Original New Zealand fashion design was one of the more unlikely consequences of the Second World War. Before the war, those who wanted to dress fashionably relied on independent and department-store dressmakers or their own sewing skills, but designs were largely imported from overseas. Original New Zealand designs were rare, and ideas were derived from the fashions of Europe.
The Second World War disrupted the usual flow of goods and information into New Zealand. News of the latest fashions coming out of Paris was curtailed, and clothes rationing limited sartorial options. The absence of international fashion provided entrepreneurial local dressmakers and shop proprietors with a gap to fill. American servicemen stationed in New Zealand were happy to spend money on locally designed fashion for their New Zealand girlfriends.
Three Auckland fashion houses are credited as the founders of fashion design in New Zealand: Trilby Yates, Ninette Gowns and Bobby Angus. All offered custom-made garments from inner-city salons, and produced flowing evening gowns, tailored suits, smart day dresses and long coats.
Trilby Yates, founded by sisters Trilby and Julia Yates, started life as a hat shop in the 1920s and developed into a dress shop in the early 1930s after Trilby Yates’s untimely death. Julia Yates was an expert saleswoman rather than a designer, so she hired Nancy Hudson to fill this role. Business boomed during the early 1940s as American servicemen spent up on original garments for their girlfriends. Hall Ludlow, who became a leading fashion designer in Australia, got his start at Trilby Yates in 1945. The label closed in the early 1950s.
The origins of brothels were inevitably mysterious in the days when prostitution was illegal. According to one story, Flora MacKenzie held regular parties at the Ninette Gowns salon, and cottoned on to the idea of becoming a madam after American servicemen left her parties with house models, first depositing a wad of cash under a vase.
Flora MacKenzie is best remembered as a celebrated brothel madam, but before this she was a fashion designer and owned the label Ninette Gowns. She offered a very exclusive, bespoke service which was patronised by the elite. MacKenzie’s gowns were distinguished by hand embroidery and appliqué, and she was particularly interested in Chinese motifs.
As with Trilby Yates, American servicemen were important clients, and they also prompted MacKenzie’s entry into the world of brothel-keeping. Her wealthy father purchased a block of flats for her in Ponsonby during the war, and once she realised her female tenants were entertaining the visiting Americans, she became their madam and eventually left the world of fashion.
Bobby Angus opened a shop in Auckland in 1948 and made a diverse array of garments. Her clothes were smart, though more casual than those of Trilby Yates and Ninette Gowns, and she catered for a younger clientele of professional women.
Artist Frances Hodgkins embarked on a brief career designing textiles in England in 1925–26. She attended the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (a public exhibition) in Paris in 1925 on behalf of her employer, the Calico Printers Association of Manchester, and was wowed by the innovative new textiles on show. Commercial textile design soon palled though, and Hodgkins resumed teaching art classes in 1926.
Artists May Smith, Blanche Wormald and Louise Tilsley produced hand-printed textiles in the 1930s and 1940s. Writer A. R. D. Fairburn took up textile design and printing in 1947 and, along with other designers, produced refreshing, modern textiles that were an alternative to the traditional florals on offer in stores. Avis Higgs began her successful textile design career, which largely took place overseas, in Sydney in 1941.
The fashion designers of the 1940s prepared the ground for their successors and proved that designers could make a career in New Zealand. Male fashion designers became more common in the 1950s. Garments were often made to measure – based on a pattern but made to fit the individual wearer. Evening and day wear and tailored suits remained mainstays. In the 1960s hemlines started to shoot up. Auckland was the centre of fashion in New Zealand.
In 1950 a fashion competition was held at Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret, with the aim of proving that New Zealand fashion design was as good as overseas design. The winner, Marie Little, faded from view after the competition, but the event did signal a new confidence.
The first Gown of the Year contest in 1958 left watchers awed: ‘Nine fabulous ball gowns, gleaming satin encrusted with crystals and pearls, softly swathed chiffon, rich velvet and sweeping trains of glittering tulle, brought sighs of admiration and wonder from the audience.’1
Evening gown competitions and parades were important fashion events in the 1950s and presaged the high-profile Gown of the Year contest, which ran from 1958 to 1964. The gowns shown at these events tended to be ‘princess’-style gowns, heavy on fabric and embellishment. Another key fashion event was the Wool Board Awards (1960–65). The Benson & Hedges Fashion Design awards started in 1964 and ran until the mid-1990s.
In the late 1940s Emma Knuckey made the transition from Taranaki housewife to fashion designer. In a remarkable display of confidence, Knuckey sent her fashion sketches to the London Model House Group, an association of British ready-to-wear designers, and she was invited to study there in 1949. On her return in 1950 she opened a salon in Auckland, and became one of the country’s leading fashion designers. Knuckey was best known for her women’s two-piece suits.
The royal tour of 1953–54 was a good time for New Zealand fashion designers. Many women, some of whom attended tour-related events, refreshed their wardrobes and bought new garments from designers. Queen Elizabeth wore her coronation gown with its 20,000 hand-sewn pearls to the opening of Parliament in 1954. Her elaborate dress inspired imitation by a generation of designers and home sewers.
