Fashion designer Kate Sylvester has dressed everyone from Jacinda Ardern to Bic Runga in her 30 years in business. To mark this momentous milestone, the fashion doyenne talks to Jessica Beresford about steering her eponymous brand through changing times.
Kate Sylvester has always had a bit of an attitude. In
In September 1998, when a multinational fashion label sued them over the brand’s original name, Sister, the pair took out a classified ad announcing the “death” of the former moniker. “[Sister] will be sadly missed by all those who loved her,” read the posting. “Remembered for her unpredictable nature, independent vision and sparkling wit. The legacy of Sister lives on in Kate Sylvester.”
Even today, at 55 and with 30 years of business behind her, Sylvester still has that sparkling wit. Sitting in her Eden Terrace offices, she’s dressed in a white knitted tank top and black slacks, her sleek hair cut into a long bob and a pair of large spectacles atop her nose, accompanied, as always, by a wry smile.
For the past three decades, fashion with a knowing wink has been Sylvester’s signature, an ethos that has seen her stocked in some of the world’s biggest department stores, dress countless New Zealand women — including Jacinda Ardern — and position herself as a consistent presence in the often fickle fashion industry.
The brand was born in 1993, during a creative boom in New Zealand. Sylvester and Conway had been living and working in Paris but decided to return after hearing that Auckland had garnered a new energy off the back of the recession. “The ‘90s in Auckland were this incredibly dynamic and exciting time,” remembers Sylvester.
“It’s a weird thing to say but for starters, it was the start of coffee culture… When people figured out how to make a flat white, it just changed the world,” she says. “There were lots of people opening really great cafes and then there was the likes of Verona, which was this incredible creative hub.
There was also the phenomenal Pasifika Renaissance, where you had the Pacific Sisters doing their thing, and it was also when Planet and Pavement started up, so we had these two really exciting magazines to profile young creatives as well. It was the first time in New Zealand that we realised that there was a home-grown style we could celebrate.”
Working from a converted warehouse on Kitchener St, Sylvester designed the clothes while Conway, a trained graphic designer, created the prints and handled the business side of things. Back then, Sylvester’s collections were more casual, filled with knitwear, T-shirts and some suiting, which the brand sold mainly to university students.
“Little wrap-around skirts and mini dresses that you wore over bootcut trousers,” adds Sylvester. “It was quite street and minimal.”
Instead of photographing models, they cast people they knew in their campaigns, such as artist Frances Upritchard or the architect Sue Hilary, cultivating a group of creatives around them.
As Sylvester matured, so did her collections; by the late 90s, and coinciding with the change of the brand name from Sister to Kate Sylvester, her designs morphed into “tailored, sophisticated” clothes, more akin to what we see now, and she graduated from using offcuts of nylon to wool and silk. “It marked a slight shift from students to working women,” she says.
The first individual Kate Sylvester fashion show was held in Sydney in 1999, with a collection titled Arts and Crafts that set off a bidding war between New York department stores Barneys and Henri Bendel.
“We were not expecting to get an order from Barneys and it nearly killed us trying to produce it,” remembers Sylvester. “We had used all this very cute, fine net material and we hadn’t wear-tested it properly or thought about trying to put it into mass production. So it was a mega learning curve to try and turn that into a commercial collection.”
Watch: Kate Sylvester’s (still) got it
Brighton Rock, a collection inspired by the 1938 novel by Graham Greene, followed in 2000, with a show that is still one of the brand’s seminal moments. Conway imagined the runway as a dining table, inspired by the book’s restaurant scene, set with tablecloths, crockery and vases of flowers and hanging chandeliers overhead. As the models walked the runway in waitress-inspired outfits with magnified doilies on the front, they casually kicked the table’s contents into the audience; a smashed plate landed in the lap of Cate Blanchett, who was sitting in the front row. Bergdorf Goodman snapped up the hand-beaded dresses.
For Fight, which came in 2001, Sylvester designed a collection of mini dresses with shirred tops and sequined skirts, boxer shorts and weight belts hung around sleek suiting. For the show, Conway took inspiration from a boxing ring and put liniment under the seats so the room smelt like Deep Heat.
“I generally hate fashion shows, I think they are boring,” says Conway of his motivation for concocting out-of-the-ordinary spectacles. “I think if you can make people really excited by a show visually, something that they can remember or that makes them think about things, then that works for me.”
