One of the leading lights of contemporary Māori fashion design, Kiri Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Tainui) is one of six designers whose labels are showcased in the Kāhui Collective pop-up fashion store at Britomart.
How did the Kāhui Collective of Māori fashion designers first come together?
The collective started to come together in 2017 when Adrienne Whitewood (Rongowhakaata) – one of the other designers represented in the store – approached me to ask with help sourcing some fabrics out of China. So I put a really a really bad proposal together, sent it out, got a little bit of money and took Adrienne and three other Māori designers on a hikoi up to Guangzhou, China. It became really apparent that – like it was when I started – that there were no support systems in place for Māori fashion designers at all. It was really hard to break into the mainstream fashion arena as a label that for lack of a better explanation “fit”. But for labels that sat on the outside of what the mainstream considered fashion to be, it was a really hard time. I didn’t want the designers that were coming through to have to deal with all the same challenges that I did. So instead of I suppose living my fashion journey the way that most fashion labels do, which I guess is to be quite singular, it became apparent that we needed to focus on everyone collectively so that we could grow, both at home and off-shore. That came really naturally to everyone.
So last year, I put together quite a good proposal, actually, and got a lot more support and was able to take 15 Māori creatives including designers, photographers and videographers to China and we were able to document the story. As those articles and videos started going out, more and more started learning about what we were doing, and as a result of that we started having a conversation about having a department store-style space at Britomart. That’s led to us being able to pop up in this beautiful space, in what we consider to be the premium fashion precinct of Auckland. For us in particular, because we have a Māori narrative and aesthetic, this is the spot that we need to be in to be, to be in front of the tourism industry.
We are going to make the absolute most of every minute we have here. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes when you’re drawing from your culture. That’s our top priority. We’ve moved into this very contemporary and commercial space and we have to question ourselves at every step. We have a real sense of responsibility to get it right.
How has the experience of creating this store been for you so far?
It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. I think that coming into any kind of space with Auckland rents is terrifying for small businesses, but doing it as a collective makes it a lot more achievable. And we’ve had wonderful support from the people behind Britomart. We’re really excited to be able to bring something unique, that hasn’t been seen here before. Or anywhere, really. One thing that runs through everyone here apart from their Māori genealogy is the love of each other’s journey. Because it’s one thing to be in fashion and it’s one thing to be Māori but there are maybe 28 Māori fashion designers in comparison to the 880 fashion designers that there are just in New Zealand. We are very small and fragile whanau, but whanau is the champion in that sentence.
You talked earlier about some of the challenges you faced setting up your label as an indigenous designer. Could you tell us a bit more about those challenges?
Yeah, sure. It’s pretty black and white. Prior to starting our label, we had never really seen a high-end New Zealand fashion label that had a very strong and obvious Māori aesthetic, let alone ethos. So there were no reference points for anyone, for us, for anyone in the market, for the media. It just hadn’t been done before. It had always been considered wearable arts, or in some other boxes, but not something that was fashion and commercial, but also sat safely and responsibly within kaupapa Māori ground. So that was really hard for everyone.
How have things changed?
There have been more and more designers coming through over the years that offer beautiful explorations of Maori narrative and story. It’s more than just clothing. It’s not just a top and pant or skirt and jacket. It’s not just putting a kore onto a t-shirt, which is stereotypically what you think of when you say “Māori fashion”. So a lot of mindsets are changing.
In the beginning, when I was starting out, it was really difficult. Everyone was like, “You’re nuts”. I also didn’t really fit into the fashion space as much when I started. I was late 30s, I had five kids. I didn’t really fit the mould of what New Zealand was selling as “New Zealand fashion”. In the end, I decided all I had to do was just be me, and not give up… as did every single one of these designers here today.
While a store that stocks multiple labels isn’t a new concept, a store that’s established by a collective of six different labels is. Usually the offering is curated by one individual.
That’s been hilarious, actually. You’ve got six very strong-minded creatives all having to decide collectively what the space is going to look like, what colour ways are going to work, what the racks are going to look like and so on, and everyone has to be a unanimous ‘yes’. So that’s been… interesting [laughs].
So tell us a little about each label in the store.
Well, have Campbell Luke, which is run by Bobby Campbell-Luke (Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki Whanui) and Don. Bobby had, I would say, the most successful show at New Zealand Fashion Week last year. It finished with everyone standing on their feet ovating, or in tears because they were so emotional. It was such a beautiful show. His aesthetic comes from being raised on the farm and the women who worked on the marae, his mother, the women working in the kitchen. It’s a very, very considered and deeply thought-through collection, as are all his collections.
We also have Jacob Coutie (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Wairere, Tainui). He has a menswear label, and a strong focus on natural and ethically sourced fibres - linens, cottons. His design aesthetic is probably well suited to the European circuit or the Asian circuit. It’s absolutely beautiful and the quality of craft within each garment is exceptional.
Then, we have Mitchell Vincent (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and Nichola Te Kiri (Ngāi Tūhoe). They have a pop-up store that’s turned into a permanent store down in Hamilton. Mitchell has a womenswear label that’s very flowing and youthful, pushing the boundaries a little bit in terms of the vibrancy of some of the fabrics. He’s got some real champion pieces, including a pant that is flying out the door at the moment.
Nicola can make anything in the universe – that’s her superpower. Her Kryptonite is to try and focus on just a few of the things she’s amazing at. At the moment she has two lines, one very ready-to-wear and one is a high-end evening line. Both those lines carry contemporary Māori designs that she’s developed. She also pushes that through into her incredible jewellery pieces – like, one piece can go all the way down the body. She does so much. She made the sign for the store, she’s made the photo frames that go on our racks. She’s just so versatile.
And then there’s Adrienne who has been an award-winning competition designer – actually, everyone here has shown either solo or in a group show at New Zealand Fashion Week, so everyone has delivered at that level – who has had her own store in Rotorua for the last six and a half years, and she’s a household name there, and throughout the country. I feel like every single Māori has one of her pieces. She uses Māori designs on the fabric, but also te Reo, sayings and so forth. She has a very ethical approach to production and fabric sourcing.
And of course, there’s your own label, which includes the amazing gown in the window, which has just flown in from LA after being worn at the Oscars by Chelsea Winstanley.
It was really exciting to see how Chelsea felt in it. Obviously as a fashion designer, the Oscars is a dream come true, right, but the ultimate was receiving messages from her and her whanau on the day. I just felt rapt. She felt safe and protected and that home was there with her. That’s pretty tough on the Oscars carpet. And also, it’s really cool because not many New Zealand designers get to do it. And no Māori designers ever get to do it. So it’s a win.
As indigenous design has been embraced by mainstream fashion and as we as a society, become more attuned to respect for indigenous protocol and tikanga, do you ever see situations where non-Māori people feel that they might be being disrespectful by wanting to buy or wear something produced in accordance with Māori protocol? Like it’s not for them to own?
All the time! And that’s why it’s really important that one of us is here, so we can have those conversations. We don’t have reference points for that, there’s not years and years of history where people have had experiences that make them feel welcome and included. We’re actually all Kiwis here. This is our home and this is the culture of our home, so it’s part of all of us. So it’s about coming in and talking to the designers and understanding that this is a really safe space. It come from us as Māori but it’s for everyone, like the haka at a rugby game. There has to more opportunities for us to be able to share these experiences with everyone.