Dunedin's Fashionistas

Dunedin's Fashionistas

Ah, Fashion Week. That sacred week in which the beautiful people come together to drink champagne, nibble at canapés, snort rockstar rails of coke and snark about other beautiful people. Decadent. Rarefied. Hectic. Fabulous.

Or, you know, not, if you are lucky enough to live in Dunedin. Here, Lindauer Fraise replaces Perrier-Jouet, weak methadone pills replace cocaine and one’s best shot at a canapé involves a trip to the 24 to pick up some Bluebird Salt and Vinegar crisps. And as far as the “beautiful people” part goes, I see no need to expend precious energy refuting that statement when you can all simply look out the window by way of confirmation.

Yet despite these glaring obstacles to creating a week of fashion and decadence we could truly be proud of, the thirteenth annual iD Fashion Week begins next Monday. The event is described as “a celebration of the city’s fashion identity, creativity and distinct style”. I have spent the last four years closely observing Dunedin’s “fashion identity, creativity and distinct style”, often while working in the hospitality industry, so this description did not immediately inspire confidence. However, it turns out that while Dunedin is sorely lacking in front-row celebrities and delicately curled endive fronds encasing Beluga caviar, it is surprisingly replete with truly creative designers.

This talent will be showcased next week at the iD International Emerging Designer Awards. 28 finalists from seven countries will compete to win the $5000 prize and the chance to present their collection to a to a front row of supportive family members and shrieking Maori Hill housewives at the iD Fashion Show on Friday March 30. Finalists Molly Barrington and Jojo Ross are both Otago Polytechnic graduates. We sat down to chat about themselves, their collections, and the current state of Dunedin style.

Molly Barrington

When I meet her for coffee, Molly Barrington is wearing beat-up Converses, a tight blue skirt, vintage wire-framed sunglasses and laddered tights. She has perfectly tousled auburn Just-Been-Fucked hair. The overall effect is that of a grungey mermaid. Barrington grew up in Christchurch, which she describes as “kind of like a bigger version of South Dunedin”. I immediately forgive her unstudied sexiness and decide that I like her.

Barrington dabbled with sewing in her teens, and modeled in a few Christchurch fashion shows before moving to Dunedin’s sunny shores to study fashion design at Otago Polytechnic. Initially she designed womenswear, but found herself drawn to the “challenge” of designing menswear. She claims to abhor trends. I don’t know if it is possible to truly avoid trends in the fashion industry, but it is certainly possible to favour timelessness, which is what Barrington does – and does very well.

Her menswear collection, “Shooting Buffalo”, was inspired by the American art-house director Jim Jarmusch and his postmodern Western film Dead Man. She draws heavily on Jarmusch’s “acid Western” aesthetic: Hard, heavy leathers, suedes and soft linens with metal detailing and leather etching create a collection imbued with a sense of timelessness, permanence and gravity. It’s power dressing without the pocket squares and shoulder pads; the power of these clothes is grounded in the durability and earthiness of the materials. The pieces make a statement, but it is a subtle one – wearability is Barrington’s constant concern. Her pieces are designed to meld seamlessly into the wearer’s wardrobe, no matter how outré or understated his personal style may be.

This aesthetic is a shrewd business move for a Dunedin-based designer. Barrington’s target customer, the late 20s to 40s professional Dunedin man, is not exactly known for his avant-garde approach to dressing himself. Barrington hopes that her neutral palette of cream, black and khaki offset with Western-inspired silver accents will inspire the sartorialist but won’t intimidate the everyman. Ultimately, she says, she wants her clothes to inspire confidence in the wearer.

Barrington’s confidence-via-comfort philosophy has already attracted interest from the fashion industry – so much so, in fact, that the designs in the “Shooting Buffalo” collection have formed the starting point for her menswear label TR FRANC. Barrington plans to start building up the label next year after spending the summer working with the Dunedin Fashion Incubator. I initially assumed the Dunedin Fashion Incubator was a euphemism for the puffer jacket, but apparently it is a Polytech-based company that “offers tailored support to help you start and develop your own business and fashion line”. I have a beautiful vision of little vintage cardigan-wearing foetal Fashion People curled up in amniotic fluid as Originality Vitamins and Disdain For The Common Man Minerals are pumped directly into their bloodstreams.

