Here at Ensemble, we like to treat fashion like a trojan horse to enter into conversations about wider issues. Some might struggle to see the correlation between fashion and politics, and many designers struggle with how much, or little, they should speak up, reverting to old-fashioned tropes of neutrality.
But we firmly believe the act of consumerism to be one of the most important political tools we have – and that the way we choose to spend our precious dollars, and the way those choices reflect the way we express ourselves, is political AF.
So it was with great pleasure that we enjoyed a glass of Champagne with Stuff chief political correspondent Tova O’Brien ahead of the Kate Sylvester show at NZ Fashion Week, and picked her brains on the relationship between politics, identity, fashion and more.
One of the sharpest political minds in Aotearoa, Tova has, perhaps accidentally, become somewhat of a fashion icon over the years, from canary yellow coats to her infamous berets.
She’s also one of our very favourite things: a woman with strong opinions. They’ll be showcased in her new podcast Tova, launching September 7 ahead of October’s election, “holding the powerful to account and putting the concerns of real people front and centre”.
You’re based between Wellington and Auckland. Do you dress differently for each city?
I wish! I have a really short term weather memory and every time I go down to Wellington I berate myself for how underprepared I am for its briskness. Although having worked in television there and in London for 14 years, I have a ludicrous collection of coats. So that often saves me.
Let’s address the elephant in the room - as a woman in the position of holding people (right now, largely men) with power to account, does this ever determine the way you dress?
No – never let men determine the way you dress! And also, it’s not largely men anymore. Parliament's now, for the first time ever, 50% women; a milestone that was hit earlier this year which is amazing. But no, I think that women – and everybody – should dress for themselves before they dress for anybody else.
Do you have fun with fashion and beauty or is there a hesitancy to do so given the serious nature, and public facing nature, of your job?
I have a lot of fun with fashion. Although probably my idea of fun is a lot of other people’s staid. I wear a lot of black.
Often for me what I choose to wear is what's going to be comfortable and easy and allow me to do what I need to do that day – be it chase after polis, fly without crinkling or work from home in PJs on the bottom, business on the top for Zooms.
I’ve traditionally been quite time-poor in the mornings, so I tend to wear a lot of dresses I can just throw on with some sneaks or boots as it’s the most straightforward.
Who’s the most stylish person in politics?
I think Rawiri Waititi just shot to the top of the table after walking the runway at Kiri Nathan! A lot of people probably disagree with me, but there’s something to be said about the fact that he thumbed his nose on the day he was being suspended from Parliament for comments he made in the House that may have breached name suppression, and he chose to instead get his model on.
And that’s something this iteration of Te Pāti Māori have set out to do since coming into Parliament – Rawiri and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer have made a point about not wanting to assimilate to the existing parliamentary system. We saw that when he was stopped from speaking in parliament for wearing hei-tiki instead of a tie. Some people will say the rules are the rules and they’re rules for a reason but I’m a big believer in pushing boundaries and fighting for what you believe in. Whether you agree with their approach or not you can’t argue they don’t have the courage of their convictions.
Zoe was obsessed with Chris Hipkins’ Hutt bogan chic and unintentional use of fashion to connect with voters when he first became leader – and was intrigued by Christopher Luxon’s very Remuera casual light blue linen jacket and black T-shirt recently. Are these things you ever pick up on? Or just us fashion girlies…
Yes, very much so. And so often politician’s ‘oh *shock horror* you caught me on a jog’ casual looks are contrived or set up to help them look like the everyman or woman.
Politicians use fashion all the time to convey messages like the requisite Red Bands when they hit the farm or in Jacinda Ardern’s case, the Karen Walker Swannie, or John Key’s endless catalogue of Rodd and Gunn chinos.
I’m still on the fence about whether or not it was an intentional play by Hipkins but regardless, speed dealers and bogan chic gets serious points from me. Luxon’s light blue linen was also a more creative take on what’s known as the Young Nats Uniform - chinos, sweater, shirt and blazer - I respect that too.
Tell us about the most impressive use of fashion to tell a story that you’ve seen in parliament.
It’s gotta be Jacinda Ardern at Buckingham Palace in that stunning bespoke Juliette Hogan gown - or what Ardern called a maternity dress - and wearing that incredible korowai from Ngāti Rānana, the London Māori Club.
Ardern was pregnant at the time with Neve, she was giving a speech to the Commonwealth, and it was just some of the most striking images and juxtapositions that I’ve seen in political fashion.
