#1244 NZ fashion designers need a wake up call

Karen Walker – the only NZ designer doing big things internationally right now.

There was a time when a certain cachet came with being a New Zealand designer. In 1999 the New Zealand Four (Karen Walker, WORLD, Nom*D and Zambesi) made waves internationally with their first ever London Fashion Week show. Much was made of the dark, moody, intellectual, ‘New Zealand Look’. (Though whoever came up with the ‘New Zealand look’ must have only been looking at Nom*D and Zambesi, because I can’t imagine anyone in their right minds describing WORLD as dark and moody. Karen Walker has been known to use a fair few colours in her collections too.) With the cachet came an attitude. I don’t want to use the term self-entitlement, but something along those lines.

‘We’ve made it. We broke London. The international press love us. We have a ‘Look’.’

The attitude couldn’t be more apparent each April when RAFW rolls around. ‘We’re the Kiwis. We make intellectual clothing. What have Australians given us? Cocktail frocks and thongs.’

It’s not just a designer attitude though, it’s industry-wide. I’m constantly guilty of it myself. After my first ever RAFW I wrote a piece about how much of a relief it was when Zambesi showed on the third day – we were finally given respite from the ubiquitous big hair, big boobed Australians. Just yesterday on the radio I made a joke about the difference between New Zealand and Australian designers being that New Zealanders actually clothe the girls. In my review of Kate Sylvester I wrote that New Zealand designers are cooler than their Australian counterparts.

But looking back at the week that was, I take it all back. Each season the Australians seem to up their game, and each season we come back with the same offering. And with this new raft of upcoming Australian labels – Dion Lee, Romance was Born, Ellery, Friedrich Gray and Flannel et al – it’s never been more apparent. Their shows were captivating.

Young New Zealand designers could learn a thing or two from these rising stars. I can’t claim to be an expert on the Australians, but looking from the outside, (bar Romance was Born – I don’t expect they produce much of what they show) they seem to have nailed their quality and production, they’re designing to a specific audience and they’re placed in the right retailers.

If they’re high end, they’re high end and the quality, price and placing reflects that. If they’re streetwear, they’re streetwear. We have far too many young labels teetering on the edge of high and street, not knowing which way to jump. The price is too high, the quality too low, and now that we’ve got Top Shop (and Commoners Alike on a much smaller scale) in the country, they’re competing with product that is razor sharp, on trend and price pointed. There is no competition.

And what’s with all the trend following??

The older designers need a wake-up call too. Those who’ve been in business a long time shouldn’t rest on their laurels. They should be out there shaking things up like they did in their early days.

But it’s not as if the fashion media is assisting in any way. Critics who don’t like shows choose not to mention the clothes. Who does this help?

Of the original New Zealand Four, only one has had any real international success, and that’s Karen Walker. Why? Because she knows how to work it. She knows which market to show in (New York) and which markets to let the agents take care of business. She knows how to work the media. She doesn’t get caught up in the small stuff. The company has real forward thinking strategy and it continually pushes the envelope.

We have a huge amount of talent here in New Zealand. There’s no denying it. But the talent has gotten complacent. If any of us want to seriously compete on the world stage, the bar has to be raised. Otherwise, what’s the point?


share on TumblrShare on FacebookPin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter


  1. Anonymous says

    yea same with bloggers, like susie bubbles and rumi neeley, all sitting front row when your still getting GA!
    When you start sitting front row at NY fashion week and stop sneaking in that will be the day Isaac.

  2. says

    Good to see some honesty from you Isaac. Is it just me or did Kate Sylvester look a bit Celine-ish? Cant wait to see more and more Alexandra Owen in the international market…

  3. Anonymous says

    “I’d like to be the world’s first fashion writer who never mentions the clothes. For me, it’s about the people and the experience.”

  4. J says

    I think you jumped the gun a bit here Isaac. Just a matter of time before you ‘jump the shark’ eh? 😉

    The difference between Australian and NZ designers is that a lot of those designers have some pretty major financial backing (e.g Dion Lee) whereas a lot of NZ designers are self funded (which I think is great!).

