Style Liaisons With Viva Next Gen Designer Tess McCone Of Su`mar

By Annabel Dickson
Tess McCone. Photo / Supplied

Transcending trends and creating clothes that exude both comfort and extravagance is what Tess McCone of label Su`mar is all about.

Launching in 2020 amid the chaos of lockdown, Su`mar was born with the intention to build a conscious fashion label focused on high-quality craftsmanship that challenged consumerism.

Locally produced in Tāmaki Makaurau as a one-woman show, timeless and versatile garments with a hint of fun are created on a pre-order and made-to-order basis, where finer details can be amended or added if desired.

“A focus on sustainability and artistic expression, Su`mar transcends trends to create timeless and versatile garments,” says Tess.

The designer had a long tenure at New Zealand label Zambesi before launching her own brand. During her time there, she was selected to be the first young designer to collaborate in-house on a collection in 2017, working with head designers Liz Findlay and Dayne Johnston throughout the design and development process through to production and then into stores.

The North Otago native also knows a thing or two about industry hard work. Hailing from Enfield and having been raised on a farm, awareness and perseverance were instilled from an early age. It’s also where Tess’ love of the outdoors and making the world a better place with clothing intended for longevity and purpose, not waste was found.

Her label’s name also goes back to her roots. After a few suggestions, Tess landed on Su`mar, after her parents’ first names, Sue and Marty.

Taylah Kereama wears a Su`mar dress, styled by Dan Ahwa for Viva Magazine. Photo / Mara Sommer
Taylah Kereama wears a Su`mar dress, styled by Dan Ahwa for Viva Magazine. Photo / Mara Sommer

Tell us about what your day-to-day role involves and what you like about the job as a creative person.

Being a one-gal band, I wear all the hats for my business, so the days can look quite different depending on what stage I’m at with a collection. If I’m not immersed in the studio working on designs, patterns, sampling and cutting, I would be visiting my local makers or suppliers in Auckland.

What resonates with me most as a creative is the process of drafting new patterns and developing styles. There is a unique satisfaction in tackling the intricate problem-solving challenges that arise, striving to achieve the perfect balance of form, function and aesthetics while maintaining a sense of invention.

What, in your opinion, makes style?

Great style emerges from being authentic and genuine about what you love and admire, not following trends too heavily, and focusing on what makes you feel good and how you want the world to see you.

Describe your personal style and what you wear when you want to feel your best.

My personal style finds comfort in extravagance. I love wearing and making things that are comfortable and easy to wear, but there also needs to be an unexpected or surprise element.

A great jacket will always make me feel good, preferably something with special detailing or textile, whether it be worn as a full suit or just thrown over a simple dress. Jackets hold magical power for me.

Tell us about a piece of clothing or item you have inherited that’s particularly special to you.

A ring that was passed on to me from my Gran; it’s irreplaceable. I can’t remember the exact journey it’s been on but it was in her family before she acquired it. I would love to know the stories of the women who wore it before her and me. The connection it holds is grounding, something I will treasure forever.

Tell us about your earliest fashion memory.

Coming from a farming background, fashion wasn’t a prominent aspect of my upbringing. I remember playing dress-ups a lot with my sister when we were young, and feel that’s when I first connected with clothing and its purpose. My gran had a treasure box of special things she had collected clip-on earrings, brooches, capes, furs, and things like that. I absolutely loved when we got to play with those things.

Dream fashion collaboration?

I love the idea of a crazy young brand colliding with a classic fashion house, like Wed Studios x YSL something like that would be cool to see.

What has been the most rewarding thing about creating a label, and what has been the biggest challenge?

Most rewarding is seeing customers connect with the garments and when they get excited about how and where they will wear it. It’s those moments that complete the whole picture.

The biggest challenge at this point, I think, would be navigating a new business through the pandemic the first three collections were immediately or soon after followed by a lockdown, so it was quite topsy-turvy for a while there, and hard to build momentum and fall into a consistent workflow.

“Great style emerges from being authentic and genuine about what you love and admire.” Photo / Fiona Quinn
“Great style emerges from being authentic and genuine about what you love and admire.” Photo / Fiona Quinn

There are a lot of challenges ahead for designers, from navigating the post-Covid world to working towards sustainability. Is there anything that you hope will emerge creatively from this time?

I believe greatness can emerge from chaos, but it requires collective effort. I hope people start or continue reflecting on their fashion purchases (or any purchases) with greater depth. Consider who the creators behind these products are and the exact individuals or causes you are supporting through your purchase.

I hope that the concept of made-to-order shopping continues to gain momentum, allowing us to appreciate and prioritise genuine craftsmanship over mass production.

What principles have you taken from your experience working for stalwart NZ labels into your own label Su`mar?

I learned pretty quickly that this isn’t for the faint-hearted, you have to be prepared to work a lot of hours and carry a heavy load.

The importance of supporting our local industry, keeping production onshore, and doing as much as you can through local businesses.

Longevity; the garments and the brand need to be built to last.

What textile could you not live without?

Beading. Does that count?

What can we expect to see from you in the Viva Next Gen show at NZFW 2023?

I want to take this opportunity to showcase the essence of Su`mar and what I’ve been building over the past few years, showing spring/summer Gems capsules styled with pieces from the made-to-order library. Designing summer always leans into nostalgia for me, a time for making memories, so expect to see something along the vibe of whimsical dappled daydreams.

5 Quick Questions

Favourite drink?

A bubbly sour cocktail.

Dream holiday destination?


Top accounts to follow?

I’m terrible, I can’t get into TikTok, but on Instagram:

@Somewhereiwouldliketolive, for the beautiful places and spaces., for the weird and wonderful.

@Celineyrs, for the cutest food you ever did see.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Sea by John Banville.

What are you listening to?

I’m quite eclectic when it comes to music, so it’s hard to have a favourite, but anything by Little Dragon will always make me smile.

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