Blair Archibald's men wear boiler suits and butcher's stripes. So do his women.
Workers' clothes made runway luxe. Archetypes softly smashed by the fashion designer whose whakapapa includes three Maori All Blacks.

"What's so great about fashion now, more so than ever, is that we're not so jaded by gender," says Archibald, 29.

"The whole idea of unisex fashion has been around for years, but this concept of putting menswear on women is a different conversation. It's not androgynous garments, it's not unisex. It's about different women, with certain types of attitudes, who can adapt and interpret menswear in their own way."

Archibald was once, briefly, a model. You could still cut hard cheese on his cheekbones.
"It didn't work out," he says. "My look was obviously very distinctive and not quite ... it didn't really lend itself to the jobs that were available in New Zealand ... plus I felt a lot more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it."

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Archibald is a fashion designer. He is, according to fashion bloggers The Hounds, "Australia's best new menswear designer." Grazia describes him as a "serious talent". Close friend and Whangarei-based designer Matt Nash says: "His work is really thoughtful, really referential, really detailed, focused — but what I think people probably don't realise about him is how funny he is."

Confirming that hypothesis, here's Archibald on Archibald: "Oh, I'm at the top of the food chain!"

THE AUCKLAND-BORN, Rotorua-raised and now Melbourne-based designer says male archetypes are at the core of his aesthetic but he is "reconfiguring things". And so far, so successful.

In 2010, Archibald won the Miromoda Maori fashion design competition. Last year he collected AU$70,000 and the menswear category of the International Woolmark Prize Australia and New Zealand regional final (Harman Grubisa were the womenswear winners). In May, his Australian Fashion Week debut landed him on multiple "best of" lists. New Zealand Fashion Week?

"To be honest, it would be far too costly for me to do more than one Fashion Week a year."

He has, instead, been packing for the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair. The massive trade event (Helmut Lang, Kent & Curwen, ellesse, et al) finishes today. Canvas spoke to a pragmatic Archibald two weeks before his departure.

"You have to go into it with zero expectations of selling, because you'll just be heartbroken if you walk away knowing you didn't get any orders. That's the hardest thing of all. You have to save some emotional stamina to put into building the next range, because you're basically building it from nothing.

"It's a terrifying experience. It's that moment where you've put all this work in, and then you have to go and sell it and all these people don't have any understanding of your journey and the process you've gone through and they just see it as a garment."
Archibald is Ngapuhi. His "journey" started in small town, stereotypical Aotearoa.

"My mum's family owned logging truck companies and forestry businesses. It was very much a typical New Zealand masculine environment."

His grandfather was John Marriner — a Maori All Black who went on to coach the team that included two of Archibald's uncles. That winning Miromoda collection, merging references from sport and 1950s fashion, was inspired by his grandfather's appearance in the rugby history book, Beneath the Maori Moon.

"My entire family, on both sides, are extremely blokey. There's no shortage of that. But I had really good support. My mum was very nurturing. She picked up when I was really young, you know, 'this one's not going to be a rugby player'. Maybe if I didn't have that, I would have taken another path, but I've felt a lot of support from even my most conservative family members.

Designers Jessica Grubisa (3rd from left) Madeleine Harman (far right) with Blair Archibald (2nd from left).
Designers Jessica Grubisa (3rd from left) Madeleine Harman (far right) with Blair Archibald (2nd from left).

"We're very different people and they don't really understand what I do and I think they probably find it a bit amusing — but they still appreciate my identity within the family. I'm very lucky."

He was the only boy in his high school sewing class. When his teacher suggested he study fashion, "I was like, 'What do you mean?'"

Mrs Shirley Sparks told him he could go to Auckland and get a fashion degree, and "I thought 'that doesn't sound right'. My understanding was you go to university to do, like, law or accounting or medicine."

Dan Ahwa, Canvas and Viva's fashion editor, remembers Archibald's graduate collection and Miromoda success the following year.

"Ever since then, he's stayed true to his very specific aesthetic, always thinking about the technical aspects of the garments.

"What I saw recently at Fashion Week in Sydney was a culmination of that kind of languid fluidity, quality materials, an appreciation of his Maori heritage and an inclusivity that dipped into the outfits the female models were wearing — not every designer who makes clothes for men is brave enough to do that."

Nash (who made the leatherwear for Archibald's Sydney debut) says his friend was the fashion student in vintage Dries Van Noten and Issy Miyake. He was a designer "from Day One. I always thought of him as that person, he never wasn't."

Menswear is a tough market. The customer base is small. As the hounds.com blog recently noted, the fact that articles like "how to wear jeans with a blazer" exist, speaks volumes about the state of Australia's menswear identity — and the same could be argued here.

Nash says most of his menswear customers are women. Like Archibald, he welcomes this.
"That anyone wants to respond to your work is awesome. And the way that guys and girls wear it is just so different. Women have been ripped off for years with detailing and things like that, so now, it's 'oh my God, I can have pockets, heavier wools, and it doesn't have to be about my waist and it's not about my cleavage and you're giving me nice solid fusing in the collar of a shirt'."

Post-graduation, Archibald spent two years working for New Zealand designer Kate Sylvester. He went to Australia for an eight-day holiday "and never used the return ticket". He lectures third-year students at the Melbourne Fashion Institute and says it is a designer's job to educate — customers should know what they're investing in.

"It's not just a commodity, it's not just a transactional thing." He wants people to understand how their clothes are made and where the fabric comes from. Is that cheap cashmere, for example, made from offcuts clumped together?

Runway look from Blair Archibald who made his Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia debut in May, 2018.
Runway look from Blair Archibald who made his Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia debut in May, 2018.

"It takes the initiative of customers to ask the question, but it also takes the responsibility of the designer to provide those answers."

Archibald's winning Woolmark entry included a coat made from 1960s woollen Australian Army blankets, re-dyed from their original "really awful pan-fried salmon pink colour".
He says, "It's important that I have that as part of the transformation process. It's not just changing blankets to garments, but changing their surface as well.

"Repurposing is not a new thing, I'm not claiming the invention of that process, but I did want to test my ability to see what I could create if I was given that as a brief. Here's an existing textile. Here's something that's already been made ..."

Fast-fashion, says Archibald, has an expiry date: "We don't have enough resources to sustain that level of consumption and production. It's unfortunate. It will probably take something really drastic or really awful to happen in for people to realise the extent of their buying behaviours. It will take something like a worldwide shortage of cotton plants."

At Melbourne Fashion Institute, on the first day of class, Archibald screens The True Cost — Netflix's hard look at sweatshop workers and low-cost fashion.
"For me, I see the role of the designer as informing change."