In The Company Of Style

In The Company Of Style

With iD Fashion week recently catwalking by, Critic took the chance to get a further insight into the fashion world. Loulou Callister-Baker ventured out into the city to interview four Dunedin designers who are each at different stages of their careers, from studying at Otago Polytech’s Fashion and Design School to mingling with the world’s most successful designers.

I had just washed up after enduring that messy business of evacuating the womb. While I waited around for my twin brother to join me I noticed I was lacking something everyone else had – clothes. Without understanding why, a deep embarrassment filled me. My kind of nude wasn’t “in.” It was only after a long wait that I was dressed – fashion was first imposed on me in the form of a pink outfit with a matching pink beanie. While my nondescript outfit would have only induced a sigh of disinterest by the likes of Anna Wintour, its meaning as a gender-defining, nudity-reducing accessory was significant. However, the simultaneous need to scream, consume and eventually shit quickly took over my post-birth pondering. Now, after 20 years, my post-birth clothing anxiety has led me on a quest to further my insight into the fashion world.

The Student

Ross Heath, the son of a past competitor for Miss New Zealand, started off studying physics. Soon he realised he didn’t want to do that. “I was reading a Vogue magazine and I realised, I love fashion! I don’t want to be pumping equations out for the rest of my life. I want to be doing something I love.” In pursuit of fulfilling that dream, Ross recently did a fashion diploma course in Christchurch but, due to the earthquakes, he made the move to Dunedin. Now Ross is in his first year at Otago Polytechnic’s Fashion and Design school.

The Fashion School has a cluster of rooms with an array of creative facilities including laser cutters and a new, huge 3D printer that students can use to print off jewellery for their collections. In students’ second year, they get the opportunity to apply for exchange to Milan to study at one of the best fashion schools in the world. In their final year they must design an entire collection from material they have sourced and paid for themselves. It may be long hours, but as Ross tells me, “you’ve got to get it done.”

The Beginners

After graduating from Otago Polytechnic’s Fashion and Design school, Rachel Webb and Elise Barnes took a huge risk – they decided to form a fashion label. Two years later, UNDONE already has both a seasonal range and a high-end range of handworked, one-off pieces called BESPOKE. This year was their second time showing at the iD Fashion Show.

How do you find material?

Rachel: We just stalk the internet and email everybody then get samples sent to us. Once you find a good company you can usually stick with them for ages and they send you catalogues.

Some high-end brands like Karen Walker have ranges of clothing made in China – what is your view on that?

Rachel: If I’m buying clothes I like to buy something with a limited amount because I don’t like mass-produced stuff. So with our label we’re trying to keep it NZ-made with a boutique market. Karen Walker does have her high-end clothing which is still NZ-made but she also has her range which is made offshore, which is a lot more commercial.

What is your attachment to Dunedin?

Rachel: It’s cheap to live with no commuting. Dunedin’s really cool if you think about it. It’s got an underground culture that can only exist because of the people coming and going.

Is the fashion world around you competitive?

Elise: It’s funny how much help we’ve had from the fashion industry – a lot of well-known designers have been helping us out and I don’t think we could have done it without them. Charmaine Reveley always lets us use her buttonholer – I think she enjoys seeing us around and what we’re up to because it’s a reminder of where she started. Tanya Carlyson also has a bit to do with us.

Have you been to New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW)?

Rachel: We went last year just to sell clothes.

Elise: Eventually we’ll show there but we’re probably a few years away still. It’s quite an expensive experience and we probably don’t have big enough collections yet. For winter we have around seven main items we’ve produced and we wholesale, but other labels will have
20 items.

Rachel: But that’s what Dunedin Fashion Week is really good for. It gives us huge exposure here.

Do you have any celebrity endorsement plans for UNDONE?

Elise: Rachel is obsessed with A$AP Rocky. He’s coming to NZ and Rachel wants to make him a one-off jacket.

I read that your debut collection channelled androgyny, is that correct?

Elise: Yeah – I guess the idea for UNDONE is that we’re completely different in absolutely everything that we do. I’m more of a romantic type in design and Rachel is a bit of a badass.

Rachel: UNDONE is the idea of opposites being played off each other – like when a girlfriend borrows her boyfriend’s shirt or blazer.

Do you think fashion is becoming more gender neutral? Would you want your brand to become that way?

