1999 was a watershed moment for New Zealand fashion design. That year, for the first time, New Zealand fashion designers got to strut their stuff on the world stage at two London Fashion Weeks, one in February and September.
Being at London Fashion Week was huge news for New Zealand.
Many New Zealanders have liked to keep up with fashion. Yet to see innovative fashion designs coming from our little corner of the world, was virtually unknown.
For our designers to be seen by international media, boutiques and buyers, was truly something special.
Four successful designers were invited to represent New Zealand in London. They were NOM*d, Zambesi, WORLD and Karen Walker. All four are still among our most famous design companies today.
Their innovative and quirky approach to fashion made the four designers stand out in the crowded international fashion week arena.
Many fashion commentators saw their designs as offering something unique. They commented on the designer’s confident use of black fabrics, and a distinctive approach that captured something of our nation’s wittily dark sense of humour and style.
A new myth emerged as international media wondered if all New Zealanders wore so much black clothing?
What they had spotted was a dark, Southern Gothic edge that has become distinctive to New Zealand’s – and particularly the South Island’s – fashion sensibilities. If you have ever wondered why New Zealanders wear so much black – this was the moment when that myth was generated.
The New Zealand Four
The designers became known as the ‘New Zealand Four’ – a name that has remained a benchmark in New Zealand’s fashion memory. One of the four was NOM*d designer and owner, Margarita Robertson, who is today creative director of this iconic and staunchly Dunedin-based fashion label.
But where did Robertson turn to find the best knitwear fabrics for the world stage of London Fashion Week? Here, of course, to Ashburton’s famous Tekau knitwear company. Robertson had been working with Tekau for a while, pushing the limits of the design process to create quirky jerseys, dresses and accessories. Versions of some of these original styles are still made for NOM*d by other New Zealand factories today, now that Tekau has closed.
When the music launched in the London Fashion Week pavilion, set up on the lawn of the Natural History Museum in London, the response was immediate. Not only were the designs distinctive but the quality of the perfectly finished knitwear was immediately apparent. A little piece of Ashburton took its place on the world fashion stage.
Among the garments shown at that very first New Zealand appearance at London Fashion Week in February 1999, were garments now on display at Ashburton Museum. This includes a gently fitted and fully shaped mid-grey turtle neck jersey, with NOM*d’s distinctive super-long sleeves, that remain a brand signature today.
Also on display is a black floor-length sleeveless dress, also with a high neck. Perfect for South Island wear. The dress was styled at the museum by its designer, Margarita Robertson, with a 1999 ‘butterfly’ scarf, a design still sold by NOM*d today. At the time these designs were considered very ‘way out’ and generated a lot of conversation, and perhaps some consternation, for Tekau staff. While they admired the innovation, this was the first time many had seen hanging ends and unusual ‘unfinished’ edges on garments – a style today known as ‘deconstructed’.
Robertson is one of New Zealand’s most loved and admired fashion designers. She has been a mentor to many, and remained a strong advocate for New Zealand fashion. Along with the other members of the New Zealand Four, she has gone on to inspire new generations of designers whose garments appear on models that confidently stride the catwalks of the world.
Even today, all NOM*d garments are made here in New Zealand; and in January 2018, Robertson’s standing was recognised when she was awarded the citation, Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Nicest of all, were the comments that Robertson left us about Tekau. As she said;
“We miss Tekau and our customers do too!!!!!
“We wistfully think about Tekau often, we loved visiting the factory with the devoted team and fantastic machinery forever knitting day and night.
“When our customers reference a garment they had twenty years ago that has finally given up the ghost because it was worn so much, it always was a Tekau garment.”
By Tanya Zoe Robinson
- A grey NOM*d jersey made for Tekau, and first seen at London Fashion Week 1999.
- The grey NOM*d jersey in the Tekau: Don’t Be Dull exhibition at Ashburton Museum. PHOTOGRAPHER: ANITA BADGER
- A full length dress knitted at Tekau on the runway at London Fashion Week 1999.
- A black version of the dress, and scarf made at Tekau, also worn at London Fashion Week 1999, on exhibition at Ashburton Museum. PHOTOGRAPHER: ANITA BADGER
- This is NOM*d – an advertising image, featuring the 1999 dress in black.
- Advertising image from NOM*d featuring garments made at Tekau.