Bruce Papas was trained by Flora MacKenzie and was the lead designer at Ninette Gowns in its later years. He briefly ran his own salon before becoming the designer for the Milne & Choyce department store in Auckland. There he was responsible for introducing the chemise or sack dress to New Zealand in the late 1950s. It was a radical departure from the more structured garments of previous decades and heralded a loosening of social conventions as well as waistlines. It also identified a new market – youth.
Auckland’s Barry McDonnell eschewed the salon approach, which required numerous appointments, and made ready-to-wear garments that didn’t stay on the racks for long.
Barbara Penberthy established Contessa in 1956, but is best known for her second label, Babs Radon, which started in 1961. Colin Cole designed for apparel firm Classic Manufacturing. He started his own eponymous label in 1958 and went on to become one of the leading designers of the 1960s, known for his evening dresses. Gus Fisher of El Jay emerged in the 1950s and became well established in the following decade. Former model Joan Talbot’s Tarantella was another successful label. All these labels were Auckland-based.
These designers catered for the well-heeled woman and did not appeal to teenage baby-boomers who were ready to shake loose and reject the social conventions followed by their parents. Diana Colmore-Williams designed one-off garments – short shift dresses, trouser suits and beach wear – for a younger market.
Granny’s, Bizarre and His Lordship’s (which catered for men) were other fashionable labels aimed at young people.
From the 1950s New Zealand designers and apparel manufacturers held licences to produce garments under major international fashion labels. El Jay held the Christian Dior licence. This practice came to an end in the 1980s.
William Mason’s first textiles appeared in the late 1940s, when he was an arts student, but it was not until the 1960s that he made his mark as a textile designer. Mason designed wallpaper and fabric for interior furnishings. Frank and Carla Carpay produced bold designs for beachwear fabric.
The youth culture that emerged in the 1960s became the chief influence on fashion in the 1970s. Made-to-measure garments gave way to ready-to-wear items, which shoppers wore straight off the rack. The tailoring and structure characteristic of previous decades was replaced by looser, flowing and in many cases more casual garments in the 1970s. Designers dared to be more original and were less inclined to follow ‘rules’ about hemlines and colour. Tailored suits for women returned in the 1980s, complete with shoulder pads and wide lapels.
Independent labels and boutiques flourished in the 1970s and many new designers started out as stall holders in Brown’s Mill and Cook Street markets in Auckland, Victoria Market in Wellington and Atlantis and Mollett Street markets in Christchurch. They often used hand-made and printed textiles, and embellishments like appliqué and embroidery. Polytechnic fashion and graphic-design courses replaced boutique apprenticeships as training grounds.
Susan Holmes – who was to become the World of Wearable Art supreme winner in 1996 – opened a stall at Brown’s Mill in 1972. She had produced her first textile prints the previous year: ‘I had never made [a print], so I got a potato, cut it in half, cut out a bird with the veggie knife, improvised a pad of foam on a plate, made a print on some material I had, and my career was started!’1
Annie Bonza opened her boutique in Auckland in 1968 and became the leader in high-end youth fashion in the 1970s.
Auckland’s Tigermoth started off as a collective of designers, and the boutique of the same name was a drawcard for the young, fashionable and daring. Jane Bezar was Wellington’s equivalent. Men had an increasing number of fashion options thanks to shops like Frinton in Auckland’s Victoria Street, which opened in 1976 and stocked owner Michael Anderson’s designs.
Designers who became the major names of New Zealand fashion in succeeding decades got their start in the late 1970s, including Marilyn Sainty, Elizabeth and Neville Findlay (Zambesi) and Liz Mitchell.
Trelise Cooper started out with the label Limited Editions in 1984. Adrienne Winkelmann designed for urban, professional women and Brigid Brock produced distinctive leatherwear. Svelt, the label of Kerrie Hughes and Di Jennings, was known for its theatrical, avant garde evening wear. Margarita Robertson started knitwear label NOM*d in Dunedin in 1986.
NOM*d, the in-house brand of Margi Robertson’s Dunedin boutique Plume, is one of the most unusual label names in New Zealand fashion. It is short for ‘nom de plume’, the French phrase for a pseudonym. The use of capitals and an asterisk makes it stand out even more.
Workshop produced casual garments for women and men. Men’s labels included Equipment, Clacton and Frinton, and Strangely Normal.
Adrienne Foote designed distinctive Pacific-inspired fabric which she used in her clothes. Fellow textile designer Mike Brookfield specialised in printed garments under the label VIRUS.
There was still room for bespoke designers, who made one-off garments. Kevin Berkahn, Vinka Lucas and Michael Mattar all had loyal followers prepared to spend handsomely.
Berkahn was entrepreneurial and expanded to Australia in the early 1970s. Lucas, a Croatian immigrant, was known for her wedding dresses and was sought after by women wanting a gown for a special occasion. Michael Mattar opened a boutique in his home town of Taumarunui in 1963 and sold clothes to the rich and famous in the 1970s. The location was no obstacle because clients enjoyed travelling there on the main trunk railway line.
