Story: Creative life

Page 3. Design and fashion

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A practical design tradition

It is now a cliché to say that design in New Zealand reflects the national characteristic of down-to-earth ingenuity – often referred to as the ‘No 8 wire’ attitude (because of the inventive use of farmers’ fencing wire). But it is certainly true that New Zealand design classics are responses to the demands of the local environment, often developed using cheap or readily available materials. The feather cloak and pāua-shell fish lure, essential to survival for the first Māori, were also beautiful objects, treasured down the generations. Similarly, the Crown Lynn ceramic vase and the plywood ‘Curvesse’ chair – practical items developed later – have an elegant simplicity that arises from their function.

Development of local design

Until the 1980s much industrial, interior, graphic, jewellery and fashion design in New Zealand was heavily influenced by international trends. In addition, New Zealand’s geographical isolation and import restrictions, which limited the availability of new technology, meant that local design had a somewhat home-grown feeling. Mechanical inventions such as the Hamilton jet boat engine and the John Britten motorcycle, along with clothing, backpacks and equipment for the outdoors, revealed an innovative side to New Zealand design. By the mid-1990s, there was a new feeling of confidence as designers used Māori, Pacific and New Zealand images and materials in their work, and a style called ‘Pacific minimalism’ emerged.

Various organisations were established to foster New Zealand design from 1949 onwards. The New Zealand Industrial Design Council operated from 1967 until the late 1980s. Finally in 1991 the remaining organisations merged to form the Designers Institute of New Zealand, promoting graphic, spatial, industrial, fashion and craft design, and the management and teaching of these disciplines.

Global markets

The approach to industrial design in New Zealand has become more sophisticated and outward-looking. By targeting particular buyers, using new technology, investing in research, and marketing carefully, some manufacturers are achieving global success. Their products are often everyday objects such as dishwashers, chairs and buses incorporating previously unheard-of improvements. A government organisation, the Design Industry Taskforce, is promoting design standards with New Zealand companies in order to lift exports of New Zealand-designed products. Another industry influenced by globalism is that centred on computer and web design.

Going far

One of the few areas in which New Zealand has ever been able to claim world dominance is yacht design. Based in the USA, Auckland-born Bruce Farr has designed yachts that have won numerous world titles. Farr-designed boats have been in every round-the-world yacht race since 1981, winning in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998.


Once the words ‘New Zealand’ and ‘fashion’ were rarely seen in the same sentence. Half a world away from the world’s fashion capitals, New Zealanders were always a season behind the latest trends, and the rigours of climate and occupation often made comfort more important than style. A casual lifestyle and the popularity of outdoor pursuits influenced the way New Zealanders dressed; these factors are reflected in a small range of distinctive garments still manufactured and worn: the Swanndri bush shirt, and jandals, for example. They also spawned fashion crimes such as ‘walk shorts’ worn with long ‘walk socks’: popular business garb for men from the late 1950s until the 1980s.

Followers and leaders

Followers of fashion were always eager to adopt trends from overseas. From 1964 until 1995 the annual Benson and Hedges fashion shows encouraged local design talent, but the fashion industry still looked overseas for inspiration. This gradually changed, and at London Fashion Week in 1999, four New Zealand labels – World, Nom D, Zambesi and Karen Walker – were hailed as style leaders, with a ‘dark and intellectual’ look.

The fashion industry

The New Zealand fashion industry is also benefiting from a global market. Design courses, many offered by polytechnics, have proliferated, and Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin are leading fashion centres. The concept of design and art ‘incubators’ has caught on in New Zealand, and they can be found in the main centres. They provide free or low-cost studio space and business mentoring to help emerging designers and artists establish careers. The annual New Zealand Fashion Week, first held in 2001, allows designers to showcase their work.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - Design and fashion', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005