By Insider – Jock Phillips
‘You can’t wear that thing … No-one would be seen dead in it.’ Such comments have long echoed in my ears. Yet now, to my embarrassment, I find myself writing a fashion column. When it come to clothes I am afraid that I am a typical old-fashioned KM (Kiwi male, not Katherine Mansfield!). I even let my Mum choose my clothes until I was old enough to have a female partner to do it for me!
Black T-shirts and jeans is about as far as my own fashion sense goes. After all, the culture that gave us great All Blacks could not possibly give us dandy dressers. We are at heart a rural people, and the swanndri, the jandal and the black ‘wife-beater’ singlet are surely our solitary claims to the world’s stock of vestments.
So I was treading on decidedly shaky ground to choose the Miromoda Indigenous Fashion Extravaganza as my Real New Zealand Festival entertainment yesterday. But I like colour and interesting design and a performance, so it was worth getting out of the comfort zone.
Before long, old assumptions were shattered. For a start, on entering the TSB Arena on the Wellington waterfront, I was led upstairs to a stunning collection of 10 kākahu (ceremonial cloaks) by members of the Hetet family of Ngāti Maniapoto. I realised immediately that while Pākehā may not traditionally have contributed much to the world’s store of beautiful clothes, Māori women certainly have. Woven korowai have always been items of extraordinary beauty, and Rangimārie Hetet, her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa and their whanau have been the pre-eminent weavers of them all. The delicate geometrical designs, the glorious browns and oranges of the feathers, the movement of the tassels, and the subtle fringes make them wonderful examples of abstract art at its best. Many of the cloaks were from the Waikato Museum collection, and they ranged from a kahu huruhuru done by Rangimārie Hetet in 1950, through to a radical blue work by Veranoa Hetet in 2011. They made a superb introduction to the show, a reminder of tradition; and they excited me so much that I went back afterwards and stood there just soaking them in.
So far, so good. I now entered the trade area. I looked around – not another man in sight; and the women were dressed up to the nines all looking dazzlingly sophisticated. It was with some sense of relief that I found a really nice leather belt and some smart black men’s underpants designed by the Hutchinson Sisters. To my surprise I found myself buying, as a gift I hasten to add, a pair of stylish stockings by Iwi Creations.
Into the theatre. A long black catwalk. Photographers positioned on ladders at the end. To one side couples, men elegantly casual and women with jewellery sparkling, at tables sipping champagne. To the other side chairs. I made it to the front row. Then the performance began, briefly interrupted by two polished singing interludes from Howard McGuire and Miss a.k.a. The MC was Simon Wi Rutene (of skiing fame I presume). One by one gorgeous tall Māori women, and also a few Māori men, would stride purposefully to the end of the catwalk, pose for the photographers, and retreat. They were amazingly unselfconscious and professional, even when the top of a dress slipped off one of the model’s shoulders. Once each set of clothes was complete, the designer would briefly appear and wave.
So now, I suppose, you want to know about the clothes? Well, here goes my ‘expert’ fashion report: ‘Judging by the Miromoda fashion show, the predominant colour for the next year will be, without a doubt, black; but I can also report that fawns, and browns and greys seem to be the coming season’s alternative shades. Judging by dresses from Whiri and Hermione Flynn, there will be large geometric blocks of colour. Big collars and loose hanging material are likely to be common. Spectacular hats have returned to fashion, with some unusual examples from Tawhiao….’ Enough!
But seriously, I was struck by the fact that there seemed little evidence of traditional Māori designs – very few koru patterns for example. Both DMonic Intent (whose clothes dramatically expressed their name) and Tawhiao did use hanging tassel skirts reminiscent of a flax skirt. The overwhelming impression was that these were not marae wear. They were urban wear. In fact there was a nice range of black T-shirts ( I wasn’t that out-of-date!) by a house called ‘Urban Maori’. The clothes were smart casual, designed for comfortable walking in inner city malls. This of course is a logical response to the fact that since the 1960s Māori have become an urban people. These young Māori designers have grown up in the city; and their work reveals urban sophistication. The designs were consistently stylish, creative and really interesting to look at. They were all so elegant.
Slowly the truth dawned. If the New Zealand that gave us swanndris and Colin Meads was rural, it very definitely is not so now. Over the past 40 years many of us, Pākehā and Māori, have become a sophisticated urban people, who enjoy the things that cities can offer – good eating and drinking places, museums and galleries, specialised shops. I walked back along the Wellington waterfront. I passed Len Lye’s water whirler and Neil Dawson’s fern sculpture. I noticed bits of Wellington poetry carved into stone. I saw hundreds of people sitting out enjoying a glass of wine in the balmy, you-can’t-beat-Wellington-on-a-good-day, evening. The fronts of buildings were illuminated in spectacular changing colours. I went past windows advertising clothes by Trelise Cooper. I slowly recalled that my very trendy step-daughter, who is the epitome of international urban fashion, comes back from London to Wellington to buy her clothes.
I began to realise that although we still attract our tourists to beautiful landscapes and the thrill of the outdoors, it is the style of our cities and the culture they have spawned that is making this Real New Zealand Festival and the World Cup so enjoyable for so many people. Miramoda’s impressive extravaganza was a showcase, not of the rural marae, but of the sophisticated international urban world that on a night like last night we can now enjoy.
Vox populi: While photographing the lights on the old buildings, I came across another Kiwi bloke with a clicking camera. ‘ Isn’t this a marvellous scene? I said. ‘ Yes’, he replied, ‘but why can’t we have it all the time? Why does it take the World Cup to bring our cities to life?’
PS: I dedicate this post to the beautiful woman who shares my life, who dresses always with style and panache, and who would be singularly amused at the idea of ‘Jock: fashion reporter’.