To fashion is an exhibition at The Britomart Pavilions in Te Ara Tahuhu staged by the New Zealand Fashion Museum, in which curator Doris de Pont asks 12 notable New Zealanders to be photographed in their own clothes to show how personal style helps communicate who they are. Photographer Edith Amituanai took the shots, and talks here about the project. 

JEREMY HANSEN Edith, you’ve taken photographs of a diverse range of New Zealanders in clothing of their own choice as part of the to fashion exhibition, which explores how people use fashion to present themselves to the world. How did you want to present these people through your lens?

EDITH AMITUANAI I was slightly confused as to why Doris would choose me. The language I associated Doris with is a commercial or a fashion language, which I don’t do, but when I was told it was about portraits and engagement with people first I was OK about that. Often [in my own work] I’m leading the story – I find the people I photograph – but here I was being led by Doris. 

It was a real privilege to be able to shoot this diverse range of amazing people who own their style – and who are known for it. I photographed John Kirwan [for this project] and I put this blurry picture on my Instagram Stories that I’d photographed New Zealand rugby’s best-dressed man, and everyone guessed it was him. It’s like he’s more known for style than for rugby, well maybe to my followers anyway. He’s aware of what he’s doing – he talked about fabric and where he got it from, and why he’s chosen shoes to work with a shirt. And with Tayi [Tibble], I had this big fangirl moment because her poetry is incredible and she’s a fashion hound. There was Andrew, who has a wheelchair which allows him to go higher so you can meet his gaze. They did all the work. They were ready. And their various styles make me feel proud of where we live in some ways – you think style happens somewhere else sometimes.

JH People often write fashion off as superficial. What do you think of that suggestion?

EA Doris is very clear that it’s the way the style is owned, which I understand completely as an artist. There’s a visual style that makes people know it’s you.

JH Are these people communicating something fundamental about themselves, or is their style used as a form of armour?

EA I think both. In the same way you and I communicate something about ourselves when we chose what we’re wearing today. [The New York style photographer] Bill Cunningham said “fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life” – it reflects who we are. Like John Kirwan talking about his gold Adidas shoes that he wears as a tactic to engage because it makes people smile or ask about his shoes. Fashion a tool to engage, or a costume that in some ways allows us to be something else.

JH A lot of your work before now has focused on a kind of social realism, in which the people you photograph are seen in the communities they live in. Does this series of studio-based shots feel like a step into different territory for you?

EA I’ve definitely been led into different territory on this project, but it’s still a people-led project, and those people are interesting. And I know what types of frames I like: there’s a naturalness. I’m terrified of being a tryhard. My job is about making people feel comfortable and seen, to make them feel good without being gushy or fake. Very few of the participants were nervous. There was a lot of excitement in the air. I hope that permeates in the image. 

I wanted to make it look easy. I’m always inspired by what I photograph, but photography is hard. Instagram makes us think it’s easy, so to have an individual take on it, that part is hard. It’s the same with clothes the people are wearing, there has to be an ease and a naturalness. It’s really individual. I’m always looking for that.

JH There are 12 people – did it take a long time to shoot them all?

EA I can work fast. Labouring over something means I can wreck it by forcing it to be something else. It’s a tricky line between holding the shot too long and not long enough.

JH You don’t shoot in a studio very much either, yet you did on this job.

EA Usually I like the context of a person in a space, but the white studio wall in these photographs places the emphasis on the person in front of the camera. I think the strength is also in the diversity of who’s pictured, the diversity of the story. I hope this lineup of people feels like an accurate reflection of Auckland.

to fashion is on display at The Pavilions in Te Ara Tahuhu and Galway Street at Britomart until Sunday 27 March. For more information and interviews about each of the participants, visit the NZ Fashion Museum's website.