What does New Zealand fashion look like now? Jessica Beresford canvasses Aotearoa’s diverse fashion landscape for an answer.
In the late 1990s, a group of New Zealand designers held a combined show at London Fashion Week, garnering critical acclaim and creating what would become the country’s definitive fashion moment. Karen
More than two decades on, though, and after various social, cultural and economic movements, the fashion landscape in Aotearoa is vastly different, with a new guard of designers defining what New Zealand fashion represents — and how it serves the local and global population.
“There have been a lot of shifts in how we dress in New Zealand,” says fashion historian Doris de Pont. “In the 50s, the aspiration was to be indistinguishable from the high fashion of Paris’s houses, and later London in the 60s and 70s, and then those big, European brands like Versace in the 80s and 90s.” The New Zealand Four’s entry on to the global stage was part of a growing confidence in our own design.
Now, says Doris, we have moved past the point of being solely influenced by Western fashion. “I think that’s why it’s the sort of end of fashion, in the sense that it’s the end of dictating what should be worn by a particular entity. The conversations now are global, but the interpretations are quite personal and quite localised.”
Certainly, New Zealand’s designers now cater to a broad spectrum of tastes — and can’t be defined by a singular aesthetic. Rory Docherty, who founded his brand in 2017 after working in London, creates organically inspired collections filled with voluminous painter shirts, hand-drawn prints and crushed silk separates. “Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of businesses and designers fold and multinationals come in, which has popularised a mid-lower market global aesthetic,” says Rory. “All that compounds to create a challenge for designers to decide themselves what their individual voice is, and what their values are. It’s important for people to find their own voice and offer something that isn’t already on the table.”
Docherty mentions Dr Bobby Luke, who, along with his partner Dominic Blake, works under the name Campbell Luke. Bobby is inspired by childhood memories of the mechanisms of the Pā (he is affiliated with Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki descent) and specifically the women working in the kitchen, creating collections that draw on kaupapa Māori and harness the aesthetics of domestic life — housewares and linens — as well as traditional matriarchal dress.
“There are also people like Kiri Nathan, who has been in the game for some time, but at least to me, it feels like now she has been given more space, or is just occupying more space,” adds Rory. Kiri founded her label in 2008 and was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Māori and the fashion industry in 2020. Kiri creates silky, fluid dresses and separates, as well as contemporary kākahu and pounamu, hand-carved by her partner Jason Nathan. “These are designers that are being kind of acknowledged for writing a new story and with an independent voice that speaks to their own culture and heritage,” adds Rory.
Shona Tawhiao, who founded her brand Tawhiao7 in the 90s, also explores the intersection of Māori and Western fashion, and is particularly notable for her contemporary practice of mahi raranga (flax weaving). “It’s exciting to see Māori and Pacific designers and makers coming through to the forefront of fashion in Aotearoa,” says Shona. “Hopefully, fashion will grow with respect to Papatūānuku (land).”
“I think that New Zealand designers understand that the only thing they have to offer is their personal view,” adds Doris. “And so that’s what they’re doing, it’s not fashion in the sense of sort of trends.” Individual viewpoints such as Rachel Mills, who has centred her designs around New Zealand and Australian merino, with bodysuits and layering pieces that are all made-to-order in Auckland. Or Harris Tapper, which caters to the working woman, or Paris Georgia and Wynn Hamlyn, which are more globally influenced yet still speak to a young, more fashion-forward New Zealand customer.
The rise and emphasis in the value of handcraft that has rippled across the globe has also been felt within New Zealand’s fashion landscape, Doris notes, whether that’s artisanal practices, one-off garments, hand-knitting or pieces that have been upcycled or reworked. “I’m thinking of people like Steven Park from 6x4, who is reviving the old stitch techniques from Korea and Japan, and dye made from walnuts. These things that are imbued with the value of making, brands like Benjamin Alexander too, that are about small runs, quality fabrics, about a very sort of personal expression of value,” adds Doris.
Sustainable practices are, for the most part, also central to New Zealand’s fashion identity. “The innovative designs, use of natural materials and emphasis on sustainability are perhaps a result of being geographically remote and of our diverse cultural landscape,” says Yasmin Farry, general manager of New Zealand Fashion Week. “There is a growing emphasis on sustainable practices, educating consumers on buying local and valuing clothes and championing our emerging designers.”
Consumers are also much more conscious of what they are wearing, Yasmin adds, in terms of the materials, the manufacturing processes and the makers themselves, than they were 20 years ago. “While we may still be wearing some of the same items, styles such as baggy jeans and cargo pants, we may be placing more value on them, for instance, we may be wearing a vintage pair of cargo pants from 2003.”
From Yasmin’s perspective, New Zealand Fashion is now defined by a cohort of established and future designers — old guard names such as the longstanding NOM*d and Kate Sylvester, who is celebrating 30 years in business, as well as new-gen designers including Nicole van Vuuren and Oosterom “who are diverse, innovative, edgy and the future of the industry”.
If New Zealand’s fashion identity is no longer tied to a singular, cohesive aesthetic, what else binds it? “There is one thing that New Zealand designs have in common, and that is informality,” says Doris. “We seem simply unable to impose the structure to our clothes that is the hallmark of Western fashion.”
She notes that Karen Walker embodies this in many ways, with an androgynous look that is rooted in comfort. Kate Sylvester, too, while offering plenty of wearable dresses, always includes tailoring and fluid, loose garments. “You see the Italians and they’re so sharp; everything’s in its place and it’s polished. The English, too, are very sort of body-conscious and form-fitting. We can never quite manage that — I suppose there is a softness to how we dress. A comfort that your clothes are secure, rather than revealing too much.”
New Zealand fashion is defined by comfort, casualness and culture — and anything but a singular palette of moody black.