As Kharl WiRepa (Te Arawa) prepares for the Paris Fashion Week runway, the community in Rotorua is still at the forefront of his work.
WiRepa runs programmes to support women getting back into work, is working on expanding the service to all people in the community, and stars in the TVNZ reality show Gowns and Geysers centring around the Miss Rotorua pageant.
In 2017, WiRepa became the first Māori designer to be featured in British Vogue and is currently on the lookout for other indigenous designers to showcase alongside his work at Paris Fashion Week next year.
What do you do?
I work in the fashion industry and am mostly known as an evening wear designer but I also work in the social service sector and as a business consultant for different companies. I’ve been in the industry for 17 years.
I never really got into fashion at any one point in my life - I’ve always had an affinity for fashion, but my family has been in the fashion industry for many generations. We’ve always been involved in the art sector.
I have a lot of well-known artists in my whānau and my family has always been in the fashion industry. In fact, my great-grandmother’s family were the shoemakers for Queen Victoria and had a shop in London in Soho. Since then, different members of my family have continued to work in fashion and I’m actually not the only fashion designer in the family.
How did you start your career?
I started off in fashion retail for about seven years. Then I went to study fashion which was great because I had a clearer understanding of body shapes, design lines and fabrics. I studied fashion at the Waiariki Institute of Technology in Rotorua.
When I went to study fashion, I won the Supreme Award at the Miromoda Fashion Design Awards in 2014. The awards are an annual competition for indigenous designers to showcase collections to Dame Pieter Stewart, who is the founder of New Zealand Fashion Week, and part of the prize is getting to show at Fashion Week.
Since then, we’ve had shows in Sydney, Japan, London Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, and New Zealand Fashion Week. I’ve worked with Miss New Zealand and Miss Universe. So, a lot of different places.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, my business is preparing for Paris Fashion Week. We’re working to create a fashion show for Paris Fashion Week, but I won’t be showcasing alone this year.
We are inviting a group of five indigenous New Zealand designers to be a part of the Paris Fashion Week show in 2024. I’m so glad my business is able to help other designers get into the Parisian fashion scene and realise their fashion dreams.
We have a lot of great people coming to the show next year. We’ve got Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue. We’re preparing a shoot for British Vogue for publication next year.
What does it mean to be part of Paris Fashion Week?
Paris Fashion Week is like the Oscars in the film industry. It’s very important for designers who want to be taken seriously on the international circuit to showcase there.
As an indigenous designer, it’s very important that we have the opportunity to tell our stories and express who we are, especially in a society where we are a minority. However, the world is drastically changing and indigenous design and culture is currently popular with the masses.
What was your experience at New Zealand Fashion Week this year?
We did two shows. Our first was evening wear in the middle of New Zealand Fashion Week - that was really glamorous and beautiful.
The second show was special to me because it was in partnership with Te Matatini champions, Te Whānau a Apanui.
We created a collection in partnership with Big Black Sacks, which creates plastic rubbish bags from biodegradable plastic. We created 12 gowns made out of biodegradable plastic. They’re exquisite. You couldn’t tell they were made out of these textiles.
The highlight of the show was seeing the winners of Te Matatini close New Zealand Fashion Week and be the last models on the large runway for the year.
What do you want to achieve through your work?
I don’t just work in fashion, I do a lot of work in the community to confront social issues.
What I want to do through my work, whether it’s fashion or philanthropic, is to inspire the next generation to follow their dreams, to follow beauty and to be their best.
I am currently the director at the Miss Rotorua Foundation. I’ve been the director since 2017 and we work in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and Work and Income to help women who have been unemployed long-term to get into work.
This year, we have 31 women in our programme with 24 women gaining employment. It’s not just the women who gain employment but it’s the opportunity it brings to the family.
In 2024, my organisation is going to expand our employability courses to men which is a great need in our community - helping men get into work and build confidence within themselves.
What has trading been like in the current economic environment?
The fashion industry during the pandemic had a drop in sales across the globe, particularly in the luxury industry. In a post-Covid environment, things are picking up very quickly.
My business was one of the few that was able to survive and not be impacted too drastically because we work in other fields. We did our show on TVNZ called Gowns and Geysers for two seasons. It’s a reality show about my life in the beauty pageant world and fashion. Then we have our social service arm and my business consultancy service.
You have to keep business resilient and anyone in the fashion or retail world needs to make sure they find sources of income, especially doing New Zealand-made clothing. You need to make sure you can find a sustainable structure to keep the fashion house alive.
What are you most proud of in your career?
It might be that I was the first Māori designer in British Vogue in 2017.
For me, it was a triumph because I was taken seriously as a designer and it was always a dream of mine as a child.
But for my people, it was a triumph because we have been through so much as a nation and as indigenous people. To be seen in the pages of Vogue was momentous because it showed that we really were in a modern world.
Alka Prasad is an Auckland-based business reporter covering small business and retail.