    Getting stocked in some of the more respected outlets (e.g Barneys) also means having an overseas agent which is really expensive.

    It’s important to point out that the reason NZ designers pieces are priced a bit more expensive than we ‘expect’ is because of the high costs of production and fabric here.

    Karen Walker is a shrewd and calculating business woman. She takes no prisoners. That is why she is successful.

  5. Anonymous says

    Totally agree with “J” and have you considered that not everyone actually wants to compete on a “world stage” Isaac? Maybe NZ and a couple of International stockists is enough for some designers.
    Sure you may be getting funding from annon sources but for most in the industry here the money is just too tough to find to grow in any major capacity.
    Its a big risk that unless you’re a shark like Karen many wont want to take.

  6. says

    Sorry but i have to start with “Annonymous'” reference to “world stage”, if you have international stockists that is a world stage… It may not be like main stage but it is by definition international.

    Isaac I have to say that when I started reading this article I didn’t feel that you were giving a good representation to the fantastic Australian Designers that showed last week. Luckily, you expanded. I have to say that I did find it particularly disappointing that there was not more coverage of some of the great shows of the week.

    Dion Lee’s was amazing! It has even featured on jak and jil! Others that were not mentioned that with collections that I really liked were Gary Bigeni & Gail Sorronda – For those of you in Auckland you could find some of Gail’s pieces in “My Hart” pre closure.

    In relation to finance, I think that it is like any business… If you want it go out and find it! If you have the talent of someone like Dion you will find it! otherwise you can go the the slower route and build on your collections like designers such as Lui Hon & Dhini (both with shows at fashion week)!

    The bottom line is if you have drive and commitment to what you are doing you will get there!

  7. says

    I’ve had a sleepless night pondering this…i crap you not. Still don’t really know how to best articulate what I want to say about it but do think as Kiwi’s we have had this black/basic/gothy/mannish/street as our thing for so long. IS that our thing? Is that what we WANT to be our thing? Yes I know we have other designers/labels doing girlie or colour or outlandish but generally…..ah I dunno. Maybe I should get some sleep and try commenting again.

  8. Anonymous says

    Wow Karen Walker a shark? Sounds like some people are a liitle bitter. So because she’s a calculating shrewd businesswomen she is succesfull. Well yeah actually. As opposed to not being calculating. She is detirmined , has drive, has great ideas , and she earned her place on the main stage. Maybe some of the uncalculating designers out there who can’t run a business should work for someone else or find a new ‘hobby’ then. Just because some people don’t agree with Isaac, makes no sense to Bring KW down.
    Try bringing the other designers up instead.

  9. Murray Crane says

    Isaac here’s a good quote:

    “The winners in life think constantly in terms of I can, I will, and I am. Losers, on the other hand, concentrate their waking thoughts on what they should have or would have done, or what they can’t do”.

  10. Anonymous says

    Well done Isaac! Good to see that your keeping them honest in NZ. Instead of sitting back like the guy who wrote the first comment, you’re actually writing what you think!

  11. 0ldgirl says

    just checked nomD stock over 25 shops out of nz. and zambesi over 30 so they must be doing something right, I do agree that the younger designer need to up their game with thier fabric and finish to sell off shore, there is also the big labels who sell heaps overseas Caroline Sills, Ashley Fogal, silk Body, but they do it without the help of the media. All very interesting

  12. says

    Interesting, I think you are right. But can the diff between Oz & NZ designers simply be blamed on financial backing??

    As an aside….having lived in Sydney for 7 years, I must say I really enjoyed their breezey, sexy-glam look – a bit of skin, vertiginous heels and colour. Not too much skin & tack ie. Surfers Paradise – Kiwi women shouldn’t be afraid of skin or have to cover up in frills and shapeless layers all the time. I must say that lately it’s been nice to see colourful, playful Kiwi designs & more Kiwi women out in heels & dresses, embraced their figures and not shrouding themselves away that terrible Kiwi look – 3/4 leg pants, unflattering layers and big clompy shoes.

