This week was set to mark 20 years of Aotearoa’s biggest fashion event, with a celebratory retrospective show officially opening NZ Fashion Week 2021. There was a feeling of excitement within the industry at being able to gather once more to spotlight and celebrate our local designers and associated industry creatives - particularly following last year’s NZFW cancellation due to COVID.
Now, we’re all keeping safe in lockdown and the future remains unclear, with the event postponed quickly last week following the government’s announcement.
What is clear is the event’s role as a hub for many in the local industry, whether it be designers, stylists, journalists, photographers, producers, models, content creators, PRs, makeup artists and more. From the clothes to the colour and chaos behind the scenes to the after parties, it is a hotbed of memories - including, for many, their very first one.
On what would have been day one of NZ Fashion Week 2021, we asked a variety of creatives to get nostalgic and share the story of their first NZFW.
Chris Lorimer, stylist and creative producer
My very first NZFW was the first one in 2001. I was 27-years-old and the fashion editor at Pulp magazine. I reckon I attended every (on and off-schedule) show as it was my job, and I was so there for it!
Looking back now, the most memorable show for me was Zambesi’s Birds of Paradox, off-site at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The whole experience was low-key, sophisticated, dark and beautiful, and guests got to wander through the closed museum at night.
A lot of our designers then were looking outward for their inspirations, perhaps to seem more globally relevant now that the world’s fashion media eye was suddenly on us. Zambesi realised that what was right here would be special to these visitors, and exposed an industry blind spot, our cultural cringe. They included a pōwhiri connecting the importance of Aotearoa’s indigenous culture to the place where they create; other brands are still catching up to that.
I understood this more years later when I began to travel to attend shows at London and Paris fashion weeks, bringing back new ideas and perceptions on how to concept shows back home as a stylist and creative producer.
Anna Reeve, model
My first NZFW was the first year, and I had JUST turned 15. Such a baby model and it was such a game changer in how I viewed myself and my alopecia. I had just started modelling and 99 percent of my work was bald. I had previously been so shy and had terrible body image due to my hairloss. But this helped me redefine what beauty was, and start the long road to acceptance of my alopecia. None of my friends had seen me in the flesh bald at this stage so seeing photos of me on a catwalk was wild to them. I remember being so intimidated by all the seasoned pro models like Penny Pickard, but everyone was so welcoming and I made some great friends. The stand out show memory from that year was Adrian Hailwood - I wore this see-through T-shirt with a pink ship printed on it and I just felt so empowered and amazing. It was a thrill.
Zoe Walker Ahwa, Ensemble co-founder and Stuff style editor
It was 2005, my final year of communication/journalism studies at AUT. My favourite class was newspaper production, where we were able to put all the journalistic things we’d been taught to practical use and produce a regular newspaper, Te Waha Nui. Our print deadline was during fashion week, so I managed to convince the student editor to give me a whole page dedicated to fashion; a cute precursor to my future career.
I went along to the only show I could get an invite to: the Verge Breakthrough group show, which featured emerging labels including Widdess, Michael Pattison, Rayma and a small label called Lonely Hearts Club (I still have a hot chip print dress from that show, but I can no longer bring myself to wear it). My ‘review’ was headlined "Mixed bag of new talent" and oh my god it was embarrassingly bad.
Later that same week, post print deadline, I went along to Karen Walker’s show - this time as a customer, rather than an idealistic student journalist. I wore a Karen Walker high-waisted skirt purchased from the O’Connell Street store (I was a regular there as I worked part-time around the corner at Pumpkin Patch), a sheer white shirt by Skylark bought at the Aotea Markets, and turquoise cork wedges from a random shop on Queen Street. I was thrilled with my GA ticket, but somehow my friend and I ended up sitting in the second row, absolutely fizzing. I try to remember that excited 21-year-old girl whenever I get too cynical and jaded about being at another fashion week; actually a privilege for us all.
Chloe Hill, stylist, photographer & founder of Cool Pretty Cool
My most random/embarrassing fashion week story also coincides with my first ever NZFW. After high school I moved straight over to Sydney, so my initial introduction to the NZ fashion industry was when I came back in 2016 to cover the week for the magazine I was working at at the time. I flew in a few hours before the opening night event with the early stages of a flu, took some cold tablets, got dressed up and dashed to the venue. After standing under bright lights and drinking a glass of Champagne (which doesn't mix with flu medicine I might add), I dramatically fainted in front of the entire industry, bang smack in the middle of the room, while Dame Pieter was speaking nonetheless. I spent the entire week being called ‘the girl from Oyster magazine who fainted’, so you know - I clearly left a lasting impression on everyone.
Rob Tennent, model, photographer, stylist & creative
It was in 2017 and I was in my last year of high school. I remember coming up with excuses to spend the entire week watching shows and helping backstage. I had to sign out of class, and the person that was operating the leave system was actually [model] Jordan Daniels’ mum, Rhonda! I’ll never forget seeing her at Jordan's birthday party and she told me she knew I was wagging class. Thanks Rhonda!
Kiekie Stanners, makeup artist
My first experience was actually sneaking off from school, catching the bus into the city by myself and going to a show at the Town Hall venue - with an old-school raised catwalk, wooden audience seating and all. I still remember the ridiculous vintage outfit I put on, most likely changing into it from my school uniform in the bathrooms before the show and adding my black eyeliner on the bus. I am most definitely not sharing this image of myself LOL.
It must have been a public group show for me to be able to watch from the front row - I do remember Sabatini or Insidious Fix being showcased as my older sister's friends were modelling, and I thought it was appropriate to wave to show how cool I was that I knew the male models. Shame. This must've been in the very early years of NZFW, if not the first, and I knew then as a teenager that fashion week was my future.
Doris de Pont, designer and founder of the NZ Fashion Museum
In 2001 [my fashion brand] DNA had already participated in Australian Fashion Week so our budget was pretty stretched but we did want to be part of the first NZFW. We decided that instead of a runway show we would create an installation at our studio at the back of Karangahape Road where the delegates would be able to see what we made and also how we produced our prints.
In keeping with the collection theme Trappings; The hunter is captured by the game, which referenced our rural past and the threats to our native flora and fauna we invited our guests to the 'back country' for elevenses. Delegates were picked up by bus at the Town Hall and on arrival were offered cocktails called “gintrap” and “bushwacker” and tasty morsels of “oyster catchers” and “sparrow grass rolls”. While the collection was universally well received, the presentation was subject to some disparaging media comments about offering our international guests ”asparagus rolls” and other lowbrow Kiwi fare.
Fiona Ralph, writer
While I went to a public event at one of the first Fashion Weeks at the Town Hall, my first full NZFW experience was in 2005. I was a second-year fashion design student at Otago Polytechnic and won a prize at the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards to attend NZFW. I also happened to nab a very random gig designing making four dresses to advertise a new Gillette razor at the event, and at the last minute, Lucire magazine, who I was doing work experience for, found out their representative couldn’t attend, so I got all their front row seats and the chance to report on some of the shows.
Needless to say it was the most exciting week for a bright-eyed student, with highlights including Zambesi’s iconic St James Theatre show, spotting VIPs like pioneering fashion blogger Diane Pernet and attending all the after parties (although at Michael Pattison’s after party I got a bit excited and broke a water jug - sorry Michael!).
Sally-Ann Mullin, stylist
In 2002 I had recently moved to Auckland, escaping the final year of a health science degree at Otago University, in pursuit of something creative. I had just started a make-up artistry course and was offered the opportunity to intern backstage at the Town Hall for WORLD’s iconic show the “Empire Strikes Back”, working under Waikato raised hair legend, Brent Lawler. He was living abroad and working with some of the biggest names and brands internationally, including regularly contributing to Vogue Italia. In contrast, I was green, completely inexperienced, and more accustomed to holding a petri dish, over a makeup pallet but yearning to make a good impression.
I was excited to be backstage around all the glamour, but I was really, really nervous. Brent instructed a small group of interns, including myself, to start with a coat of body paint on a wigless teen Anna Fitzpatrick (now Reeve) who had arrived backstage wearing her Diocesan School for Girls school uniform. She was 15 or 16 at the time, but already a seasoned pro with plenty of shows and shoots under her belt, and I remember my nerves calmed as we chatted away while I painted her that afternoon. WORLD know how to entertain and the show, clothes, casting and theatrics were amazing. Seeing the models lined up backstage was electrifying and sparked my interest in a career that would allow me to be involved with NZFW every year.
Looking back, and thinking of myself as that goofy intern, I would have never believed I’d eventually work in the print media and edit fashion magazines, holding a job that allowed me to sit front row and watch the magic play out from front of house. Life is funny like that. You never really know what is just around the corner.
Rebecca Wadey, Ensemble co-founder and partnerships director
I was already a seasoned Australian Fashion Week regular. As a Melbourne uni post-grad student and ex-Sister High St shop girl, I caught the train to Sydney to attend Kate Sylvester’s inaugural showing (a group show in 1998), the bus to Sydney to attend her first solo show in 1999 and then, excitingly, in 2000 I flew to Sydney to cover Australian Fashion Week as a media delegate (this was the year of Kate’s exceptional Brighton Rock show). The month before NZFW 2001 I relocated back to Aotearoa to manage Kate’s PR and sales. Kate was heavily pregnant and couldn’t commit to a show but we all had the bug and couldn’t help doing something. So we put on a very beautiful and elegant event at a venue on Auckland’s Lorne St which was part catwalk, part installation and part party.
There was so much hope, excitement and buzz in the air, and I was especially excited to catch up with some old media contacts from Australia who were in attendance. I remember leaving with Linlee Allen, who I first met at Melbourne Fashion Week the year before, where she was doing the PR for a brand new brand called Tsubi and in 2001 was running a leading fashion newsletter called Style File. I have a distinct memory of walking down Wellesley St West with her and no memory at all of what happened after that. It could’ve been all the Moet piccolos we were drinking but I suspect it’s more to do with the fact it was 20 years ago.
READ MORE: Memorable Kate Sylvester NZFW moments
Karen Inderbitzen-Waller, stylist
My first ever experience with NZFW was working on shows, casting and styling and often making lots of accessories, always behind the scenes. It was the first ever fashion week in New Zealand and Helen Clark did the honours of opening it. I’d already started working on shows with Kate in Sydney 2000 and after seeing the likes of Jerry Hall saunter by and the hoards of Wayne Cooper groupies and gaggles of Vogue editors in big sunglasses, I must say that NZ's inaugural event originally paled in comparison.
In 2001 I was fashion editor of Pavement magazine, and also styled Kate Sylvester’s Petit Garçon show held at a cafe. It was a slick minimalist city spot; many offsite CBD shows followed in later years. In typical Auckland fashion, show night was a rainy mid-week night from hell that had earlier seen the fashion press tossed around on a boat on the choppy harbour before arriving at the show; but a sea of Moët piccolos definitely fixed the overall mood.
Marissa Findlay, photographer and show producer
My first show at fashion week was the very first year, in 2001. I’d offered myself up as an intern, and I guess I must have impressed someone because they let me call a show. It was for the RJC winter collection and Claire, the designer (lovely lady), wanted a snow effect for the runway. We started with the snow gently falling and it looked magnificent. The plan was to stop the machine after the first few models went out, as it was just an opening look (the ‘snowflakes’ were actually soap flakes), so I made the call over comms to the operator to cut the machine. Perhaps he didn’t get the memo because that snow kept falling and models started sliding all over the runway! Models were taking their shoes off and going on in socks, and some refused to go onto the runway. Poor Claire was in tears (understandably) and I was fully broken in as a producer. I guess I still passed the test because here I am 20 years later, the only producer to have been at every NZFW since its inception. That RJC show made the front page of the paper the next day though… Any media is good media, am I right?
