What’s The Future Of New Zealand Fashion Week?

Jordan from N Models photographed for Viva Daily, 2019, the last year New Zealand Fashion Week took place. Photo / Babiche Martens

Normally by now, shoe designer Kathryn Wilson would be finalising her seating plan for New Zealand Fashion Week and getting excited to see her designs “come to life” on the runway.

Instead, she’s feeling a twinge of sadness. “They can be a static object on the shelf, so to see them on the catwalk gives them personality and creates memories. It’s a celebration. It’s a really important emotional connection with our customer base so without that, as a designer, it feels a bit disappointing.”

New Zealand Fashion Week was first put on hold in 2020, when Covid arrived in the country. In August 2021, what was to have been NZFW's 20th anniversary was adjourned a week beforehand when the country went into level 4 lockdown then in May 2021, seven years after officially putting NZFW on the market, founder Dame Pieter Stewart sold the brand to Canada-and New Zealand-based Feroz Ali, a Fiji-born businessman who also owns Whitecliffe and Fashion Tech.

The event, postponed to February this year, was once again scrapped at the eleventh hour when Auckland was put into the red setting due to the Omicron outbreak.

"It was devastating," says Juliette Hogan, who was due to show for the first time in four years. Like all designers working towards the new dates, she'd recapitulated to design a whole new look for the new season. "We were so close to the finish line, so proud of what we'd pulled together and so excited about sharing our concept, so to have that taken away was gut-wrenching."

Rather than see their planning go to waste, they filmed their own runway show, screening it on their website on the date it otherwise would have gone ahead. Likewise, Kathryn Wilson eventually held her own pared-back show at Soul Bar, as a way to thank her most loyal customers.

What was to have been a “huge” Fashion Week show complete with 10 dancers and dramatic lighting, had to be significantly pared-back but it was still hugely gratifying, she says.

“It sold out in record time and the audience was so happy to be there,” she says. “They were craving that connection with the brand. Equally, our team were thriving on how fun it felt and how wonderful it was, bringing it to life.”

Margi Robertson from Nom*d. Photo / Guy Coombes
Margi Robertson from Nom*d. Photo / Guy Coombes

Plans are now afoot to resurrect NZFW in August 2023 under newly appointed general manager Yasmin Farry, an experienced show producer who has worked on NZFW since its inception alongside Dame Pieter, who is contributing in an advisory role.

And owner Feroz Ali says he’s looking forward to “reimagining” the event by combining its trade show roots with more consumer-focused activities, along with opportunities for fashion graduates and emerging and indigenous designers.

However, that’s still at least a year away and in the interim many brands have embraced e-commerce, with some in the industry openly pondering whether Fashion Week still has a place.

What was once largely a trade show drawing international buyers and press (albeit a glamorous, high-profile one) has, over the years, become more of an industry celebration, a way to showcase brands to the New Zealand public and mix with others in the fashion biz.

Dunedin-based Nom*d designer Margarita Robertson says Fashion Week was a great experience when it was first established.

“After the first 10 years we began to question the relevance to our market,” she says. “It wasn’t the international event it had been and became a little more of an Auckland-based entertainment event. It’s a wonderful platform and it does make you think about how you present your collection and the opportunity to collaborate with other areas of fashion like hair and makeup, production companies, models, stylists, etc, which is great fun, but there is a cost involved ... On top of the fee to participate, it can be excessive in comparison to the return you may get.”

Likewise, designer Wynn Crawshaw of label Wynn Hamlyn has participated in three Fashion Weeks (and had committed to contributing to the 20th birthday retrospective) but chooses not to participate now that much of his business comes from offshore, particularly the United States and Australia.

Unlike Australia Fashion Week, where he put on a resortwear show in May (pre-New York and Paris), NZFW’s dates don’t align with international wholesale markets, he says, meaning there’s less momentum to attract buyers preparing for spring/summer 2023.

