Fashion designer and co-founder of New Zealand Bride, Vinka Lucas, MNZM died in August, aged 88. Her funeral was last Saturday. Writer, former model and muse, Judith Baragwanath remembers a glamorous woman with a spine of steel.
So, farewell then, Vinka Lucas, last of the legends in the glamorous world of brides and After Five. For decades – starting in the 60s – anyone who was anyone knew her name and they knew where to find her: Maree de Maru, her magnificent emporium on dreary old Queen St. Whether a customer or just an intrigued passer-by walking in off the street, they would equally find themselves instantly swept up and captivated – transported even - by the sheer flamboyance of her salon. It was like stepping into an Aladdin's cave.
On the ground floor (when After Five was a "thing") bolts of glittering fabric cascaded from ceiling to floor alongside endless long, glass cabinets of bright, shiny things: crystals, beads, buttons, tiaras and every geegaw imaginable imported from all the great fashion houses of Europe: you name it and it was on display, begging to be bought. The price tags were eye-watering. Vinka was selling a dream and we were happy to oblige. Her true love, of course, was bridal wear and up the staircase was where the bride-to-be might peruse and pick her lace, pore over picture books or point to a gown on a mannequin and then Vinka would get to work with a tape measure around her neck and a pin cushion strapped to her wrist. The magic had begun.
Back in those days, weddings were big business. Besides the all-important bride, there were the bridesmaids – A. Lot. Of. Bridesmaids – and I remember a certain doyen of fashion today teetering down the aisle engulfed in acres of virtuous Chantilly lace trailed by her six bridesmaids, neck-to-toe in lilac tulle. On their heads they wore demure boa-trimmed Bo-Peep bonnets and each girl carried a huge basket of fresh flowers. It was an extravaganza. Your actual fairy tale wedding. The cost must have been prohibitive. The marriage didn't last.
Vinka, inexplicably, took a shine to me. I was fond of her in return and we used to "do" lunch. I'd flounce into her bridal suite, all big hair, bigger hat, dripping lip gloss and trowel-applied industrial-strength face paint to meet her – a Vinka Vision in, oh, I don't know, a full-length chiffon number perhaps (sometimes After Five started early) and with her waist-length red hair stacked high on her head, we'd hit the pavement wandering up the hill to the dining room of a long gone and forgotten hotel.
One particular occasion stands out in my mind. As we wafted past several businessmen, I heard one say to the other: "Jesus Christ! Did you just see those two drag queens?" I became helpless with laughter, clutching the side of a building for support, while on sailed Vinka, a swirl of scarlet hair and zhuzh, oblivious always to cruel barbs and snide asides. She was uncrushable and in all my years of knowing her I never heard her speak ill of others. Ever. I loved her for that.
Besides the occasional lunch, I was one of the models she favoured for what can only be described as marathon photographic shoots. She was a hard taskmaster, working us for eight-hour stretches under harsh lights and melting makeup as gown after gown was donned and pegged and pinned to her satisfaction. She oversaw everything, never missing a beat, never throwing a hissy fit, cooing and purring encouragement until the job was done and then, only then, when at the point of passing out, were we rewarded with a glass of water. She knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it. Perseverance. Hard work. A heart of gold. A backbone of steel.
We all know fashions come and fashions go - as does bridalwear - and Vinka was no slouch when it came to change. Looking through an old scrapbook, I came across a black and white photograph torn from the New Zealand Herald titled: "Hot Pants For The Bride." The copy is hilarious. "Easter's still a fashionable time to wed," it trills, "but today's bridal dress may go out of fashion.
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"So, here's a preview of what trendy brides may wear in the future – model Judith Baragwanath in a swinging outfit designed by Aucklander Vinka Lucas. The single-piece sleeveless hot pants wedding gown is in Swiss sculptured petal guipure. The veil is cathedral-length, of a French frosted material, in one piece with the bonnet." Trendy? Swinging? I'll say! And daring, brave and completely over-the-top. Vinka also held spectacular fashion parades in hotel ballrooms. Standing-room-only affairs. Not bad for a Croatian girl from the back blocks of Maungatapere.
So, what happened next? If memory serves, the Middle Eastern market opened up. Think Saudi princesses and petro-dollar rich-listers who were not averse to dropping mega bucks for her creations. Instead of these exotic creatures trekking to the end of the Earth (which they did) she and her husband, David Lucas, packed up and headed to Saudi Arabia, opening salons in Jeddah and Kuwait. Chutzpah or what! The mind boggles. And then? I never found out what really happened on the shifting sands of that faraway land and I hadn't seen or heard from her for years. Then trudging up Queen St one day, I looked up and saw her name on a second-storey window. I smiled. Vinka was back in town and back in business.
When Vinka Lucas, MNZM, died in August this year, with her went an era we shall never see again. A legend may be gone - but forgotten? Not a chance.