What is an ambassador? It is someone who acts as an official figurehead; a person that represents their community. It can be a lofty title with loaded messaging; when done well, an ambassador is someone who others can look up to and see themselves in.
In 2019 NZ Fashion Week appointed three new official ambassadors for the event who embody that mood: stylist (and one of Ensemble's favourite beauty reviewers) Sammy Salsa, head stylist at TV3/Discovery Channel Sarah Stuart, and founder of platform SAUCE Zeenat Wilkinson. They also happen to be three of the nicest people in the local fashion industry; beloved by a new generation and the old-school.
This year that group grows, with the addition of three new delightful industry figures as ambassadors - each nominated by the earlier trio. It’s a sweet idea that also acknowledges the importance of opening the door and collaborating with others - a key part of how a fashion community thrives, and an important message as NZFW celebrates its 20th year. Sarah has nominated stylist, photographer and friend of Ensemble, Chloe Hill; Zeenat, young creative and model Siposetu Duncan; while Sammy has chosen writer and storyteller Jess Molina.
We asked the latter, Sammy & Jess, a few questions about their roles, personal experiences of fashion week, and where they were 20 years ago when NZFW began. Unsurprisingly, their answers are honest, funny and thought-provoking - and I’d expect nothing less of this talented pairing.
What does it mean to be an ambassador?
Sammy: For me it’s someone who not only represents an activity or event, but they also champion it. They believe in it. As an ambassador for NZ Fashion Week, we’re basically flying the flag. We’re at the forefront of the industry that we work and believe in. We’re also here to create space to have conversations about the fashion industry with our own communities so that we evolve with the times and reflect what Aotearoa looks like within our fashion industry.
Jess Molina: For so long I’ve existed as a visibly fat, Asian woman in this industry and I’m excited to take up even more space. I hope that by being an ambassador for NZFW this year, people who look like me or people who may not have necessarily felt included, can feel like fashion is for them too. The future of fashion is inclusivity and intersectionality - by being an ambassador I hope to create more space for people to feel like they are not just included but celebrated in here too.
Sammy - why did you nominate Jess?
I met Jess a few years ago, and we would always bump into each other at fashion events and would always share a laugh and throw subtle shade at being the only POC at these events lol. I got to know her a bit more through her social channels, watching her unpack her everyday life as a brown, proud and bold woman navigating the same spaces that I was in. In particular the fashion space – a space which can be so unforgiving at times if you don’t look the part. I love how unapologetic she is about herself and what she stands for is something that really resonates with me. She’s authentic in her creative output and people believe her. She’s real. And she’s a fucking good writer!
Jess - what does it mean to be nominated by Sammy?
I honestly couldn’t even believe it at first. Like the fact that THE Sammy Salsa even had me on their radar is like, mind blowing to me. Sammy is so iconic to the fashion industry and I’ve always loved how we share the same values in terms of inclusivity. We’re both quite vocal about that. Sammy is a true example of someone sending the elevator down and lifting everyone up with him.
What’s your perspective on NZ fashion as it stands today?
Sammy: This country has birthed some iconic brands we know and love, and I have had the pleasure of seeing the new generation of designers debut at past fashion weeks and go on to do great things with their brand. I’ve seen NZ fashion flourish in the time that I’ve been working in the industry. What I do hope for more of is more support and backing for our indigenous brands who are sometimes overlooked or categorised in the “indigenous” file. They too have the makings of a solid foundation to stand on their own in our fashion industry.
Jess: I really love how creative it is! I don’t think NZ fashion necessarily follows trends and I love that we just do our own thing here. I don’t know how to articulate this well but I think the NZ lifestyle of being so chill really comes across in the clothes that we wear. I do think we still have a long, long way to go in terms of being truly inclusive though.
Fashion has, fortunately, gone through a seismic change in recent years with a focus on inclusivity and sustainability - and more of an acceptance of the status quo being questioned. But there is still lots of work to do! What do you think the industry needs to work harder on?
