Speaking at Semi Permanent 2020, fashion designer Kate Sylvester reflected on her brand's creative journey through a very personal point of view. We're excited to publish her speech on Ensemble; you can also watch it here.
This is the KSwan. The Kate Sylvester logo that perfectly represents everything I strive for Kate Sylvester to be. It is feminine, sophisticated, it has whimsy and a good back story, it’s both international and personal. I love it, I’m extremely proud of it, but I didn’t design it.
It was designed by Wayne Conway, the invisible man. His name appears nowhere in our branding, he’s never public facing, he refused to speak today, and yet he is an intrinsic part of everything you think of as Kate Sylvester. Who is he?
Wayne Conway is my partner, in life and business, and today Semi Permanent seems like the perfect opportunity to explore this partnership. How do we work together? What is our process? How does the partnership make us stronger, and how have we managed to sustain it for 30 years?
I feel like the KSwan symbolises our partnership perfectly. Obviously, I brought the basics; my initials and the intrinsic femininity that I bring to all my work. The swan begins with me too. I’m a total fashion history nerd, as a teenager I was obsessed with Truman Capote’s swans, mid-century, New York socialites and fashion icons: Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Slim Aarons, and these swans long shaped my feminine ideal.
History, cultural reference and story telling are always at the heart of my design process. So, nice back story, but it was Wayne who created the incredibly clean, timeless logo we see here.
Initially, he created our strong, sans serif Kate Sylvester logo and then, taking this potentially fussy, old fashioned bird, edited it down into its most contemporary form and fused the two shapes together. When he turned it into a repeat print, first on tissue paper, now onto scarves and soon a fabric print, he gifted me one of my career highlights. I fucking love this logo print and it reminds me every time I look at it how lucky I am to be part of our 30-year partnership.
So, some background. We met in 1987, I’d just graduated fashion, Wayne was in his last year of graphic design. When Wayne graduated, we travelled together for a few years, a great mix of work experience and adventuring, before deciding we really wanted to launch our own business. We returned to New Zealand in 1992, at the tail end of the miserable ‘80s recession.
I want to digress here a moment for young members of the audience. Here is a moment of hope. We are looking at a recession now and things look pretty bleak for you, but what we’ve learnt about recessions is that they have an upside. When you have mass unemployment and mass business closures it actually creates opportunity. If people can’t find jobs, creatives start creating. And when landlords can’t lease spaces, rents drop.
This was happening in Auckland in the early ‘90s and it was incredibly exciting. The city was a cauldron of creativity; bars and cafes such as Verona and Rakinos, the collective Pacific Sisters. There were the magazines Planet and Pavement, Boh Runga and Supergroove and a flurry of clothing brands; Karen Walker, Nicholas Blanchet and of course us, all starting up out of nowhere, with nothing.
So hope, armed with nothing but hope, we launched Sister part of the Family. The Family was Wayne’s graphic design business and his work for Sony Music, Levi’s and a bunch of other clients funded our clothing label Sister for the first few years. The name was all about being a design collective. We didn’t even consider Kate Sylvester; too serious, egotistical then. We were young and broke; our customers were university students or start-ups like ourselves. The clothes certainly weren’t collections. The clothes were an eclectic, experimental bunch, more streetwear and craft that fashion and couture. We had just travelled through Turkey and India and wanted to fuse the handcrafts we loved with our very, very urban life in Auckland.
We took up residence in an old warehouse space in Kitchener Street. We lived and worked there with our first shop on the street front. Our creative roles defined themselves immediately and have remained ever since. I’m responsible for the clothes. Wayne does pretty much everything else: branding, I.D, shop fit outs, creative direction of campaigns and shows. And from that first iconic Sister T-shirt, he’s either designed or art directed most of our prints. We discuss, banter, debate, dispute, argue, fight constantly, but in the end, if it’s clothes Wayne backs down and if it’s everything else I back down.
Wayne claimed responsibility for business when he put together the business plan for our first bank loan and I became the face of the brand when I greeted our first customer the day we opened. I literally worked the shop all day and sewed all night. Yep, I sewed everything, some pieces with hand stitched, crafted detailing. We hand stamped the swing tags and store bags. Wayne made the tiles on the shop floor, built the counter and plastered the walls. He spray-paint stencilled the first run of Sister T-shirts and our first ad campaign was those stencils all over town. I guess the journey since then has been about making enough money to pay other people to do some of these things and learning to direct, delegate and trust people to do them as well or better than us.
Over the next few years we did start to grow and evolve as a brand. I often think of Kitchener Street as the incubator, but eventually all chicks have to move on and in 1996, we were devastatingly evicted.
A partnership’s real value is tested in the tough times. I keep Wayne calm when he threatens to explode and he pulls me back up when things get too hard. But making tough or scary decisions together only works if you have total trust. We trusted each other’s judgement and abilities enough to take the plunge and we opened a real store, on a real retail street, paying real retail rent, and went from being a niche brand to a household name.
But we had barely settled into High Street when an even bigger blow struck. Breaking into Australia is incredibly tough for New Zealanders. Our big brassy neighbours prefer to look to the Northern Hemisphere than to their little Southern cousins, but in 1997 we actually did it, we delivered our first orders to Australia!
But pride was swiftly followed by despair. We found ourselves in a very nasty, expensive trademark battle. Advice to start ups, never chose a generic name!
But again, together we were able to make the incredibly tough decision to change the brand name. We realised we’d outgrown Sister - the random clothes had evolved into collections made up in my beloved wools and silks, we were more sophisticated than street. It was time to bury Sister and with the birth of Kate Sylvester, we really pushed ourselves to a whole new level. Wayne elevated us from our almost raw Sister cotton tape label to the timeless Kate Sylvester brand we still use today.
These two consecutive blows taught us our most important lesson: Bad shit happens. Successful businesses are the ones who can turn a set back around and make it into a positive.
With the opening of our ill-fated Sydney store, victim of the GFC recession, another blow! With this store, Wayne bought together all the elements that now define a Kate Sylvester store and the Kate Sylvester brand. Our palette of eggshell, nude, black, red and ivory. Gold or copper metal, soft curved wooden shapes and most importantly warm, personable stores for our warm personable retail staff to work in.
I think this word personable is key to our identity. Kate Sylvester clothes are not intimidating, they don’t dominate their wearer. At their best they are like a best friend that you get to wear. And I see this very much with our brand imagery now too.
We have almost gone full circle in this. Initially as Sister, we photographed women we knew rather than models, artist Frances Upritchard, architect Sue Hilary and our pretty friend Jamie who happened to be a boy. Over the last few years, we have consciously ensured we’re shooting the broadest range of women, old, young, a diverse mix of colour, ethnicity and size. I’m thrilled that this diversity is now found in modelling agencies. This is absolutely the best thing that’s happened to our industry in the time I’ve been working in it. I’m adamant this isn’t a trend, this is the future and as a brand we’ve embraced it - real clothes for real people.
So, how do us two real people work as a team? I think the best way to talk about this it to talk through a few of our favourite collections from concept to show.
First up is Brighton Rock, summer 2000. Our collections always tell a story, it’s the device that turns on our creativity. You can’t pump out two collections a year - that’s 54 and counting - without developing a foolproof creative trigger.
For me it’s the story or concept, and often, because I’m an avid reader, the story is an actual book. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is a very dark but evocative story of Rose, a naïve waitress in 1950s Brighton, and Pinky, the deeply dark gangster she becomes entangled with. It was the extremes of the two characters that drew me to it.
Many of my collections play on opposites; dark and light, feminine and masculine. With Wayne, we developed the signature prints; the café doilies and ubiquitous carnations. I found girly ruffles to offset hard edged gangster leatherette. But it’s our shows that Wayne really gets to shine, and where we really have fun. It’s a chance to push concept to the forefront, to create an entire experience for our audience. The movie version of my story.
Although we’d done a few shows prior to Brighton Rock, this was the one that really set the bar for all to follow. As the book was set in a restaurant, Wayne turned the runway into a giant dining table. Chandeliers were hung above, the tablecloths, cutlery, crockery and vases of carnations were lined up, and our glorious, trashy but vulnerable, sexy, bored waitresses, nonchalantly strolled the length, absently kicking vases into the audience.
Serenaded by Tom Petty and Guns N’ Roses, the show was glorious. A smashed plate landed in Cate Blanchett’s lap, we got an order from Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and for fashion historians, Dries Van Noten did his version of the dining table show two seasons after us.
The show that always take my breath away is Fight, summer 2001. What also blows my mind is that in a 30-year career, two of my highlight shows happened back to back and I was pregnant both times: that’s creativity on steroids!
The concept actually sprung from our domestic situation. With twin babies and another on the way, we who had been such social butterflies were stuck at home staring at the TV. Wayne, second name Frasier as in Joe Frazier, grew up with a boxing mad Dad and decided to educate me. We watched all the legendary ‘60s and ‘70s fights including The Rumble in the Jungle. Unexpectedly I was captivated. Perhaps something to do with the explosion of testosterone in my life in the form of three sons! Whatever it was, I loved the drama, dance, grace and sudden shocking brutality, again the two extremes playing off each other.
On top of the drama there was even satin and sequins. Fight was born complete with sequin tutus, silk jersey track pants and trophy prints.
To me, this show was Wayne’s ultimate celebration of concept, almost abstract but perfectly distilled. The runway was an elevated square the exact height and dimensions of a boxing ring surrounded by audience. The soundtrack was hauntingly beautiful Wagner with a Joe Frazier/ Sugar Ray Leonard soundtrack laid over it. The models had fighter’s braids in their hair and boxing boots on their feet, the air was hazy with spotlights and dry ice, and the most divine Wayne detail, the scent of liniment filled the room.
Jump ahead a few years and I spent a large part of 2014 devouring Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and re-reading The Secret History for the second time.
