new zealand’s isolation breeds collaboration

In New Zealand, musicians are more than muses. They’re co-creating collections and shaping looks that leave lasting impressions.

by Sarah Gooding
04 February 2015, 12:00am

Chelsea Jade in Liam

As a musician, it's not always enough to be good. You need an extra something to keep people wondering about you long after the show is over. And let's face it, it's the ones with the best style that we remember longest: Patti Smith in androgynous suits and wide-brimmed hats, Courtney Love in dishevelled satin slips, Lorde in long goth gowns. And how could we forget—the Sex Pistols' punk styling by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

Presently, at the bottom of the world, New Zealand musicians and designers such as Liam, Stolen Girlfriends Club and Serena Fagence are teaming up to create looks that leave lasting impressions.

With isolation comes ingenuity. New Zealanders are known for their independent spirit and "Number 8 wire" mentality of inventively finding solutions, but increasingly they're doing it together. Being so far from the fashion capitals of the world, many young brands are both physically and financially constrained from showing their work on the world's stages, so they create opportunities at home.

Internet famous dog Toast stars in a Karen Walker campaign. 

When Karen Walker started out she couldn't always afford models for her look books. So she'd snap her designs on friends or use a broom or a balloon. She's retained this resourceful nature even as her label has become a worldwide success, continuing to showcase her wares in unique collaborations with Ari Seth Cohen's grand dames and, more recently, an internet-famous pooch. Her inventive idiosyncrasies have become her selling points.

With Karen Walker having blazed this trail, many brands and bands now see creative partnerships as a valid and exciting way to elevate their craft. Young Kiwi designers and creatives cite collaboration as either an important part of their current process, or something they're eager to do in the future. Some, like Liam designer Emily Miller-Sharma, use partnerships to help refine their creative vision.

Auckland musician Chelsea Jade has been a muse and collaborator to Emily since 2009, when Chelsea's then-band Teacups played at Ruby (Liam's sister label) stores during an exhibition launch. Becoming "drawn to the essence of Chelsea", Emily began to help the musician refine her sartorial identity.

"I worked with Chelsea on a small collection of clothes for a series of live shows and music video shoots that she had coming up," she explains. This, in turn, helped Emily hone her next collection for Liam.

"It was a really great collaborative project—I was beginning the design process for autumn/winter 14 and so the pieces that we ended up making were either inspired by garments that were already part of the collection, or they informed pieces that were then added to the range."

By working together Chelsea and Emily lift each other's work. When Chelsea's song Night Swimmer was released last year, she wore a custom designed Liam dress in its music video. When Liam and Ruby showed at New Zealand Fashion Week, Chelsea sat front row in an eye-popping pink Liam suit.

Miles McDougall is another Kiwi musician who has developed his style since partnering with Stolen Girlfriends Club. After a performance as Pikachunes three years ago, the musician and label became fast friends who have continued to push each other creatively and commercially.

While stressing that "it has always been about friendship before business," Miles says his collaboration with the designers has enabled him to spread his sound "to a wider audience". "I have played a number of the Stolen Girlfriends Club fashion week after-parties in New Zealand and Australia, and they have used my music in their runway shows and video campaigns," he explains.

And by wearing their brightly patterned shirts and exaggerated glasses on stage, in press photos and on his upcoming album cover, Miles also advances Stolen Girlfriends Club's cachet. Now they're working on something top secret together. "We are collaborating on something pretty special this year, which I am unable to go into detail on. But I am very excited to be approaching a new perspective on music and fashion collaboration with such a talented bunch of guys."

Pikachunes in Stolen Girlfriends Club. Photography Coco Campbell 

Designer and stylist Serena Fagence has a similar creative connection with Auckland band Broods. She has helped the duo create their stark, often-monochromatic style since they broke through last year. "It's a collaborative effort," Serena says of the looks she designs and constructs. "Their aesthetic works with my design ethos."

This partnership incorporates Broods' vision as much as Serena's, and spans everything from the band's album cover to videos for their hit singles and press photos. On their Australian tour last year, singer Georgia wore a shimmering silver and white silk kimono, custom made by Serena. Strong style marries all of Broods' output, and it's largely due to Serena's efforts.

While these sartorial pairings can be fleeting, they can still lend an important element to a band's performance. Longstanding Kiwi labels Workshop and Helen Cherry dressed Yumi Zouma for their tour supporting Lorde when that opportunity came up. While Yumi Zouma had already enjoyed success with their debut EP and tours around the world, the styling allowed them to look and feel as polished as their stylistically revered tour mate. With costume comes confidence. Guitarist and synth player Charlie Ryder says, "It's not something I'd ever thought about before, but it was nice to have a designated stage costume to get us into a different mindset when performing live."

By collaborating with designers on their looks, musicians carve out distinctions between themselves as people and performers. Whether you call them clothes or costumes; these sartorial choices are like a second skin, allowing musicians to confidently project their personas. It's an exercise in expression; they're not simply adding a layer to their performance. With designers' help, they're making themselves memorable.


Text Sarah Gooding

Think Pieces
Stolen Girlfriends Club
Karen Walker