Jess: Yes, absolutely lots of work to do! Going back to my point earlier about how we still have a long way to go to truly be inclusive, I think this change needs to be across the board. We need agencies recognising that the old standards of beauty are so outdated. We need designers to understand how fat people also want to feel beautiful in clothes that they make, in the aesthetics that they have. We need brands to not just have more diversity for optics e.g. for their marketing, but to be inclusive in the people they hire, the influencers they pay or send PR parcels to, and also the people that are making key decisions for their brand. I also think there needs to be a discussion around ‘acceptable’ fatness, not just in fashion but in the beauty industry too.
Sammy: We talk a lot about wanting diversity and inclusivity, but I think there needs to be education and conversations around “why” it works. I feel like the words “diversity” scare some people and it shouldn’t; we should be creating space within the industry to have open and challenging conversations because believe me, it's tiring when I have to respond to DMs weekly from non-POC on the matter.
What challenges do you see ahead for both the fashion industry and fashion week? And how do you hope to see these addressed as we move forward?
Jess: I think in terms of fashion week, just the fact that there is still an unpredictable pandemic going on is a bit of a challenge. I used to work in events so I know all about the work that goes into contingency planning!
I guess the same can be said about the fashion industry - everyone was affected by the pandemic in some shape or form. There’s also been a global reckoning around our part to play in climate change, racism and participating in systems of oppression. I think moving forward we are being given an opportunity to do better, to really ask ourselves how we can build better, how we can do better, and how we can lead the change in this industry. I want us to be at the forefront of that change. I want other industry leaders to help drive this change and figure out how the future could even look like from now on.
Who else do you admire in the local fashion industry?
Sammy: The ones I admire who rarely get acknowledged or a shout out are the number of volunteers who help put NZFW on. Some of these volunteers are still in school and have dreams of one day being a part of the fashion industry on a bigger scale and I think it's our job as industry folk to look after them, encourage them and acknowledge the free service they provide, because we wouldn’t have a show if it wasn’t for them.
Jess: Honestly there are so many people I admire for different reasons. I don’t think I can single out just one person! In terms of the people I’m inspired by when it comes to fashion, my biggest inspiration for dressing is ‘the girl on the street’. I like seeing clothes worn in real life, where people’s personal style really comes through. That’s where I draw my inspiration from when it comes to my own wardrobe and outfits.
It’s 20 years of NZFW. Where were you 20 years ago? Did you know NZFW even existed?
Sammy: I was still in high school and it was the year I picked up my first Fashion Quarterly in our school library and knew I wanted to work in fashion.
Jess: 20 years ago I was a 9-year-old kid living in Manila, Philippines. I didn’t know about NZFW (or that fashion weeks in general were even a thing) but I did know that I loved clothes and expressing myself through them and that I wanted to be a fashion designer someday, and just be surrounded by beautiful clothes all the time! 9-year-old me is TRIPPING OUT while writing this.
What are your memories of your very first NZFW?
Sammy: 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: 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 McDonalds 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.
What is the best NZFW show you’ve attended?
Sammy: Campbell Luke’s 2019 debut solo show. Periodt!
Jess: Oooooh this is a hard one because so many shows stand out to me! I loved the Not For You show in 2019 because the vibe was just so much fun. The clothes were absolutely incredible and seeing the models enjoy themselves, dance to the runway music etc was great! I think having something a little different in a show, something unexpected like what Jerome did, makes me want to know more about the brand.
What show/event are you most looking forward to this year?
Sammy: I’ve been creative directing the Pacific Fusion Fashion show which has a stand-alone show at the end of the year (every year) - and this year they have been invited to showcase at NZFW for the first time ever!
Jess: I am a huge, huge fan of Cecilia Kang so I’m excited to see all of the couture! I’ve also loved Campbell Luke for a really long time so I can’t wait for their show this year.
What do you think makes a good show?
Jess: I’m big on the experience so a good soundtrack, comfy seats, and maybe a bit of theatrics (like Kate Sylvester’s ‘Love Letters’ in 2019) to really seal the deal!
Sammy: A good soundtrack really sets the tone of the show from start to finish.
What will you be wearing?
Jess: I’ll be wearing something comfortable. Something that makes me feel like myself. Something I can move around and have fun in. I will also most likely be wearing a lot of sneakers because I have plantar fasciitis and get the most random flare ups so I want to make sure I don’t get them on the week of NZFW! Plus sneakers over a dramatic outfit always works for me.
Sammy: My own clothes lol.