Joanna Wane on the Great Gatsby of Naseby who kept designer gowns in his tractor shed
Of all the many colourful and eccentric characters who populate Central Otago, Eden Hore was a real doozy.
Long before "diversification" worked its way into the rural lingo, the sheep and cattle farmer from Naseby ran a sideline in haute couture that would have raised eyebrows even among what passed for city sophisticates in 1970s New Zealand.
Popular culture might paint it as a decade of hippies and bell bottoms, but the avant-garde styles that attracted Hore were in a different stratosphere altogether.
Down a long dirt driveway, in a converted tractor shed, his showroom contained what is now regarded as the largest private collection of 70s to early-80s high fashion in the Southern Hemisphere. Flamboyant evening gowns and capes trimmed with ostrich feathers or embroidered with sequins; risque ensembles in figure-hugging leather and chiffon; even a replica of Princess Anne's wedding dress.
"Eden had a fantastic eye and was quite discerning in what he picked out," says Jane Malthus, a dress historian and museum curator who met the unlikely impresario when she visited his Glenshee Fashion Museum in the mid-80s.
"I think he was viewed by people as a bit strange, absolutely. At first, I found it all a bit odd. But I quite quickly came round to thinking he was just somebody who'd become fascinated by that world."
When Hore died in 1997, at the age of 78, he bequeathed some 276 gowns and other couture ensembles to his nephew, who lived at the farm with his wife until ill health forced them to sell up in 2013. The Central Otago District Council then bought the collection for $40,000, housing it in a temperature-controlled facility at Central Stories Museum in Alexandra.
Today an exhibition of 25 garments, including one-offs by iconic New Zealand designers such as Kevin Berkahn and Vinka Lucas, Benson and Hedges Supreme Award winner Maritza Tschepp and Alexandra's Pat Hewitt, goes on display at The Dowse Art Museum in Wellington.
"Eden Hore: High Fashion/High Country" also showcases a series of stunning images by celebrated New Zealand fashion photographer Derek Henderson, shot against a dramatic Central Otago backdrop.
Malthus — who's been dubbed "the Guardian of the Garments" and is an honorary curator for Otago Museum's dress collection — admits she felt protective about such delicate pieces being handled. However, Hore didn't view them as artefacts.
"They were clothes to be worn and he loved seeing people parading around in them," she says. "So for the photoshoot, we did just that. They looked amazing and came to life so beautifully when you saw them walking in the landscape."
When I first heard about the exhibition, Hore's name rang a bell, so I searched through my old clipping files. In the early 90s, I'd written a whole story on the doozies of Central Otago and there he was, in his mid-70s by then, cuddling a young Himalayan tahr he liked taking for motorbike rides on the farm.
A natural magpie, Hore collected all manner of ephemera, from teaspoons to curios from his travels, including an ashtray from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He also bred Tibetan yak and pedigree miniature horses, displaying an array of stuffed and mounted animals in the foyer of his showroom.
A slight figure, uncertain on his feet, his glory days were behind him but he was still quick with a story. In London, he'd once caused quite a stir in the women's department of a Marks and Spencer store when he tried on a pair of gold and silver boots. "I knew if they fitted me, they'd fit the lady I wanted them for."
Above his racks of clothes, photographs of models and beauty queens ringed the walls. "I've always been a bit different," he told me. "A bachelor with all these dresses!"
Today, Hore remains somewhat of an enigma. Little is publicly known of his early life, although Malthus says he did marry briefly and adopted two children. The loss of his daughter, who died young, hit him hard.
After that, he remained a "confirmed bachelor", often taking along his niece or long-time housekeeper as models when he was scouting for something special to buy.
Was he gay? Malthus doesn't think so, although the relationship with his housekeeper appears to have remained strictly platonic.
Perhaps he simply found sensual pleasure in the exotic femininity of the clothes. One of the striking Berkahn designs chosen for the Dowse exhibition, nicknamed the "lettuce" dress, is made from metres of pleated green Swiss trimming and was shown in a fashion parade at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
Whatever the truth of it, Hore was no dandy. Born and bred in Naseby, he'd fought in World War II and earned the community's respect as an able high-country farmer, breaking in rugged tussock land.
He also had an entrepreneurial streak and saw opportunities to develop a local tourism industry. In 1973, he booked a train to transport his cattle to Dunedin as a publicity stunt and got the story on Country Calendar.
By then, he'd already started buying "fleece to fashion" designs — the Dowse exhibition features a John West deer-suede trench coat trimmed with rabbit fur. But it was when he got involved with the Miss New Zealand shows, chaperoning a young country singer by the name of John Hore (a relative through adoption), that he began to move in more glamorous circles.
Soon, he was snapping up pieces by the likes of Berkahn and Auckland-based Croatian designer Vinka Lucas who used exquisite European fabrics that often cost hundreds of dollars a metre.
In Hore's heyday, the garden parties he threw at the farm were legendary. Models and beauty queens dressed from the collection would sashay across the lawn, where an art deco tiered fountain lit up at night, and the Howard Morrison Quartet was flown in to entertain his celebrity guests.
He also staged fundraising fashion shows around the South Island, travelling with the clothes stuffed into suitcases. "He'd sit on top to squash them all in," says Malthus, with a shudder.
Claire Regnault, who co-curated The Dowse exhibition, says all the outfits have strong personalities of their own and have been assigned characters based on the type of woman who might wear them: the Contessa, the husband stealer, the debutante.
"They weren't for wallflowers but for women who wanted to make a statement and stand out, created by designers who were really reaching for the stars."
The senior curator of New Zealand histories and cultures at Te Papa, Regnault is part of a steering group tasked with overseeing the Eden Hore collection, alongside Nom*d founder Margi Robertson, arts consultant Tim Walker and Central Otago mayor Tim Cadogan, among others. Malthus, who exhibited a selection of garments at Dunedin's iD Fashion Week in 2012, is a trustee. So is Sam Neill.
In late 2019, photographer Derek Henderson spent an intense two days with stylist Megha Kapoor and model Hannah Clark, shooting in the gold and lavender-hued landscape where Hore spent most of his life.
The team worked across three locations — the Blue Lake at St Bathans, the Bannockburn Sluicings and Poolburn Dam (where scenes set in Rohan were filmed for The Lord of the Rings) — starting at 6am to capture the best light, then moving on for a second session towards the end of the day.
Currently based in Sydney, Henderson says he loved the juxtaposition between the wildness of Central Otago and the extravagantly lush designs. "They're just so fruity and over-the-top. That's what makes them beautiful and, once they're on someone, they come alive. It really is dressing up."
Eden Hore: High Fashion/High Country opens today at The Dowse Art Museum in Wellington as part of the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts and runs until March 20, 2022. A series of pop-up visitor displays featuring some of Henderson's photographs and stories about the collection will also run in selected locations throughout Central Otago over summer. To find out more, visit www.edenhorecentralotago.com