She has overcome tragic losses and health hiccups to take her creative talents to Fashion Week catwalk twice over.
A treadle sewing machine was Taongahuia Maxwell's first tool of trade.
She was 10 when she sat in front of it at her grandmother's Te Kuiti home making a shirt from curtain fabric.
Her nan, Mata Turner, bequeathed her the machine and Taongahuia continues to use it – not for shirt making but for producing the Māori-inspired fashion and accessory ranges that have become her signature pieces.
These aren't just any old garments or fancy-looking appendages, they're cultural statements which have featured on the New Zealand Fashion Week catwalk for the past two years.
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Fashion week founder Dame Pieter Stewart views Taongahuia's work as the answer to her call for more diversity in an industry long dominated by the avant-garde European design school of thought.
She picked Taongahuia to showcase at fashion week from the Miromoda fashion design competition she endowed to support the next generation of Māori designers.
In 2018, Taongahuia was in the emerging category. This year she exhibited as an established designer.
Consider that word emerging. To most, it will conjure up visions of the millennial generation. Not so for Taongahuia. She's in her 50s and a kuia (grandmother).
The first time she entered Miromoda (2017), Dame Pieter advised her to step back and think about what she wanted to do and why.
"I was naïve as anything," Taongahuia admits as we sit surrounded by her work in the Hinemoa St shop, Toa Māori – Iti Gifts she shares with fellow creative Mereana Ngatai.
It's a thriving business. Taongahuia has extensive experience in the commercial world but has always been crafty, making things by hand way before her nan introduced her to that treadle machine we opened her story with.
Taongahuia's is quite some story, one that's tainted by tragic losses and health hiccups.
Her father died when she was 9, she's buried two daughters, has survived cervical cancer and now suffers arthritis that's affected her dexterity.
When it set in, Taongahuia recalibrated her life.
"I was a case manager at the Māori Land Court when doctors finally figured out why I could barely walk, I was given drugs so I could go to work, it was then I realised I didn't want to take drugs to work for someone else, that I wanted to work for myself doing something I was passionate about."
We return here to her early years and how her creativity was sparked by the necessity to help clothe her whānau.
"When Dad died, Birthright [organisation assisting single parent families] supported our mother. They gave us clothes, I made them fit, created new ones out of old ones, made our Christmas presents.
"At school, art was my favourite subject but when I only got 7 in my University Entrance exam I gave up on a creative career."
Instead, she took a secretarial course at Waiarki Polytechnic, becoming an insurance company's receptionist.
"I realised I could do better, learnt to be an underwriter, later became a claims supervisor."
When she married Huirua Maxwell, from Torere, and they moved to Palmerston North for a scene change. She remained in insurance, he trained as a traffic cop.
Taongahuia was heavily pregnant with their first child when she was involved in a car crash. The infant she was carrying died.
"I hit the steering wheel, I was so big the seat belt wouldn't fit around my puku. We named her Ngamihi, I got to cuddle her, I wasn't hurt, that's the awful thing." She went on to have two further daughters, Teri and Tyla.
When the Ministry of Transport and police merged, Huirua switched to the blue uniform. One of his postings was Murupara.
"We had three great years there."
That was after a shaky start. Not one to be intimidated, Taongahuia took on the Tribesmen gang's president when his son bullied her girls on the school bus.
"I went off my nut at him. No one picked on them again."
From Murupara, the family returned to Rotorua and Taongahuia resumed her insurance career as a loss adjuster.
"It was a man's domain but I found the work cool, learnt to negotiate, project manage, work with people."
One assignment sent her to Sydney.
"They'd had a huge hail storm, there were so many claims we went to help."
There was huge whānau excitement when 17-year-old Teri was selected to join a Hawaiian language total immersion course on Molokai Island.
Taongahuia was there for her graduation when the unimaginable happened. Her girl was in a car that crashed, killing her.
Her nightmare was compounded when attempts were made to bring her daughter's body home.
"On Molokai they didn't have the skills to prepare her for the journey, a Rotorua funeral director helped find someone to do it, we laid her to rest with my tupuna (ancestors) in Te Kuiti."
Taongahuia's cancer diagnoses came between her daughters' deaths, and doctors said it was invasive.
"I had to have a total hysterectomy. That was okay with me because I knew the value of the children I'd already had."
She gives daily thanks she remains cancer-free.
Arthritis set in two years after she'd joined the MLC.
"By then Tyla had her own baby, he was born with had a heart condition, the day after he was born he was taken to Starship [hospital], I left my job because I wanted to be available for my whānau and return to my artistic interests."
The October 26 fashion show HUIA – Nga Ua o te Manawa she's organising is a Heart Kids Foundation fundraiser.
Taongahuia's passion for creativity has never left her. She was still with the MLC when she began working towards a Bachelor of Māori Art at Te Wanaga o Aotearoa.
With friends, she began selling craft work at the Lakefront and night market, and sales were so successful they opened a pop-up shop.
"I guess it's never closed, it's morphed into Toa Māori."
She began to experiment in print-making and textiles.
"I was already doing batik work. I fell in love with silk, created a collection of silk scarves and garments. When Dame Pieta rejected them, I realised I knew nothing about fashion.
She and daughter Tyla collaborate; her daughter using her weaving skills for accessories.
"I signed on at Toi Ohomai to be around fashion teachers, learnt to use computer technology in my design work."
However, it's been a return to a past era that catapulted Taongahuia onto the 2019 catwalk. A number of her stunning pieces are inspired by the designs on the blankets Māori often wore.
"Now I have to figure out how to grow my business, with the arthritis setting in I don't know how long I can use my hands, I'm not one to sit back, give up, there is still too much to do."
• The October 26 fashion show HUIA – Nga Ua o te Manawa is a Heart Kids Foundation fundraiser. Tickets and details: protect-au.mimecast.com/s/T__VCK1qKXCr9RlBsMbtdn?domain=itigifts.co.nz
Taongahuia Maxwell (Nee Te Kanawa)
Born: Matamata, 1962.
Education: Ōpōtiki, Omanu Primaries, Mt Maunganui Intermediate, Tauranga Girls' College, Waiariki Polytech, Te Wananga o Aotearoa.
Family: Husband Huirua Maxwell, three daughters (two deceased), 2 mokopuna.
Iwi affiliations: Ngāti Maniapoto, Uekaha (Waitomo), Ngāti Apakura (Otorohanga).
Interests: "Anything to do with my iwi." Is a member of the renowned Te Kanawa weaving whānau. "Arts and crafts are my super power."
On her life: "That's a good question ..."
On Rotorua: "It's a great indigenous hub to live in."
Personal philosophy: "If you are going to do something commit to it and do it well."