“Generally spring/summer is not a huge market internationally anyway,” says Wynn. “Most brands would do resort [June] and pre-fall [January, February].”

While most designers Viva spoke to say they'd still consider doing NZFW again, business coach Zac de Silva, who works with successful fashion brands including Juliette Hogan, Kowtow, Huffer, Porter James Sports and Bokeo through his company Business Changing, says in today's climate, brands need to look critically at what they spend their money on.

The expense of staging a show at NZFW (anywhere from roughly $30,000, sponsored or otherwise), could instead be leveraged into digital advertising, developing new products or marketing to existing customers through other routes, he says.

“Fashion Week used to be good at launching fashion brands to new retailers both nationally and internationally that were otherwise too hard to get in front of, but now those avenues are far more accessible thanks to social media and the internet,” he says.

“I would ask if you could get these same sales without doing Fashion Week by instead doing a targeted marketing campaign, working on improving your brand awareness, lifting your own sales and getting so good that your label speaks for itself and you’re so good that the key retail stores can’t ignore you. Today, you can hold your own fashion show both in person and online as regularly as you like, creating great content for your own channels and gaining wide reach with that content ... with less of an outlay.”

Natasha Ovely from Starving Artists Fund, 2020. Photo / Babiche Martens
Natasha Ovely from Starving Artists Fund, 2020. Photo / Babiche Martens

Since this year's NZFW cancellation there have been a smattering of privately produced runway shows from designers such as Cruz del Sur and Jacqueline Anne; designer Cecilia Kang teamed up with real estate auctioneer Allan Myers to create an events company called Fashion Club Inc.Art, which is staging a runway show on August 29 at Morningside's Glasshouse, featuring Cecilia's pieces alongside other emerging designers. Attendees are invited to dress up "Met Gala" style, and mingle with the talent afterwards.

Taylor Groves and Emma Jing-Cornell staged a show at a Remuera church in June, sustainability-minded label ReCreate Clothing put on a recorded event in Clevedon in February, live-streaming it on Facebook, and Starving Artists Fund staged an independent showcase in the spirit of edgy off-site NZFW shows of the past.

Though not aligned with NZFW, the public event was intended as a "challenge to the existing format of runway shows," its organiser Natasha Ovely told Viva's creative director Dan Ahwa, with "no red tape, no hierarchy and no sitting still".

Juliette Hogan agrees that runway shows will always be important vehicles, particularly for burgeoning fashion brands that may not yet have bricks and mortar stores in which to communicate their aesthetic. In the early days of launching her brand, she says it was easy to measure how successful a NZFW show had been, by surveying how much media coverage she’d received, and the number of stockists who’d shown interest.

“It’s much harder now gaining wholesale accounts and media,” she says. “I don’t know if you can get an immediate measure of its success but you do foster brand loyalty and awareness. It gives people the opportunity to fall in love with the product in a different environment, and therefore sales increase. At the end of the day, it’s less about sales and more about celebration.

And it can be magic. “I think every young designer wants to do a fashion show it’s the epitome of fashion. That was certainly the case for some of our team who hadn’t experienced Fashion Week before.”

The future of New Zealand Fashion Week

So where does that leave the biggest event on the fashion calendar? Acknowledging the fashion climate has changed considerably since NZFW started, Feroz says his team a combination of new and familiar faces will be looking at further opening the event to the consumer and retail sectors, with a “festival” atmosphere to draw in the public, and a virtual platform for those to experience the event from outside Auckland.

As for expanding its reach globally, there’s little appetite from offshore parties to tune into a live-streamed event, he says, but there is potential to collaborate with other international fashion weeks, such as Sydney or Melbourne’s high-profile events.

“Imagine, for example, an aspiring Māori or Pasifika designer or any designer coming up through New Zealand Fashion Week and we hold a slot for them in New York Fashion Week, fully paid-for,” he says. “We’d give these upcoming and existing designers an opportunity to showcase, whether it’s in Australia or the US or Canada.”

