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?
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