introducing new zealand fashion

To celebrate the launch of i-D New Zealand, we consider the meteoric rise of our small nation’s unique fashion scene. Sure we joined the international fashion arena a few centuries late, but now our Kiwi designers are competing with the world’s best.

by i-D Team
27 August 2014, 2:05am

Fashion and New Zealand were historically never considered in the same breath. Known for its breathtaking landscapes and outdoor culture, Kiwi fashion was muted by geographical isolation, and tough import restrictions until the 80s. But since their reprieve, creative exploration and internationally renowned talent have changed the face of New Zealand style and culture. The last three decades have welcomed a new aesthetic borne from a fresh creative process of Kiwi ingenuity. Years spent cut off from the world ultimately lead to a fashion culture unmarred by the vision of others.

Like so many parts of the young country, the roots of New Zealand fashion were Colonial. Rather than evolving from the European history of master tailoring and dressmaking, Designer Karen Walker says: "clothing was based on every home having a Singer sewing machine, and every girl-child being taught how to sew, knit and crochet." This wholesome beginning led to the adaption of overseas designs into homemade creations, and formed the basis of the country's early fashion history. New Zealand's earliest taste of fashion wasn't rich, but it was truly homegrown.

Protectionism and strict import laws continued to limit the country's design culture, while the clothing industry struggled with high labor costs and low production levels. These obstacles stifled creatives as they resigned themselves to redesigning New Zealand hunting jackets (the Swanndri bush shirt) and generic rugby shorts.

The 80s arrived with a burst of colour and promise when protectionism laws were lifted and New Zealand was finally free to express itself. Karen Walker reflects on this period as "a milestone in New Zealand's creative journey which also created an opening for independent brands who could compete on originality, creativity and ideas."

New Zealand fashion and design arrived late, but has made its voice heard over the gowl of trends around the globe, while enjoying a dramatic upwards trajectory. Worldwide favourites Karen Walker, Zambesi, and NOM*d are beloved for their unique reinterpretation of classic lines—laid-back but clever, innovative but timeless. According to Karen Walker, "What makes New Zealand distinct is the life-style and the casualness of life in this country and I think that reflects in what we do."

In 2014 emerging brands grew up in a climate of unbridled creativity and never struggled against the practical restrictions of the last century. A new style wave has broken, with a dark urban aesthetic brands like Company of Strangers and Stolen Girlfriends Club have drawn longing glances from around the globe.

New Zealand designers' disproportionate success overseas is a result of the challenges young brands face in establishing themselves at home. Confined by a small population, high production costs, and a limited market many young Kiwis need to cut their teeth overseas to make the most of higher wages and stronger currencies. In larger markets young designers may fear the ultimate step to expand into unfamiliar places, for Kiwi's it's a fate they've always expected and welcomed.

Kiwi ingenuity and fluidity has led to the creation of many organic and sustainable brands that reflect the New Zealand passion for nature and the environment. A large proportion of brands produce at least some of their pieces locally; while this drives prices up, Kiwis are often happier to pay for clean or locally made fashion and fabrics over foreign, mass-produced clothing.

But the defining difference between New Zealand fashion and its foreign cousins is the personal aspect - new brands start small, and success is almost entirely dependent on local endorsements by Kiwi fashion lovers and local celebrities.

Kiwis are passionate about their country and its creative talent and this dedication flows into fledgling labels to generate loyal followings from Auckland's beach side breezy Ponsonby to Dunedin's alleyways. Nom*d Creative Director, Margarita Robertson, is grateful for the strength of personal brand relationships: "We have an extremely loyal following in Australasia, which makes the whole design process very rewarding giving us the confidence to follow our creative paths." Considering the worldwide distrust of generalised marketing and the emergence of more trusted word-of-mouth and personal endorsements, the New Zealand fashion scene is gaining momentum both locally, in Australia and overseas.

Looking forward, the future of New Zealand fashion is bright, with creative schools and institutes continually fostering and molding budding Kiwi creative and local style. Wellington prefers neutral tones and heavy draping, Dunedin stays offbeat with a South Island charm. Auckland hosts an eclectic mix of tailoring and underground allure, while Christchurch does relaxed day dressing and polished style with weekend ease.

The defined city styles prove, despite its population and geographical isolation, New Zealand fashion evolves within itself, while making a mark on Australia, and the UK style scene. The "big four"—Zambesi, NOM*d, Karen Walker and World—have shown at London Fashion Week, and now deservedly hold a global following. Moving forward as the internet continues to bring faraway names closer more Kiwi brands will inevitably find themselves pronounced in foreign accents, beloved overseas, but always treasured at home.

Read our introduction to Australian Fashion.


Text Caitlin Reid

Think Pieces
fashion history
Stolen Girlfriends Club
Karen Walker
company of strangers
i-d new zealand launch
kiwi design
kiwi fashion