Rachel: Yes, fashion is going that way. It would be great for UNDONE. I follow the blogger Bryan Boy and he often wears women’s collections. I would be so honoured if he wore UNDONE!

Is it possible for you to be attracted to someone hideously dressed?

Elise: [Laughs] Maybe. If they had a really awesome personality. You can always mould a man. [More laughter] Don’t put that in there!

Rachel: But fashion is really important. I’m attracted to the way someone portrays themselves through their clothing rather than the clothing itself as a material thing. There’s always a time and a place for fashion.

Elise: Like today, we’re hideously dressed because we’re exhausted and we just run to our studio and hide then run home.

Where are the rest of your cohort from fashion school now?

Rachel: A few of the girls are working for companies over in Australia. One of our friends, Steph, has started a cool jewellery label called Creeps and Violets which we’re featuring with UNDONE on the catwalk at iD. Steph works for Company of Strangers and Underground Sundae doing some of their jewellery. Her jewellery has a cool vibe – we’re obsessed!

Are any of your cohort working in cafés?

Elise: I’m not sure! I just think it’s easier to do something like a label straight away. If you get too used to working at other places and earning money then starting up a label is almost a shock. We could have worked for someone else but the way we’re doing it – we’re still learning as we go.

The Born Again

After working for six years as a design assistant at NOM*d, Sara Aspinall (now Munro) created her own label called Company of Strangers. Company of Strangers has exhibited four or five times at iD (Sara can’t remember); however, Sara has been involved with iD since its second year.

Can you explain the brands that make up Company of Strangers?

The company started with bags and jewellery. Then, in its second season, I did a small range of clothing which is now our main line. We started up a second line called Strange Life because we felt there was a lack of high fashion brands that were price point orientated. There’s heaps of fast fashion like Glassons but there’s nothing made in New Zealand that’s under the price point of $300. It’s hard to keep things in New Zealand and keep the price point down.

Why is it hard to keep the price point down?

We pay people more than 20 cents an hour in New Zealand. Let’s say we make a dress. You have to pay your manufacturer between $50 and $80 per piece and then you’ve got to take into account your silk and imported fabric costs. By the time you’ve finished you might be paying $150 for pure costs without marking up the price. But you could get the same product made in China for $20 or $30.

So have you made an ethical choice?

I think so. I’m not saying that I’ll never make anything overseas because some countries make things better and our economy is causing factories to close. Also, we don’t have the skills anymore – nobody wants to be a machinist, although I’d rather be a machinist than a cleaner. There are some agents who are actually New Zealanders who own factories in China. So a designer can go there and see if all the working conditions are okay. But I’d rather keep manufacturing clothes in New Zealand because it creates an industry. I also like visiting our manufacturers if they have problems.

Okay, so I’m wearing this grey t-shirt and it cost $100. What’s your argument for simple clothing being pricy?

We do have t-shirts that cost $160 and if a customer doesn’t like it – don’t buy it. Someone could buy a really cheap t-shirt that’s made in China, but you know what? After three washes, that t-shirt is going to fall apart. It’ll get holes everywhere and it will twist and shrink.

Your current A/W collection is inspired by Keith Haring’s paintings and murals. Is it possible to be a good artist but also be badly dressed?

It is possible but it depends on what you class as “badly dressed.” There’s no right and wrong to what looks good. I see a lot of badly dressed people but they’re awesome! I’m really inspired by people on the street, particularly people who sleep rough. They have awesome coats and leather jackets. Sometimes I want to steal them.

So you like homeless fashion?

Yeah! They usually have some nice old tweeds and worn denim.

I’ve heard about people buying big at a designer store, then not wearing any of the clothes and in the proceeding weeks giving all their purchases to a second hand clothing store. What is that about?

Yeah, there are people like that. With fashion, especially designer clothing, there are some people who buy clothes to make a statement of status. There’s one person who is an out-of-town shopper who will buy every size 8 we have of a particular garment. Then she’ll go to every store in the country to get that size 8 piece so nobody else can get it. Sometimes she’ll buy out the size 10s as well so she has them all.

Talking about fashion status – what is your most luxurious fashion moment?

A stylist was shooting The Kills for NO magazine and she was using one of my first jewellery ranges. The Kills really liked the pieces and wanted to keep them and I was like “Give it to them! GIVE IT TO THEM!” That kept me going for two years. Actually, I’m still going off that.

