn on the body so I flew to Auckland to have a look at this wearable art exhibition and was sorely disappointed to find a rack of silk dresses hanging on clothes hangers.

"I thought, 'gosh, I've come all this way from Nelson to Auckland to view this?!' Anyway, it did spark this whole thing because, on the way back on the plane, I could see very clearly the show as it is today: incredible works of art with the whole thing being produced as a big theatrical show and that's really the sort of beginnings of WOW."

When Moncrieff talks about happening across the house, you get a taste of the same pioneering streak that powered Higgins — and everyone else who quit hearth and home for a new life in Aotearoa New Zealand — and Moncrieff.

Back in the 1980s, she needed to find premises from which to sell her work. She thought the Williams Higgins cottage would be perfect even if it was on its last legs: "It was just about falling down so I approached the company that owned the cottage, Baigent Forest Industries in those days, and asked them if I could buy it. Well, I had no money but I figured if they said 'yes, I could buy it', I would rush off and find some money somewhere…"

And there it is, spoken like a true entrepreneur: I've got an idea, I'll take a risk and make it happen.

What: World of Wearable Art
Where & when: TSB Arena, Wellington; Wednesday, September 27 — Sunday, October 14