Ditching drugs, absolutely fabulous fashionista high on taking Hollywood glamour to Fashion Week catwalk

BEFORE he was 20 Kharl WiRepa was a drug-addled addict living in Sydney.

At 24 he was ranked 17th on the list of 25 most influential young New Zealanders. That followed the designer's second consecutive showing at New Zealand Fashion Week.

This Thursday 10 models will be walking the same catwalk in WiRepa-designed garments that shout the glitz and glamour of "old" Hollywood.

The all-Rotorua line-up embraces solo mothers, school girls and a lawyer.


For WiRepa it's pay-back time. Using his own stellar rise in the world of haute couture to send others along the path to success makes him a happy chappy.

"I know they are the people who need to be on my team, I've never forgotten those who helped me on my way. If someone's good to me I'll be good to them."

Truth be told, WiRepa's always a happy chappy, one so comfortable in his own skin he doesn't need others to tell him he's "absolutely fabulous, sweetie dahling"-he knows he is.

I never thought I'd be famous but I always thought I was fabulous and I'm spiritual, very spiritual.


He's not skiting-that brazenness is what makes Kharl WiRepa the fearless designer he's become. Nor is there a single thing he wants to hide about his "out there" persona; not his druggie days or that he's gay. It amuses him that some say outrageously so.

Asking when he discovered he was gay brings Our People a barbed rebuke.

"When did you discover you were straight?". Try finding a snappy comeback to that.

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22 Mar, 2017 7:00am
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As long as WiRepa can remember fashion's been his calling.

"I've always been inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida, shows like My Fair Lady. I live and breath Coco Chanel. My family are Mormons, my grandmother dressed up to go to church-white high heels, a Jackie O[Onassis]-style dress. That really impacted on me, it's why my clothing will live forever, bringing classical into the modern age.

"At school [John Paul College] I was excellent at literature, arts, drama; maths epic fail, science epic fail, sport epic fail."

Bullying crept in-sort of.

"Being different from everyone else taught me to stand my ground. I was victimised and popular at the same time because I had incredible style."

Rotorua's wearable creations shows were his fashion career's touch paper.

"I was always an award-winner in the youth category."

He became every fashion conscious girl's best friend at the local branch of Supre. A boy telling them what to wear and what not to wasn't so much a novelty as a teenager's wardrobe prerequisite.

At 18 he was in Sydney, handpicked to dress the chain's international windows and stores, but trouble was brewing.

"I'd been there six months when I acquired a drug habit, crystal meth, ecstasy, everything available. I was mixing with the glamorous of the fashion world- that disguises these activities. It got to the point where I needed it [drugs] every day, then I started to realise the people I was mixing with weren't the class I grew up in. There was no God in the place I was in, no one to inspire me to kick the habit."

WiRepa's parents took control, six months in residential rehab followed.

"The first weeks were very, very difficult but I have a super-strong willpower."

That willpower won out, he returned to Rotorua without a job but a mountain of real-life experience.

"Necessity is the mother of invention: I realised I needed to go to fashion school."

Two years at Waiariki followed, graduating in 2014 and winning the Maori Fashion Apparel Board's Miromoda medal for indigenous fashion design without a tiki or a hint of flax weaving in sight.

"I don't have to make my clothing indigenous for it to be indigenous. Maori fashion is all about the environment, culture, smells, the elements. I am not a Maori designer. I am a designer who is Maori."

With fashion week's supremo, Dame Pieter Stewart,a Miromoda judge the award skated him into the 2014 show and fashionistas and socialites loved his furs and lush fabrics.

"They welcomed me into their world and from there my life as a designer's
just flowed. They tell me their ideas, what they need and fall in love with what we pull together."

The "we" is of the royal variety-quizzed on that he makes no apologies. His reputation's reached the international arena, last year Vogue bagged front-row seats at fashion week's WiRepa parade.

"Next year I want to show in Paris, I've been invited there, New York and London too."

One fashion-related essential WiRepa acknowledges that he's not a hot shot at is sewing.

"I'm not the best sewer and everything's hand sewn so we have two wonderful seamstresses here in Rotorua. They're the ones who put the frosting on the cake."

He's chiselling his name into charitable causes.

"My charities are very important to me. I've shown for the Salvation Army, Hospice, donated a heap of my designer wear to Dress for Success to auction. That brand marries
perfectly because they're in the business of making people look fabulous, beautiful."

Tonight WiRepa will show his collection to Maori and Pacific leaders at the Ngaruawahia celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of King Tuheitia's coronation.

"We've only had two weeks for preparation but it will be fabulous."

Who can doubt it?

And what of his future plans?

Sorry local fashion-forward ladies, Rotorua's not included in the next stage of this hometown boy's glittering career. Our loss will be Tauranga's gain.

"We're aiming to open there in December, their economy's booming, Tauranga women love to dress up."

-Born: Rotorua, 1991.
- Education: St Mary's Auckland, John Paul College, Rotorua.
- Family: Parents Maria and Rod WiRepa. "I'm an only child but have 47 first cousins."
- Iwi Affiliations: Te WhanauaApanui, Tainui, Te Arawa (Ngati Whakaue),
- Interests: Fashion. "Raising the profile of New Zealand fashion and design, inspiring people to be the most fabulous version of themselves." "I love champagne, the opera, art."
- On his life: "It's been an interesting little life, I can't wait to see the rest of it."
- Personal philosophy: "Love everyone, be kind and grateful.