Nor does he rule out the possibility of running a future Fashion Week event in February. (Melbourne Fashion Week runs two events a year, including a festival weekend in March.)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with designers Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester at the launch of the NZ Design Edit at David Jones in Sydney in July. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with designers Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester at the launch of the NZ Design Edit at David Jones in Sydney in July. Photo / Getty Images

As the owner of Fashion Tech, he says many young designers and graduates often find themselves floundering, so is interested in building on NZFW’s foundation of supporting young designers through its grad and “new gen” shows, by integrating professional development workshops into the event, not just in the rock-star design roles but in pattern-making, styling, makeup and other invaluable parts of the industry.

He also hopes to facilitate meetings between designers and organisations such as New Zealand Trade & Enterprise to help them gain traction abroad, “making it more accessible rather than them working on their own”.

New GM Yasmin Farry adds that despite all the digital technology at our fingertips, people are still hungry for human connection and to experience firsthand the creativity of a live event.

“Virtual connection isn’t as powerful as bringing a customer into their world, telling a story among the energy and buzz of a runway show.

“It’s the energy of bringing people together designers, models, makeup artists, customers, buyers and media that is so important and why fashion weeks globally are having a post-pandemic comeback. NZFW also allows our emerging brands, young creatives and stylists a platform for visibility.”

Business as usual?

While Kate Sylvester says she’d hoped to leverage the exposure from this year’s cancelled NZFW to promote her new Commercial Bay store, the designer says she’s found new ways to connect with her customers.

Along with more regular photoshoots to generate the imagery she’d normally get out of NZFW, like Nom d*’s Margi Robertson, she’s taking her social media platforms more seriously to connect with customers. One positive upshot of the pandemic, she adds, has been the public’s willingness to shop local.

“I see it as part of the shift to more responsible purchasing.”

Along with sustainability organisation Mindful Fashion, Kate was also part of a coterie of local brands including Karen Walker, Meadowlark, Paris Georgia and Saben featured in a New Zealand Design Edit at the Sydney David Jones store, part of a wider initiative organised by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise.

“We’re reconnecting with Australia, having put everything on hold for that market throughout Covid, but now we’ve re-engaged a press agent and a sales agent and we’re able to start focusing on that again. It feels like we’re coming out of hibernation.”

Likewise, Juliette Hogan has her sights set on Australia, where she’s hoping her JH Lounge line will gain traction now that travel is back on the agenda. And Kathryn Wilson says the forced hiatus of lockdown has led to opportunities where they might not have been.

When her four retail stores were no longer bringing in income, her advisory board suggested they use the time to take a blank piece of paper and start again to really look at ways the business could grow, and investigate other opportunities.

“The team might not have been prompted to open two new stores in the middle of the pandemic,” says Kathryn. “For us, it was about the return of customer service out of lockdown.”

Her new Wellington store has since gone on to become one of their top performers, as has their new shop that moved from Britomart to Remuera, their answer to working-from-home customers leaving the CBD, and the lack of cruise ships bringing foot traffic. They’ve also expanded their offering, introducing one of Kathryn’s favourite cashmere brands from London, along with silk shirting and hats.

“Maybe if we’d had our heads down on the grind, we wouldn’t have been prompted to think what else we could do,” she says. “We thought, how do we make it through and come out stronger and more exciting?”

With the possibility of recession now looming, the future of the event isn’t the only unknown heading into the next 12 months. But all three designers remain optimistic and say they’d be open to showing at NZFW in 2023, although it’s too early to say definitively, says Juliette.

“Fashion Week is incredibly positive on so many levels,” says Kate Sylvester. “It’s great for our business in New Zealand, and our wholesale business, we always do well off that. It’s so high profile and a positive energy thing that people really respond to."

“And it’s also amazingly stimulating creatively, for a brand putting on shows. I’ll always look back and feel wistful for what would have been, the ‘Portrait’ winter collection would have been a beautiful show. But we are really looking to being able to do them again.”

Share this article: