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:
- in Auckland, WORLD, Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester, while Trelise Cooper started her eponymous label in 1997
- in Wellington, Zana Feuchs, Starfish, Megan Tuffery, Robyn Mathieson and Andrea Moore
- in Dunedin, Tanya Carlson and Nicholas Blanchet.
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.
Fashion design in the 21st century
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.