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Story: Fashion and textile design

New Zealand fashion designers first emerged in the 1940s. In the 2000s designers including Karen Walker, Trelise Cooper, Zambesi and WORLD had high profiles, locally and internationally.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: El Jay gown at New Zealand Fashion Museum exhibition, 2010

Story Summary

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First fashion designers

Before the Second World War, fashion design was largely imported from Europe (although clothing was made by dressmakers or at home). During the war, less information on fashion reached New Zealand, and clothing was rationed. Some local fashion designers emerged. American servicemen stationed in New Zealand bought locally designed fashion for their New Zealand girlfriends.

Three Auckland fashion houses are seen as founding fashion design in New Zealand: Trilby Yates, Ninette Gowns and Bobby Angus.

Some designers produced hand-printed textiles. New Zealander Avis Higgs had a successful textile design career, mostly overseas.

Getting established, 1950s and 1960s

In 1950 a fashion competition was held in Wellington to prove local design was as good as overseas design. Evening gown contests and parades were important fashion events, and the Gown of the Year contest was held from 1958 to 1964. The Benson & Hedges Fashion Design awards ran from 1964 till the mid-1990s.

Auckland was the centre of New Zealand fashion. Successful designers included Emma Knuckey, Bruce Papas and Gus Fisher. Clothes were often made to measure for the wearer.

Creative freedom, 1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s youth culture was the main influence on fashion, and garments became looser, flowing and more casual. Ready-to-wear clothes became common. Many new designers started out selling clothes at market stalls.

Annie Bonza and Tigermoth were leaders in youth fashion. Designers who later became well known, including Marilyn Sainty, Elizabeth and Neville Findlay (Zambesi) and Liz Mitchell, began working in the 1970s. There were also some bespoke designers who made one-off garments.

Clothing manufacturers became more design-focused. Manufacturers were protected from overseas competition by import tariffs, but this began to change in the 1980s.

Global fashion, 1990s and 2000s

In the 1990s tariffs on imported clothing were removed. Many manufacturers could not compete, and closed. Some fashion designers had clothes made overseas to save money.

Fashion design courses became more common. Fashion shows included the annual New Zealand Fashion Week (from 2001), and Miromoda, which focused on Māori and Pacific designers. Important fashion labels included NOM*d, Workshop, WORLD, Kate Sylvester and Trelise Cooper. Karen Walker became New Zealand’s best-known designer overseas.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Fashion and textile design', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/fashion-and-textile-design (accessed 21 January 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 Oct 2014