Patrick Steel catered to moneyed Aucklanders in the 1980s.
Apparel manufacturers had employed fashion designers before, but they became more design-led in the 1970s. Manufacturers tended to directly copy garments made overseas, but some firms, such as Sonny Elegant Knitwear, started to design from scratch. Fashion labels like Thornton Hall and Vamp, which were major New Zealand brands in the 1980s, emerged from apparel firms.
Manufacturers were protected from overseas competition by import tariffs – New Zealand shoppers were a captive audience. The signing of the Closer Economic Relations deal with Australia in 1983, which removed nearly all tariffs on trade between the two countries by 1990, was the beginning of the end of protection.
Fashion designers and apparel manufacturers had to grapple with economic reforms imposed by central government in the 1990s. Tariffs on all imported clothing were reduced. Manufacturers could not compete with clothing imports on price, and many closed over the next two decades. Sonny Elegant Knitwear was unusual, successfully exporting the new Sabatini brand.
While fashion designers were not immune to the negative effects of economic reform, there were upsides for them. Surviving manufacturers had to take small labels more seriously because they were now an important source of business, and designers found their orders were higher in the pecking order. Many labels had their garments manufactured overseas where labour was cheaper. The government’s attention moved from the large manufacturers to independent designers.
Some labels of the 1980s, like Zambesi, NOM*d, Workshop and Marilyn Sainty, confirmed their position as fashion leaders in the 1990s. By 1990 there were four Zambesi shops and the workroom produced between 4,000 and 6,000 garments annually. Helen Cherry, the designer behind 1980s brand Street Life, changed the label to Helen Cherry in 1997.
The number of fashion design tertiary courses grew from the late 1980s and increasing numbers of graduates entered the fashion business in the 1990s. More and more new designers emerged as major labels that decade, including:
Fashion designer Doris de Pont and textile designer Adrienne Foote collaborated to form DNA in 1994. Foote’s fabric referenced history, the environment and politics among other things, and retained the Pacific motifs common in her work in the 1980s.
WORLD designers Denise L’Estrange-Corbet and Francis Hooper considered calling their label World’s End but decided that would make New Zealand sound like a fashion backwater. ‘World’ on the other hand was truly global and WORLD even better.
In 1997 Zambesi, WORLD, Wallace Rose and swimwear label Moontide were invited to show at Australian Fashion Week. This was an important development in New Zealand fashion and represented the first step towards international recognition. More New Zealand designers showed in Australia the following year.
The biggest coup came in 1999, when Karen Walker, NOM*d, WORLD and Zambesi showed at London Fashion Week at the invitation of the British Fashion Council. The collections of all four labels were well received and all substantially increased their international sales. Walker had already put a lot of work into developing and marketing her brand and capitalised on the exposure. She went on to become the best-known New Zealand designer overseas in the 2000s.
International commentators identified New Zealand fashion as ‘edgy, dark and intellectual’1 and these words stuck, though they were more appropriate for the likes of Zambesi and NOM*d than WORLD and Karen Walker.
The success of New Zealand labels at Australian and London fashion weeks raised the profile of fashion in New Zealand and assured new designers of a ready local market.
Fashion shows further publicised New Zealand design. The iD Dunedin Fashion Week started in 1999, primarily showing the work of Dunedin designers. Similar events were held in Wellington (2001–3 and 2010–) and Christchurch (2007–9). The major event was New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) in Auckland (2001–), which attracted international fashion buyers. The Miromoda showcase at NZFW and the Miromoda awards were special events for Māori and Pacific designers.
In the early 2000s museums and galleries began to pay more attention to fashion design as a cultural product. The Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery (later MTG Hawke’s Bay) started things off with an exhibition on textile designer Avis Higgs in 2000. Institutions like MTG and Te Papa actively collect contemporary New Zealand fashion.
Leading new labels the early 2000s included Cybèle, Stitch Ministry, Beth Ellery, Hailwood, Juliette Hogan, Deborah Sweeney, Camille Howie, Alexandra Owen, Jimmy D and Twenty Seven Names. Casual street-wear designers included Huffer, Ruby and Lonely Hearts. Murray Crane’s Crane Brothers and the more casual Little Brother specialised in menswear.
Fashion designers collaborated with artists and textile designs to produce unique fabrics. Various artists, including John Reynolds, Luise Fong, John Pule and Martin Poppelwell, designed for Workshop, and Doris de Pont continued to work with artists after she launched her eponymous label in 2003. Cybèle designer Cybèle Wiren worked with textile designer Emma Hayes to create original fabrics.
Age of Aquarius: a 1970s revolution in fashion. Auckland: New Zealand Fashion Museum, 2013.
Hammonds, Lucy, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Claire Regnault. The dress circle: New Zealand fashion design since 1940. Auckland: Godwit, 2010.
Hammonds, Lucy. The elegant moment. Napier: Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, 2008.
Lassig, Angela. New Zealand fashion design. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2009.
Regnault, Claire. The New Zealand Gown of the Year. Napier: Hawke’s Bay Museum, 2003.