Also, when I was working for NOM*d we made these vintage bloomers shorts which were gifted to Madonna (my childhood idol, but she’s a bit naff now). I later saw a picture of Madonna wearing those shorts – I actually sewed those pants because they were samples and I kept thinking “THOSE ARE MY PANTS!” The funny thing was, she must have liked them so much that she had someone make other ones with the exact same cut in different colours. We were thinking, “we didn’t make those shorts in that colour!” And we realised, “OMG Madonna ripped us off! Aaaawesome.”

Have you noticed much of an effect on the fashion industry due to bloggers?

Definitely. At NZFW last year I was talking with my PR about guest lists and they were saying, “okay, well, we’ve got to have this many seats for the bloggers …” Even doing the model castings I was like, “who are all these people floating around in the background?” And it turns out that they were bloggers. There are just so many. Blogging is becoming the magazine industry but I still like buying magazines … there’s just so much content out there my head actually hurts. I wonder if it’s possible to do anything new anymore.

The Victorious

As a young girl in a family of four sisters, Margi Robertson developed a devout dislike for Butterick sewing patterns. This individualism paired with a creative eye developed into one of New Zealand’s top fashion labels, NOM*d (her sister Liz Findlay shared the same motivations which led to the creation of Zambesi). With a label that has retained its inspiring noir, punk aesthetic and a store that reverberates with the world’s best styles, Margi Robertson could be New Zealand’s own Vivienne Westwood.

You have said that your store’s name “PLUME” comes from the term “nom de plume” – what does the idea of having a pseudonym mean in your business and personally?

I like the idea that the brand is not directly associated with a person. Nom de plume is an alias, a touch of the unknown, no face as such. The collection is designed as a team effort with myself at the helm, so I feel good that the credit is not just for me! PLUME existed before NOM*d, the name was referencing plumage or adornment.

With modern, instantaneous methods of communication, is it possible to create a defined movement in fashion?

Instantaneous communication has changed the feeling of fashion entirely. Fast fashion stores are able to instantly pick up on new creativity; nobody seems to own an idea for more than a moment. It’s crazy! You have to create an identity for your brand and stay with that style, just developing it further each season but maintaining its integrity.

What influence have bloggers had on fashion and NOM*d? Where do you think blogging will lead?

Bloggers are just another opinion. These days it’s easier to be a blogger than a fashion journalist who has to spend time in education to reach the revered fashion publications. Bloggers are communicating via the cyber world, but there is nothing more satisfying than reading an article on good paper stock in a glossy magazine!

What has been your most luxurious fashion moment?

In the mid 90s when we went to the Martin Margiela showroom, Martin introduced himself to me. He was intrigued that we could sell his style of clothes in a city the size of Dunedin! The other thing was he never made himself public; the staff later told me it was really unusual for Martin to connect with his clients. He remained quite faceless for the whole time he was with the house – so it was quite special, really! Another crazy moment was in the late 90s. I walked by Anna Wintour at a show in Milan. She did a double take and inspected me seriously – I was wearing Margiela.

What has been your weirdest Dunedin fashion moment?

I can remember doing some after-hours work in the store, the lights were off and we could hear the comments of the window shoppers. Some people thought we were a second-hand clothing store and others talked about the “black” clothes. Many of the public have a weird conception of what we are about. But I kind of like that!

When did you first actively hate a style?

I’ve never hated a style. I’m careful not to criticise too early because I could end up loving something I didn’t initially understand.

Marc Jacobs looks great wearing a skirt/kilt – when will men have skirts as a fashion staple?

Men’s skirts have been around for ages. Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons, etc have always had a presence of men in skirts. After all, Scotsmen in kilts date back to medieval times. It’s historical, really. There are men who are into it and those who are not. It’s a matter of choice.
NOM*d often achieves a non-gendered look –

What is your viewpoint on gender constructs in fashion?

Gender constraints are created and exist in the mainstream. We like to think we are outside of that genre.

NOM*d sits alongside Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons at the Liberty of London – is that the ultimate form of success for you?

It’s pretty amazing to have achieved that status! But remember NOM*d sits alongside those brands at PLUME as well. It’s great that you don’t have to be in London to have access to them. I’m currently in Paris buying Winter 13/14! It’s wonderful to have long-standing relationships with these brands.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2013.
Posted 5:43pm Sunday 17th March 2013 by Loulou Callister-Baker.