Perhaps the Disdain Minerals are already flowing through Barrington’s veins; but personally I consider this a desirable personality trait, so it just makes me like her more. She thinks Dunedin’s current worst fashion crime is “everyone dressing the same”. I press her for details, as I always do when I feel someone is on the cusp of a deliciously bitchy statement. She cites the groups of girls who roam Dunedin’s streets dressed identically in short, floaty white skirts, high-top Converses and oversized Ruby jumpers, paired with a Karen Walker bow necklace Mummy and Daddy got them for their 18th birthday. I agree so vehemently I spill my long black all over my skirt, which mercifully is neither white nor floaty. Luckily I am wearing a neckline that hides my Karen Walker necklace.

Jojo Ross

Jojo Ross is soft-spoken, yet with a thick South Island accent. Throughout our phone interview, she is unfailingly self-deprecating and sweet in the same über-Southern way that characterised the better customers at my old workplace, the Mosgiel Tavern (don’t ask). However, it soon becomes apparent that unlike the inbred Countdown workers and farmers’ wives who frequented the Tav, Ross is sophisticated and switched-on, albeit in a floaty, “Creative Person”-y way. She grew up in Queenstown, and moved to Dunedin because she was attracted by the Polytechnic’s artistic, design-based course.

Her graduate collection, “The Anomalies”, is based on String Theory, which apparently explains “everything”. I am naturally wary of anything that claims to explain everything because it tends to remind me of the Abrahamic faiths. However, string theory is in fact “an active research framework in particle physics that attempts to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity”. The words “physics”, “quantum” and “relativity” (especially the moral kind) put together are probably enough to give your average fundamentalist a heart attack. I immediately warm to the concept.

So, how does one translate a Theory of Everything into a fashion collection, which cannot really claim to be a theory of anything except wild overspending? Ross’s collection comprises 13 three-dimensional string-and-PVC pieces which hover weightlessly above black and silver base layers. The effect is appropriately otherworldly. Ross has always been fascinated by space. The collection reflects this by creating literal space between the garment and the wearer. According to string theory, there are other people living other lives closer to us than our clothes. Ross’s string pieces give these other-dimensional people ample room to breathe. Even to the casual observer these clothes are a breath of fresh air.

The garments aren’t going to be seen stumbling down George St at 2am faintly redolent of vomit any time soon; this is art, not fashion. Ross doesn’t care about wearability. She sees herself as a conceptual artist, and after seeing the collection I am inclined to agree. The whole thing reminds me of Tron: Legacy, but mercifully without the much-hyped but ultimately very disappointing Daft Punk soundtrack. Ross is too modest to mention it, but she has already been noticed, winning both the “Top Collection” and “Directional Design” prizes at the Polytechnic’s annual Collections show last year.

Ross plans to leave Dunedin after iD, saying that New Zealand is too small for conceptual fashion. Dunedin, especially, is concerned “mainly with practicality”. I agree: Europeans are the Thoroughbreds of the Caucasian people, whereas New Zealanders are a common, thick-ankled breed more in keeping with the Cob or Shire horse. I can understand perfectly why Ross would want to head for Central St Martins to fraternise with the Hussein Chalayans and Rick Owenses of this world at the earliest opportunity. There is certainly more than an echo of Chalayan’s light-up skirts and wooden dresses in Ross’s similarly futuristic graduate collection. Equally, the amorphously draped black silk base layers feel very Owens. Together, it’s a potent combination.

Despite her art-not-fashion credo, Ross still has opinions on the current state of Dunedin style. Like Barrington, she hates the sheep mentality of Dunedinites, and is particularly incensed by girls in labia-baring Supré dresses paired with little lace-up Warehouse sneakers.

Dunedin’s uniquely vile style has clearly been good to Ross in one way however. She follows a post-apocalyptic aesthetic, and what town can better offer post-apocalyptic inspiration than one which is home to Castle St?
This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2012.
Posted 4:26pm Sunday 25th March 2012 by Anonymous.