40 Years of Zambesi: A Walk Down Memory Lane

By Janetta Mackay
Confetti sequins, pewter satin and paisley silk, these varied archival looks show Zambesi has always existed beyond the dark edge of New Zealand fashion. Photo / Supplied

Four decades is a long time for a fashion brand to survive or a loved garment to hang in your wardrobe. For fans of Zambesi this milestone deserved its celebratory New Zealand Fashion Weekend show entitled 'Zambesi Since 1979: 40 Years of Fashion'. For label founder and designer Elisabeth Findlay it was a chance to mine the archives for accomplishments past, having already dispatched standout collection number 80 for winter 2020 down the Auckland City Central Library escalators. For me, the occasion sparked a walk down memory lane.

I can’t claim like some loyal customers to have been wearing Zambesi since year dot, but by the early 1980s with my first job and a credit card in hand, I’d begun “investing” in New Zealand fashion. When you still regret a garment’s wearing out or you’ve kept it knowing it will always warrant another outing, then the cost-per-wear equation stacks up. These days, Zambesi isn’t the New Zealand label I have the most of, but it’s the one I’ve had the longest ongoing association with. It’s still made here and it still stacks up when worn anywhere. It’s also uniquely ours and proudly mine.

The 1980s
Passers by in central Christchurch tended to give me a wide berth when I wore my orange cotton pants and wide-necked T-shirt. Then it twigged, with my cropped hair they thought I was one of the crop of Hare Krishnas who then roamed the Square. So much for public appreciation of my designer purchase from Zambesi's first little store on Lorne St, Auckland.

The Auckland of the time, which I knew from studying journalism at AUT and returning north on visits, was alive with new boutiques and clubs. Back in my hometown, it was off to work at The Press newspaper in a boxy black wool gabardine jacket that delighted me every time I put it on, thanks to the hidden pleasure of its teal paisley satin lining.

A more obvious exercise in paisley was a V-neck trapeze-cut silk georgette dress in shades of tan and red. I wore it over an even longer slip, and wished I was as confident as the salesgirl at early local stockist the Clotheshorse who wafted around in just those bias cut slips and a cardi. She went on to edit both Viva and Fashion Quarterly magazines and like me still has a stash of old Zambesi.

Our wardrobe overlaps over the years have been few, but we’ve both kept our slips and an eye for equestrian-style jackets. What I referred to as my Christmas party dress  a flammable looking tinsel-like sheath in green  was sadly sold on. I outgrew it before succumbing to fate in an era when going out meant being surrounded by smokers.

Watch: Celebrate Zambesi & Its Decades Of Backstage Beauty Artistry with M.A.C

The 1990s
Before relocating to Auckland, a long black, teal and gold print dress got an outing at a friend's wedding. The dress outlasted the marriage, but somewhere along the way we too parted company. Years later I found the same print in a shorter length in a second-hand store, purple swapped out for teal. I snapped it up but never quite liked it as much.

In another double-up there was a boy-style cotton shirt in what I thought of as calligraphy check, a black, cobalt blue and white jagged pattern. I bought the same print in white, red and some other now blurred in my mind shade. Which shows its best not to buy variations on the same design, one is always favoured over the other.

The same fabric is another story, however, given that I loved swirling about in a forest green swing dress with lilac stars as much as wearing my black and cream star shirt.

From memory the dress may have been reversible, but I was in a dark phase. The shirt definitely had reverse colour sleeves, elongated collar points and domed bronze buttons with little stars on them which I snipped off when what I think was viscose fabric finally gave way at the elbows. All that propping up beside my keyboard or in bars!

By the late 1990s I was mostly wearing pants and tops, which drew me to Zambesi's trademark tailoring. This was only reinforced when the New Zealand Herald sent me to report on Australian Fashion Week in 1997, the first year Kiwi designers showed there.

Zambesi’s independent aesthetic and strong production stood out, helping confirm my own preference to buy mostly New Zealand clothes. It’s fatuous to try to describe our designers as a job lot  many aspire to internationalism as much as regionalism  but a sense of identity rooted in place is a defining feature of those that resonate the most with me.

The 2000s
My forgiving old paisley dress from the 1980s was dug out for pregnancy, including being worn one evening in January, 2001 for a Japanese dinner with my husband the day before our daughter was born. In 2003 a friend had her wedding gown custom-made in pale pink kimono silk with a sequin chiffon overlay. By then, I wasn't wearing Zambesi that much anymore, because the classic silhouettes I liked seemed to have narrowed.

Earlier, the embroidered organzas and floaty florals hadn’t clicked with utilitarian me, but I also wasn’t drawn to the later chunkier, cropped and padded designs. Fringing and beading I admired in store, but did not much buy into. Why I neglected the classic wrap-front dresses I’m not sure. If only I’d twigged to ordering from the back catalogue, although with a mortgage it’s a mercy I didn’t.

This decade is when the shows that fashion people most consistently rave about (and rightly so) were staged. But watching and wearing don’t always align. I saw the standout collection at Auckland Museum with beautiful bird-winged sleeves and then the St James stage being bisected with raspberry silk georgette. Mustard as an accent shade cut a dash at another venue, but not on me.

From time to time I still swoop in on my black satin top with extended bird-wing sleeves only to be reminded they are a flapping hazard. The exaggerated proportions of a timeless black velvet opera coat with bracelet sleeves are more easily navigated.

The 2010s
Sales scouring yielded my husband a trim overcoat in a charcoal black woollen fabric with the faintest hint of metallic sheen and a subtly differentiated navy collar. He hasn't worn it a lot, but he should.

I’ve worn the cropped Knife pants so much for so long that I’m onto my fourth pair. These sorts of Zambesi garments transcend time in a way that is unusual in the world of fashion. They’re keepers in the closet or in the memory. This is thanks to being based first and foremost on quality fabrics and sharp tailoring. Add in a certain fluidity of cut and the designs manage to be at once classic and contemporary.

For years my Knife pants have been made under contract for Zambesi by Rembrandt which has now moved its manufacturing offshore  like so many other Kiwi companies. So there goes the internal coin pocket, back-pocket button tab and other traditional mannish details. While Zambesi’s own workroom makes plenty of other pants here, old favourites are always hard to say goodbye to.

But the two woollen pairs I have left in khaki and black have been worn and worn and are starting to shine. Seeing the New Zealand-made collection for winter 2020 has offered a welcome distraction. I’ve already got my eye on a fine wool three-quarter lilac shift dress that could be the next addition to my own collection.

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