OBITUARY: Roswitha Robertson
December 24, 1928 - April 23, 2021
In many ways, Roswitha Robertson was Hastings' answer to Coco Chanel.
In her 92 years, she forged a career in dress making and fashion design that turned heads, drew crowds and won her countless accolades, all out of her home on Queen St.
Roswitha, a perfectionist who pushed those around her to meet her exacting standards, was born and raised in Germany.
She studied fashion at Art School Vienna, the Slade School of Fine Art in London, as well as the famous theatres of London where she was part of a team who designed costumes for famous actors and dancers including Dame Margot Fonteyn, a "prima ballerina assoluta" (literally "absolute first ballerina"), a title reserved only for the very best, and only granted to three ballerinas in the 20th century.
Roswitha's training in Vienna, London and Dusseldorf covered various fields such as sculpture, fashion illustrating and fabric design and her love for fashion evolved until she became a world-renowned fashion designer in her own right.
A friend of hers told Hawke's Bay Today that Roswitha's determination set her apart from the pack.
"Her designs were inspired by Christian Dior and Coco Chanel.
"She was world renowned and while her New Zealand business was based in Hastings, clients travelled to her from Auckland, Wellington and as far as America and Australia."
Roswitha came to New Zealand after she married RNZAF Senior Warrant Officer Rawden Robertson in 1955.
"She met her husband in London at the end of the war. They wrote to each other as pen pals for four years," her friend said.
"He asked her to come over and she came on the SS Gothic ship. After four weeks of being here they got married and pretty much straight away moved to Hastings."
The couple lived in their family home where Roswitha opened her dressmaking business.
"She opened her business there and he made alterations to the space so she could have it all set up," her friend said.
"I knew her through leaving school, I wanted to take up the dressmaking trade. I left school as a 15 year old. Roswitha advertised in the newspaper that she was looking for a junior apprentice.
"I showed her my sewing, stuff I made in school, and she was happy with it. I got the job.
"She was a perfectionist and a firm boss. Whatever left the workroom had to be perfect.
"She would sit in her workroom for hours and hours with the company of her two cats, painstakingly doing everything by hand."
Roswitha first came to prominence in 1962 when she won the prestigious New Zealand award of "Gown of the year" with a raspberry red satin gown she named TOSCA, so named because it was an opera gown - grand, spectacular and meant for the stage.
The gown, which took months of hard work, received the most votes ever recorded in the nationwide contest and was her first recognised win.
At the time of her win Roswitha spoke of her surprise.
"When I was presented with trophy [Tam Cochrane Trophy], I held it as one would hold a baby," Roswitha said at the time.
"I walked of the stage in a daze and they had to call me back for my prize money."
Her prize was a cheque for 100 guineas.
The following year, Roswitha presented her first New Zealand collection of tailored race wear, evening and dinner gowns as well as wedding clothes which was compered by Selwyn Toogood, who in 1964 again compered her show in Hastings.
During her career she presented two fashion shows for "Greater Hastings" in the Hastings Municipal Theatre, shows which were always "standing room only".
"She held several fashion parades in Hastings, up to seven or eight, and each time for charity," her friend said.
Roswitha sewed right until the couple sold their house in Queen St, when they got to retirement age.
Roswitha's husband Rawden was diagnosed with cancer and she nursed him at home until he died in 2003.
"She loved him to bits, whatever she wanted she got. He spoilt her," her friend said.
"They could be walking down a street and she would look into a jewellery store and say 'Ah Rawden that's lovely' and down the track on special occasions she'd get it.
"She had lovely clothes, and she loved her jewellery. She had to have her pearls and pearl earrings."
Her friend stayed in touch with Roswitha "for a bit", but it was only three years ago that she saw Roswitha again and never left.
"I, and others, helped her with her hospital appointments. I was one of the many carers around her," she said.
"She had breast cancer and she was managing it really well, and when I met her she'd been diagnosed with dementia as well.
"She had a lovely home with her memories and her two cats Gigi and Gatsby, but when started having really bad falls she was moved to Eversley Rest Home for the last 15 months of her life.
"The staff at Eversley were lovely and took great care of her.
"She was dearly loved by her many friends and her two cats in particular."
Roswitha, who drew up plans for her own service, was farewelled on Friday, May 7 at Crestwood, Hastings.