Anjali Burnett, founder and designer of Twenty-seven Names
Our first show at NZ Fashion Week was part of a group show with Sera Lilly called ‘Twin Set’. We were babies, we had no idea what we were doing, but it was all very exciting. We were learning on the job; my distant uncomfortable memories include smokey eyes, red lips, high heels, mesh, velvet, and Rachel’s iconic Agyness Deyn haircut.
The range was received with mixed reviews. A write up that I clearly haven’t moved on from stated ‘these young designers need some life experience - they need to go overseas’; I mean she wasn’t wrong, albeit a little elitist. We had to start somewhere, and lucky for us the internet seems to have removed every trace of the show. But I did manage to find this hilarious photo we used as our 2007 bio pic.
Isaac Hindin-Miller, DJ, influencer, writer and founder of blog Isaac Likes
In 2003 I was 19, studying film and sociology at Auckland University, working at Murray Crane's store/brand Little Brother, and running my own tiny T-shirt business. I saw an advertisement requesting volunteers to work as NZ Fashion Week drivers, chauffeuring VIPs around Auckland in convertible Peugeots. The shows were held in the Auckland Town Hall, and for an entire week we were allowed to pull up and park on the footpath with no fear of tickets. Imagine. So I'd drive these American, Australian and Asian editors and buyers around town, talking nonstop, asking every question imaginable, and when I dropped them off, I'd flash my driver's badge and walk into the fashion shows as the lights were going down. It's where I first discovered my obsession with the spectacle of it all; it's where I first made friends with Jae Mills of Commoners – who was then a 19-year-old newbie employee of Huffer; and it's where I fell in love with a 6-foot tall Danish import named Nadia. It planted a life changing seed in my life - 18 years later I still go to upwards of 50 fashion shows a year, but it all started back home.
Aki Ang, art director and content creator, The Sleek Avenue
Fashion week is an obvious source of research and development for me, not just the creative side but also the business aspect of it. My first NZFW was in 2013 where I was attending as a plus one. I knew nothing about New Zealand fashion at that point, I didn't know anyone, I knew nothing about social media apart from having a personal Facebook account. I certainly wasn't aware of any sustainable movements when I rocked up the opening event wearing a $50 high street dress. I remember clearly I told people that I wanted to pursue a career in fashion image-making, that I wanted to be a "Trustpilot for Fashion". I sounded like an intern showing up on the first day at her first job trying to take over the creative department - borderline crazy haha.
After that evening, I kept my head down and worked very hard. I stumbled here and there but I persisted. I met some good friends with the same passion along the way. Reward is when you find a place and a purpose for your skillset. Fast forward to today, I still don't know what it's like to be successful, but I do know that having the courage to be sh*t at something in the beginning, is the first step.
Karlya Smith, stylist Sunday magazine
My very first NZFW was the very first NZFW. I can barely remember it - I certainly don’t recall the clothes - but I do remember there were lots of really bad shoes and at least one designer who showed their clothes with bare feet.
My recollections of all the other fashion weeks scramble into one big ball of outfit stress - the same kind of stress I used to feel at mufti days at high school. When I lived in Herne Bay, I used to zip home between the day and the evening shows, down a big glass of Champagne, and put together some truly awful outfits. There’s nothing like sobering up halfway through a fashion show and realising you look like shit.
Sammy Salsa, stylist and NZFW ambassador
I was actually a waiter at my very first NZFW. I was super young at the time and all I remember was serving drunk celebrities lol.
Jess Molina, writer, storyteller and NZFW ambassador
I was still at university and one of my mates had a cousin who was showing in the new gen show and they had spare tickets. So we skipped the Thursday class to go to Auckland (we lived in Hamilton) and my mate’s sister drove me, him, and our other mate to the show because she was helping backstage.
We were all dressed in the most fashionable outfits we could put together at the last minute, stopped by the McDonald's at Huntly for some sustenance, and made it to NZFW just in time. I was sitting in the third row, just absolutely soaking up the energy. It was electric.
This was before Instagram was a thing and was used like it is now so we didn’t have our phones out and just watched the show completely. I just knew I wanted to be around that creativity and creative energy for as long as I can.