Forget fluffy little sheep and burly rugby players. Think instead of the darkest scenic delights you know of in New Zealand. Mist curling over a hillside covered with mossy fern fronds or an explosive nuclear-red twilight at a lonely, wave battered black sand beach. If nothing like this springs to mind, then just think of some of the most bleakly beautiful environments from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And now think of New Zealand fashion house Zambesi, which somehow manages to reflect the local landscape through their clothing. One of the oldest high fashion labels in this small country, but also one of the most forward-thinking, Zambesi has been described by overseas pundits like the folks from French Vogue as "darkly intellectual" and as the producers of "beautiful Goths." Designer Elisabeth Findlay is of the old school — she works with fabric rather than themes and, as a result, continuously produces innovative constructions from specially commissioned cloth. Credited with introducing a generation of local women to layering, deconstruction and the dresses over trousers look, in recent seasons the label has been taking a more structured approach. For a/w ’06, recently shown on local runways, Findlay toyed with shapes (rather then layers) and balance — producing longer sleeves on cropped jackets, narrower pants, abbreviated waistcoats, and stretched men’s shirts for girls. Of interest is the juxtaposition of colors: an almost lurid pink satin or a blushing cotton voile alongside racks and racks of carefully constructed black that includes ’40s-style satin wrap dresses and jodhpur-esque trousers. The relatively new Zambesi menswear line is also worth paying attention to — this season, the old-fashioned bib-front shirt is revamped, transformed into a black cotton shirt with black satin bib and cotton wingtip collar; another incarnation was a beautifully simple, drapey, long sleeved T in black cotton voile.
There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a completely cohesive and inspired collection based on a clever story that’s also reflected in the clothing, which in turn are wearable, well made and of the moment, too. New Zealand designer Kate Sylvester’s latest offering is all of the above. Having trained in Paris and worked in London before returning to her hometown of Auckland, Sylvester is a master of subtle detail. When she started out, it used to be that you could only identify her very simple, well-cut shirts because instead of a standard dart at the breast, there were three delicately inscribed lines. Her latest collection, titled "Stop Your Sobbing," is all about how fantastic it feels to have a jolly good cry. And while her clothing is always extremely well crafted and wearable — she’s not a top-selling designer at one of Australia’s retail giants for nothing — it was the details that really did it. One dress featured a murky brown and sludgy blue teardrop print. A lace overdress with satin teardrop-shaped belt loops, was made complete by tiny beading at the bottom of each drop. And a velvet empire dress in fawn, shimmering with beading at the hem and sash.
This witty designer and dedicated internationalist is rapidly becoming one of New Zealand’s best-known exports. Regular appearances in the respected quarters of the alternative fashion press, and an ongoing urge to produce clothes the cool kids would wear (in a smart feminine fashion) make Walker popular in her Auckland hometown and overseas.
In fact, after several unofficial outings, she recently showed for the first time at London Fashion Week. After going a little wilder with prints and silhouettes in the past few seasons, Walker’s latest collection seems to indicate a return to a more sedate pace. She’s a master stylist who always works with the best ideas. For instance, past collections with names like "Living with Cannibals and Other Adventures" and "Liberal & Miserable" have excited interest for their titles alone. And for next winter, in a collection called "Karen in TV-Land," she’s made mainly dresses, prettied up with bows, polka dots, and her always distinctive signature prints. But by shortening the skirts and throwing in some shorts all-in-ones with courts and more than a touch of the retro femme, she’s still keeping up that ever-ironic attitude that will see her fans happy.
Not quite as established as some of their counterparts but worth keeping an eye on are newcomers Mala Brajkovi? and Cybèle.
Mala Brajkovi?, a former Karen Walker employee, is doing everything right. Open a shop in the biggest city in New Zealand, in the trendiest shopping district. Tick. Get the right local and international press interested. Tick. Don’t wholesale until you’re ready. Tick. Put on your first show full of outrageous outfits titled "Cyborgs Rule, OK!" to make a fantastic statement of aesthetic intent. Tick. And though some of the more sci-fi garments in the "Cyborgs" collection won’t sell to the average woman, other elements are eminently desirable and so hip they hurt. For instance, a retro-futuristic signature print alongside a quilted, cropped motorcycle jacket in shiny vinyl with oversized zips and toggles that looked like a Chanel number gone mad.
At first glance clothes by young designer Cybèle Wiren look pretty, feminine, and simple. A closer look reveals another story altogether. You’ll quickly find unique construction in the form of looped double shoulder straps on an otherwise unassuming tank, a mustard yellow polo-neck jersey dress lurking under a black draped top, and acid-wash fabric embroidered with floral shapes atop a Lurex-shot chiffon shift dress or innovatively used as epaulettes. And many of Cybèle’s clever frocks can also be worn in a variety of different ways.
With a cluster of fashion weeks seeking relevance on the global stage, New Zealand is doing its part with a promising line-up of talent.
- Cathrin Schaer
1-2 Zambesi a/w ’06
3-4 Kate Sylvester a/w ’06
5-6 Karen Walker a/w ’06
Mala Brajokvic a/w ’06
8-9 Cybèle a/w ’06