As a ferocious reader, Sylvester is often fired by literature and has a knack for bringing fictional characters to life through her designs. As well as Greene, she has referenced J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and Little Red Riding Hood inspired a bright-red cape in 2007′s Wolf.
One of the most memorable in this vein was 2015′s Tartt, a collection inspired by Donna Tartt’s novels The Secret History and The Goldfinch, which included scholarly paisley prints, overcoats and pastel colours taken from the characters’ descriptions in the books; there was even suiting sparked by Tartt’s own uniform. At the end of the show, held during New Zealand Fashion Week, confetti made from chopped-up book pages rained over the catwalk.
“Kate Sylvester stands out as a New Zealand designer because she’s so cerebral, inspired by art and literature,” says model Penny Pickard, who first worked with the brand for its 2002 Le Petit Garcon campaign. Certainly a culture vulture, Sylvester’s other subjects have included the photographer Lee Miller, David Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs and the Baz Luhrmann film Romeo and Juliet.
Weaving narratives through her collections has always been a strong point of Sylvester’s. “Kate has such a strong understanding of design and comes up with ideas based around some amazing story and how the clothes evolve out of it,” says fashion designer Ingrid Starnes, who started her career working in Kate Sylvester’s workroom. “I find that’s really inspiring and it’s a special ability that she carries with her.”
“We love exploring a theme and taking that to a new place and just surprising the audience,” says Conway. “Not to be really literal with it but just to have a scope to play with the visual element.”
Sylvester says the hallmark of a good collection is one that has a strong concept but that also resonates with the customers. “We always say that every garment has a job to do and some pieces, their number one job isn’t to sell — it’s just to express the concept or to create a beautiful press image. Then there are other pieces that just have to perform,” says Sylvester. “The golden piece is one that will get us press but that also sells really well and that women wear and love for a very long time. But I’m not that good — I can’t do that every time.”
The worst-performing collection, Sylvester says, was from 1999 and was inspired by the Italian-American artist Vanessa Beecroft, who is famous for her large-scale installations of women standing in underwear. “I created this incredibly minimalist collection that was quite unwearable; it was all concept and no thought went into actually wearing the product,” says Sylvester. “It was the same year that Sass & Bide came on to the scene, and the whole of Australia just wanted sexy rock ‘n’ roll and boho layering overnight. We got that one so wrong.”
To mark 30 years of the brand, Sylvester has dug into her archive to create a collection that acts as a greatest hits of her designs throughout the years. There are striped knits from the early Sister days; a T-shirt with a doily printed on the front, taken from Brighton Rock; a puffer jacket inspired by 1999′s Specimen collection, which featured quilted skirts and dresses; and a floral print from 2006′s Stop Your Sobbing.
“We have reinterpreted the designs for today — it’s a mix of the pieces that I absolutely love and then other ones have elements that are timeless that have continued all the way through, as our signature pieces,” says Sylvester. “For example, we are reissuing these shirts that I first did in about 1995, which I still wear today, and to me that just says everything about the brand.”
There are, of course, also the brand’s best-selling dresses; the shapes that have become quintessentially Kate and which Kiwi women have relied on her for year after year. “I think the last 10 years is where there’s been a real shift of focus, where I really figured out what matters to me most is creating the clothes that make women feel amazing and that they’re discovering the importance of the empowerment of what we do and focusing on that.”
Today, Sylvester has six stores across the country and is stocked in David Jones and boutiques in Australia. Unlike in the early days of the brand, she doesn’t feel the need to push into international markets anymore — instead focussing on Kiwi women and what they want to wear.
“What we have discovered over the years is that our New Zealand customers are our absolute core and everything else comes and goes. How we’ve survived for 30 years is that we’ve realised that we have this amazing loyalty from our local customers and our number one priority is to always look after them.”
Certainly, Sylvester knows how to look after New Zealand women — as evidenced by the sheer amount of her designs that still walk the streets today. “The absolute most rewarding thing about what I do is seeing people wearing the clothes or talking to them about the clothes that I’ve made for them that they absolutely love and that make them feel so much better,” adds Sylvester.
“These clothes that have been at people’s most special events and the key moments in their lives. I think that’s the absolutely most rewarding part of what we do, making women feel incredibly great.” And doing so, of course, with a little bit of attitude.
To celebrate Kate Sylvester’s 30th birthday, we captured friends and family of the brand wearing her clothes. See all the portraits here.