  13. Anonymous says

    Ofcourse , So that above comment is implying Karen Walker is selling Internationally based on media conspiracy? Maybe if these other designers can get the attention from the likes of style.com , WWD and NY times and receive oustounding reviews they too can widen thier stockists or Is considered fake and selling out to have credible journalists reviewing your work. If people buy it, and buy it again then it’s not smoke and mirrors. The stockists seem to be reordering so customers must be happy. That’s the proof. If the product is crap and people don’t like it then the orders will stop.

  14. says

    Some really good points raised here – notably it takes a hell of a lot of money to expand into overseas markets if you want to make an impact. Karen Walker has done an exceptional job of this, and she is a standout. But it took her many years to get to the level she is at now.

    Some young designers in NZ are doing great things – and it’s important to take the time to get it all right, test the product, test your market – before committing to enormous overseas orders, multiple agents and then falling flat on your face because you did it too quickly.

    I’m sure most of them take notes from their overseas counterparts already. Timing and cash are factors you cannot ignore in this industry.

  15. says

    I think this post is spot on. Having just returned to NZ after 5 years in Australia, it has been a comedown returning to a lack-lustre crop of local designers.

    That being said, when I arrived in Australia I was unimpressed with their tacky fashion scene. But as my 5 years there passed new and exciting designers emerged; Romance Was Born, Dion Lee, Josh Goot to name a few… and sadly designers such as Friedrich Gray, Trimapee Claude Maus and Chronicles of Never have stolen the “dark edgy look” away from us Kiwis.

    I can’t help but feel that the new millenium has brought a generation of young Kiwis that spend too much time trying to emulate and catch up to a mainstream Aus/US ideal that maybe we have forgotten that we used to be part of an isolated, quirky, innovative country.

    Hopefully a wake up call is all that’s needed and it isn’t RIP New Zealand Fashion.

  16. Mike Huynh says

    I think it’s incredibly stupid to label New Zealand fashion with that dark and moody sentiment. The image I always perceived of NZ Fashion is that it’s always been incredibly-focused and well-attuned. It always somehow communicated more about fashion than just the clothes itself which remained the pinnacle of Australian fashion. But I have to say especially after this year’s RAFW is that Australian fashion is expanding quite heavily. Not specifically in terms of international stockists but the kind of wave and buzz surrounding different labels.

    I can’t say whether or not NZ Fashion needs a radical change or how it can maintain an original voice but I’m sure that the inner inhabitants of Sydney who are as discernibly cool have instigated the sleek NZ coolness. I think we should banish any labels and perhaps take on Stark’s claim of fashion with more intelligence? Let’s aim for that…

    Jason, I thought those Sydney labels you mentioned actually looked into Hitchcock films, French New Wave and the Belgian guard, non?

  17. Carbunkle says

    What we to often forget is that Karen Walker is not only a prestigious designer globally but that she is also joined by her brother-in-law Valery Gherman, her stylist Heathermary jackson, Katie Lockhart – her former design assistant, Hilary Alexander, Tim Blanks, Rebecca Taylor and Aaron de Mey all of whom are also ex-pat New Zealanders and all making a dent in the fashion/beauty industry globally – pretty good for a country whose nearest neighbour is populated primarily by penguins.

    But then again, NZ fashion hasn’t experienced the sort of acclaim it received in 1999. Names have come and gone, but Karen has stayed at the top. She has that rare combination of creativity, business nous and media savvy. I find it serendipitous that it was Madonna who first really launched her label as she too has those very characteristics.

    Another reason for the lack of people emerging to take Karen’s mantle (or at least challenge it), is because of the general archaic-ness of out fashion industry. All of the fashion courses on offer are still bogged down in forcing their students to be both practical and stitch-perfect as well as being incredibly innovative and cutting-edge. In what world would people be able to do both equally as good!?