Donna Tartt loves clothes, her descriptions of entire outfits are incredibly evocative and so for winter 2015, I dedicated a whole collection to her sartorial style. We developed one print, a scholarly paisley, and I love the secret swans swimming through it. The paisley was Francis’s billowy dressing gown, we did Charles’s cricket whites, Henry’s giant overcoat, Kitsey’s powder blue, the goldfinch itself, and even Donna Tartt’s own immaculate suiting.
I pulled together a collection that we felt, in its pared back classicism, needed to be shown in a very pared back way. But Wayne’s one incredibly simple but powerful device worked so well, we’ve seen it repeated over and over again. As the show progressed, ticker tape began to drift down until by the end of the show it was a veritable blizzard. But no ordinary ticker tape: Wayne, the perfectionist, had faulty book runs guillotined. It was a deluge of literature, a celebration of literature.
And finally, today we reach Frances. Some of the stories I tell are small novellas, Frances was my epic, and she started at Te Papa.
We were being given a tour of the archives and one of the curators pulled out a textile print by Frances Hodgkins. I looked at Wayne, Wayne looked at me, I started to say “Oh my God, imagine if we could…” and before I could finish, senior curator Megan Tamati-Quennell yelped “Yes please!”
And so, we made Frances, winter 2019. Wayne and I worked incredibly closely on this project because of all the prints. Editing the potentials down, developing repeats, scales and most especially colourways. It is always Wayne who plays devil’s advocate when no one else in the team dares speak up. He will point out an awkward shape or detail none of us can pin down, or spot one colour ruining a near complete print.
Sometimes he just points out a giant elephant in the room and one day he just said it; “But the colourways as they are, they won’t sell.”
It felt tantamount to sacrilege, this was Frances Hodgkins he was criticising, New Zealand’s renowned colourist! I panicked; maybe we couldn’t make this work? My role when Wayne makes a devastating announcement is to rally in horror against it and then walk away and process. Even when I hate what he says, I respect him enough to never dismiss it, I have to work it through, worry it, tease it and test it.
Although sometimes I’ll conclude his call is wrong, most often he’s at least part right. 30 years of pushing me to think more, and boy, on the subject of Frances’s colourways, I thought hard. I’m the history buff so I went back to all my notes on Frances and I realised that Frances as an artist had constantly evolved. She’d always embraced the new and the modern. She of all people wouldn’t have wanted to be frozen as a holy relic, she’d completely approve of us updating her colourways. We could proceed. Some prints we barely touched; others got a total rework. It was a huge project but incredibly rewarding.
When it came to the show, we knew two things. It was essential that it felt totally contemporary. We knew that a collection with five prints in a riot of colours needed the most minimal setting ever. I was a stuck record “white, white, white,” I kept repeating.
We go to a lot of gigs, we love music, that led us to the first ever gig of Jonathan Bree’s new band at the first ever Others Way festival. The show was crazy good but most importantly every member of the band was head to toe - even masked - in white! We’d found our show. The music was swirly, our collection was kaleidoscopic,
Wayne decided he wanted the band on a revolving stage, a merry-go-round, the models walking in a circle around the band, a kaleidoscope. Think about that; revolving stage, multiple electric instruments, all with multiple electric cords - all going round and around and around. To this day I don’t know how he made that happen. But Wayne does not hear ‘can’t’ or ‘can’t do!’ Wayne makes things happen.
30 years, 30 rollercoaster, full on years. When Wayne pulled off that Frances show I was impressed. I think that is why we work so well together and why we are still excited to do so. He still impresses me! I am still trying to impress him, it is his approval that matters most to me, that drives me.
But the coolest thing for us now and moving forward is that it’s no longer just Wayne and I doing stuff. We have made enough money to pay others and learn to trust others and learnt how to build a team. Its evolved over the years, we’ve had to accept that everyone else comes and goes and as we have evolved it’s got stronger.
We now have a design team lead by Christine Leung and production helmed by Kirsty Palin. Sophie Donovan has had a huge impact on our marketing, blowing the trumpet for diversity, embracing social media and every time she pulls a certain face, we rethink a lazy thought! We have Imogen Seymour and Kerry Scott who totally manage our retail and finances respectively so Wayne and I can actually breathe.
Building a team has freed us up to have time to look at the bigger picture too. We are proud to be part of Mindful Fashion New Zealand, a collective focused on addressing the issues and challenges in our industry.
Again, I address the young people in our audience. The fashion industry is going through a reckoning. The global industry has a very troubled history of extraordinary damage to the environment, labour and human rights abuses and a tradition of distorting and damaging female stereotyping. But luckily, we are an industry receptive to change and we are finally learning to co-operate in order to address our challenges and to nurture our craft back into our process.
We, the old guard, are learning to adapt and change but what really excites me is the next generation of creators.
Looking around, Wayne and I think that New Zealand now feels like the ‘90s are brewing again, another cauldron of creativity is starting to bubble. But for these new creatives, sustainability and diversity are not optional extras but an intrinsic part of their design DNA. That is the future.