You’ve had some iconic fashion moments in your career. Talk to us about your beret. Where did you get it? Do you still wear it? How do you store it?
I lost it! I was devastated. My hero Bruce at Dunedin airport helped me search for days to try and recover it after I left it on a plane. I got that beret in Tokyo where I was spending Christmas with my (London-based) mum just before Covid kept us apart for years.
I quickly replaced it with my dream beret - a black Kate Sylvester one - which I also lost somewhere in the South Island. For my birthday mum bought me a replacement white woollen beret, which is stunning but I’m too terrified to wear it in case I lose it.
Let’s talk about that yellow coat – Twenty-seven Names – that you wore the day Judith Collins was ousted. The videos outside the Beehive of the media running after politicians were amazing, but even better because of that coat. Was it a deliberate thing to wear something so bold?
I was called Big Bird for a while off the back of that! Not deliberate, just practical. I really love that coat and in Wellington those long political stake outs can be chilly and windy, so long coats are key.
There was a brilliant Twitter exchange last year between Jo Moir, Linda Clark and Katie Bradford, where they bantered about the “colour top a political journo wearing representing their political bias” – Linda “spent years avoiding blue, red, green” while Katie said “an actual problem when buying jackets”. Is that true for you? Is it something you consider?
Isn’t it hilarious that that’s a thing! And yup, it is still a thing, though probably less so now. But if you’re in politics and doing a promo shoot or when I used to host a political interview show, you consciously steer clear of colours that are too close to the particular tones used by the parties.
It’s not something I really care about though and anyone who argues it’s a display of bias probably has too much time on their hands!
I was at the NZ First Headquarters on election night in 2014 and I had to do a mercy dash to get an outfit for the night. I ended up getting a jumpsuit/dress that had, like, hot pants underneath. So I turned up at NZ First HQ in hot pants which suddenly felt extremely inappropriate, I found a stapler at reception and stapled the train/skirt bit over the hot pants but there was no hiding the fact it was bold black and white patterned choice which our show host John Campbell pointed out were the party colours.
With a long career in TV broadcasting you’ll be very familiar with a hair and makeup process. Did you ever get much control over that when you were on screen? How has it shaped decisions you make about how you present yourself now?
When you’re working in studio or on shoots, it is such a treat when you get to work with talented makeup artists and stylists. I’m terrible at doing my own makeup, liquid liner’s about as fancy as it gets, so I love seeing what can be done by the pros.
And makeup artists all tend to be such cool people (Lara case in point!) so it’s a fun oasis before the madness of interviews begins. Makeup can have such a huge bearing on your confidence and how you feel too. I also know what it’s like to come out of the chair and perhaps not feel like yourself.
Have you been to NZFW in the past? What’s been the best experience or show?
You know what, I’ve tried or RSVP’d and cancelled most years but have always got stuck with work in Wellington – or overseas. I think my last fashion week was the last time I lived in Auckland way back in 2011 and that was a blast! So I am very excited about tonight!
Do you think politicians should attend fashion week? It is an industry that employs many – from retail to manufacturing and more – and a showcase of NZ design. A few mayors have attended in the past, and politicians – but it feels like it’s a bit of a scary proposition to be seen attending…?
Yeah that’s really strange to me. I think politicians should be going out and getting to know every single industry, business and cultural corner in Aotearoa.
I don’t know why politicians wouldn’t attend. They make appearances at music awards, Field Days, ribbon cuttings and any openings of envelopes that cameras are at. So why not fashion week?
We’re getting ready for the Kate Sylvester show, and of course she’s celebrating 30 years in business with this show. Do you have any archival or favourite Kate Sylvester pieces in your wardrobe with any fun stories to tell?
Soooo many, a massive chunk of my wardrobe is made up with Kate Sylvester, she has always been incredibly generous with me and I love what she does. So many pivotal, seminal moments of my life and career have been done in Kate Sylvester. Weddings, election nights, gigs, coups – she’s got something for every occasion!
My all time favourite is probably my inky blue black leather jacket bought about 15 years ago. It was my first major investment in a piece of clothing and I’ve nearly worn it to death. I’ve also had it recovered, so I’m fairly certain it will last me forever.
Let’s talk about your outfit - what are you wearing?
I’m wearing a black leather skirt and teal blazer, with a black lace cami (also from Kate) which is an absolute wardrobe staple for me. The shoes are complete ankle breakers from Mi Piaci, that I bought to wear to the Voyager Awards.