    The school’s also push for a wow-factor which results in overcooked provincial Avant Garde-ism. Too many young girl’s and boys wanting to be the next Gaultier, Margiela or McQueen, producing intellectual (or their idea of intellectual anyway), to garner attention and hopefully stick in the mind of an editor for more than a nanosecond. It just simply doesn’t work and has made real creativity seem formulaic and diluted. As Isaac said we are fast being outstripped by our Aussie counterparts and although our dark, intellectual individuality was lauded in the 90’s by the likes of Cathrin Schaer we can no longer fall back on this outdated evaluation of our industry, we must acknowledge our backward and provincial failings!

  18. Cathrin Schaer says

    Just thought I would just clarify where all this “dark and moody” stuff came from (and it was not from me). These were all press comments from a story I wrote before most of the commentators on this post were probably born. (Jokes, just jokes). It was something of a media tag line/creation that came out of that first, particular Australian fashion week attended by New Zealand designers, that has been perpetuated – I’ve always been pretty careful about quantifying it, when I’ve used it because in interviewing the various designers about this, none of them ever really agreed with that description. Oh, and in terms of “international success”, it’s a good idea to remember that this is an industry where businesses live and die on hype and that therefore it is probably not all that logical, or informed, simply to equate press coverage with actual financial – or even creative – success.
    It is also interesting to me that some of the writers here criticise young designers for looking overseas, focussing on trends and for not concentrating on creativity enough and then in the same post, they praise the KW label.
    Rather than castigating the people trying to make a living in a difficult industry today, I would say that in New Zealand today young designers have an excellent, and larger, variety of role models to choose from. From the Karen Walker brand, whose marketing and branding savvy is unparalleled (and whose clothes are nice although not often wildly inventive) to designers like Zambesi and Alexandra Owen, whose clothes can be wildly inventive and whose creativity has been, and should continue to be, rewarded.

    QUOTES FROM 1998-99
    “There seems to be a remarkable difference between New Zealand and
    Australia. New Zealanders have a darker outlook. Less show-offy. More intellectual.”
    Marcus von Ackermann, fashion director of French Vogue

    “Judging by the reception for the New Zealand designers in general and the label Zambesi in particular the future of Australian fashion may
    well be lying somewhere across the Tasman.” – Sun Herald, Australian,
    May 1998

    Even before the third Mercedes Australian Fashion Week had begun, the word was out on the international fashion bush telegraph –

    “New Zealand is the new Belgium” –
    Sydney Morning Herald, May 1998.

    “There are few of them but they’ve made quite an impact.” – Bonnie
    Pressman of Barney’s New York.

    “Running high in the honours list was the strong New Zealand contingent, which elicited much comment about its “dark vision”. – Sydney Morning Herald, May 1998.

    “International guest, Wallpaper editor Tyler Brule… said New Zealand’s style was similar to Belgium.” – Ragtrader, Australia, June 1998

    “Word is that Australia’s neighbour will be the next Belgium, source of so much fashion talent during the 1990s.” – The Irish Times, May 1998

    “Let me whisper another word in your ear – the next big name on the fashion map is likely to be New Zealand. Many of the most radical names showing in Sydney – designers such as Zambesi, Karen Walker and Wallace Rose – hail from New Zealand. There is real creative energy coming from New Zealand and they are, as they say, the ones to watch.” –
    Women’s editor Lucia van der Post, Financial Times, UK, June 1998.

    Even before the third Mercedes Australian Fashion Week had begun, the word was out on the international fashion bush telegraph – “New Zealand
    is the new Belgium” –
    Sydney Morning Herald, May 1998.

  19. Anonymous says

    i completely agree with you isaac, as kiwi we rest to much on being the kiwis with the new zealand look, yes everyone loves our clothes when they see it but not enough of the world is seeing it. the marketing strategies need to be picked up and there needs to be money set aside from getting these brands overseas.

    As for stepping up their game totally! dont get me wrong nz designers are really and truly talented and we do bring something new to the world, but that needs to be pushed every season.

    The industry needs to start realising the importance of bloggers as much as the us and uk are. but also there needs to be more nz bloggers that are pushing the envelope.

    We are totally wasting our talent all of us , we gotta push

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *