Dame Pieter Stewart on twenty years of New Zealand Fashion Week

Dame Pieter Stewart

Dame Pieter Stewart. Image by Carolyn Ebrey.

New Zealand Fashion Week is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year after being founded by Dame Pieter Stewart in 1999 and launched at the Auckland Town Hall in 2001. The biggest event in New Zealand’s fashion calendar has come full circle, returning to the Town Hall in 2019, which will also be the venue for this year’s event from August 23rd – 29th.

Since it was first launched, New Zealand Fashion Week has been an invaluable platform for our local fashion industry, launching countless careers and brands, while showcasing the talent of Kiwis to the world. The fashion industry is well known for being fast paced and the event has continued to evolve year on year, offering a vibrant platform for showcasing our fashion talent as a nation.

For the woman behind it all, that twenty years has been somewhat of a rollercoaster as she navigated the event through the Global Financial Crisis and now a global pandemic as well as many other ups and downs. The first event actually took place mere weeks after the September 11 attacks in 2001 when the world was also in a tumultuous state.

This year, New Zealand Fashion Week announced in April that Dame Pieter Stewart, who was appointed as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to fashion and the community in 2012, has sold the event to businessman Feroz Ali. Ali has bought fashion schools Whitecliffe and NZ Fashion Tech in recent years and his ownership of New Zealand Fashion Week means that after this year Stewart will step back to become an advisor for the event.

To celebrate New Zealand Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary, FashioNZ has created a film in partnership with Auckland Unlimited and New Zealand Fashion Week which will be released next week and screened at the event and online. As part of the film we interviewed Dame Pieter Stewart on twenty years of New Zealand Fashion Week, her favourite memories from the event and what she’s most proud of about the legacy she has created with New Zealand Fashion Week.

How did you go about creating the first New Zealand Fashion Week in 2001 and what was it like trying to get designers and sponsors involved in the beginning?
In 1999, the Smokefree Fashion Awards which were a competition and the Wella Fashion Report which was a television programme I produced at the time were both scrapped by Television New Zealand and there was no platform for designers to show in New Zealand or do anything large scale. Neville Findlay and Liz Findlay who had shown with Zambesi in London and the team from WORLD approached me and said, “why don’t we have our own fashion week?” I thought it was a good idea and after discussing it with more designers it took me two years to put it together.

It was not easy, it was quite difficult to convince government, which was Trade New Zealand at the time, that we could sustain a fashion week but I stuck at it and eventually convinced Trade New Zealand. From there it wasn’t too difficult to find a naming partner which was L’Oréal and to start bringing sponsorship on board. Designers were not a problem, they were very keen to get on board and use the platform once we knew what we were doing and set a plan. That whole plan took about 18 months and then six months of actually pulling the event together in 2001. In those days not a lot of our designers had shown internationally so we put a lot of structure around them and they learnt to get better and better at shows. It was very exciting.

Dame Pieter Stewart interview

New Zealand Fashion Week shows by Trelise Cooper in 2001 (left) and Zambesi in 2005 (right).

What was is it like to see the first event come to life at the Auckland Town Hall?
We’d done a lot of work to bring it to life as the pre-planning in any event like this is incredibly important. That was my background and that was what I knew how to do so I wasn’t concerned about whether it was going to work or not. If it fell off the rails it would fall off the rails very badly but it didn’t. I think it was the sheer scale of it, when you’ve got so many designers showing all at once one after another, was the thing that surprised me. And of course to be in the Auckland Town Hall was pretty amazing. To see people loving the event was what surprised me the most because when you’re putting something together you don’t really think about that, you just do it. It was great to see people enjoy it.

New Zealand Fashion Week is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, how has the event evolved over that time?
How it’s evolved is a huge question really because it has to continue to evolve every single year. So, each year we debrief with every partner and every stakeholder after the event and by around November we’ve got a clear idea of what worked and what didn’t. You would think everything would work but it doesn’t always and you can do things better. The variables include the venue which changes for one reason or another but I think the main way it has evolved over the twenty years if you look back over the whole period of time has to be digital. Everything was done so differently in the beginning, for instance all the footage was on tape and we had to digitise the first few years of it until we actually started using digital ourselves. I think the experience of being able to get out to the world digitally has made the biggest difference. The event will continue to evolve and especially in that way.

How has the fashion industry also evolved over that time?
I think the fashion industry has evolved in pretty much the same way as the event has evolved and that is digitally as well. They’ve got new outlets, new ways of selling things, new ways of promoting things and so that brings in new ways of doing everything even on the platform that we offer. So, I think that’s the biggest thing for the fashion industry and particularly during the pandemic many designers have rethought the way they were doing things and how they were going to move forward. The other way that it has evolved is the development of sustainability and responsible manufacturing. It is getting more important as time goes by and everyone that I know of in the design world thinks of sustainability in some way in terms of how they can include it in their practice which I think is incredibly important as well.

What does New Zealand Fashion Week mean to the local fashion industry? And to New Zealand economically?
It’s a very hard one to get a handle on economically and that’s something that I have been wanting to do for quite a few years is to get a scoping study on the whole industry. And that’s not just manufacturing, it’s not just designers, it’s the number of people working in it, the number of people producing garments, the sales, everything, because I think it’s worth a lot more to the country than we could ever envisage and the way we’re getting data on it right now. I think New Zealand Fashion Week has done a lot for the industry in many ways because it’s a focus and a platform. It’s a platform that is up to every designer to take it up if it works for their business that year or not take it up. New Zealand Fashion Week creates that focus on fashion and that excitement over the length of time that it’s on. It’s a stimulus in that way and if we can continue to do that in any way including digitally it will be great for the industry.

Dame Pieter Stewart interview

New Zealand Fashion Week shows by Kathryn Wilson in 2011 (left) and WORLD in 2011 (right).

You have seen many designers develop over the past 20 years going from small shows to large scale productions and have had a front row seat for it all. What has it been like to see so many brands grow and develop over the years?
It’s been amazing to watch the shows and how the designers have developed and I think if you look at someone like Trelise Cooper, how far she came from her first show to the incredible extravaganzas that she was eventually putting on at New Zealand Fashion Week. Some of the offsite shows have been pretty incredible as they can take a grungy venue that you couldn’t use for the whole of fashion week but you can use for one show and make it really different and exciting. All of the designers develop whether they come in at emerging or New Gen level, then move up to Contemporary Salon and then on to their own shows. You get to watch the progression as they go which is exciting.

What does it mean to be a New Zealand designer showing at New Zealand Fashion Week and how has NZFW helped build their brands alongside the NZFW brand?
I think it automatically builds brands that haven’t shown before because they’re suddenly in the spotlight and their name is known. They go from working away in their workrooms to suddenly being a brand which is noticed. Brands that have been there for some time have very different ways of building their brands then brands who are just starting that automatically get a big boost. Once they’ve been there for some time they have to think of new ways to build their brand and bring people into what they’re doing and most of them do. New Zealand Fashion Week is a platform for this but it’s really up to the designers to decide what they need to do and how best to use that platform to build their businesses.

It’s a stressful and very busy time for you while the event is on but what do you most look forward to about doing the event? 
The week isn’t that stressful for me but it’s not exactly relaxing as I put out a lot of fires with things that don’t quite go right in one area or another. In the lead-in we put a lot of focus on the detail in the preparation to make sure it is really well done, if we didn’t it could be disastrous and I try to make sure it’s not. So, during the week my work should be done and I can enjoy the shows and some of the surprises on the catwalk. It’s great to see the accolades that the designers get and see how well they’re doing. While the week may look busy for me, and it is, it’s not the most stressful part of pulling the event together.

Dame Pieter Stewart interview

Designer Richie Rich (centre left) and actress Pamela Anderson (centre right) with models at New Zealand Fashion Week 2009.

What are your favourite memories of New Zealand Fashion Week? The moments or highlights that stand out to you?
The whole twenty years has sort of merged into one at this point, it’s really hard to isolate different memories now but I’d have to say having people like Colin McDowell, Hillary Alexander and Rebecca Weinberg here as our VIP attendees has been pretty amazing. Having huge numbers of international buyers from the UK in particular in the earlier years was very exciting for the designers who were selling a lot in the UK in those days.

As a highlight you can’t really go past Pamela Anderson’s visit in 2009, it was quite amazing and then the following year Nicole Miller coming here and showing as well. A lot of those things stand out as highlights because it was impressive for New Zealand to have these people here at New Zealand Fashion Week doing their thing and loving it. I think Air New Zealand was a large part of that, they were our naming partner at the time, so to be able to fly those people here in great comfort and style was a huge part of our development as New Zealand Fashion Week

You’ve created an incredible legacy with New Zealand Fashion Week, it’s value to the industry is immense and wide-reaching, what are you most proud of with what you’ve achieved with it? What does the event mean to you?
I’m really proud of the opportunity that New Zealand Fashion Week has given to so many people. At the time of the event there’s hundreds of people working on it, some for the first time as volunteers in areas they’ve never worked in before but just in awe of being there. Also, the opportunity it’s given to the designers, to the tech crews, to the production crews, producers, everyone. The number of people that are involved in it is huge and it’s really satisfying to be able to give those people this opportunity that wouldn’t exist otherwise. That’s what I’m most proud of and I don’t really think about it much until I’m at the event and I see so many people doing so many things you realise how many people are involved and are getting opportunities from it. A lot of those people go on to develop careers out of what they’ve learned at New Zealand Fashion Week and that’s really great to hear about too.

From where the event began, through its evolutions over the last 20 years, what would you like to see from the next 20 years of New Zealand Fashion Week?
I’d like to see it still going in twenty years’ time. I think it would be very brave to predict what’s going to happen in this day and age but I think there will be more of a digital presence. I don’t think digital will completely replace live shows but I’m sure there will be more development there. The event will continue to evolve just as it’s evolved every single year since it started, but in twenty years’ time who knows what it will be like, it’s hard to say.

Dame Pieter Stewart interview

The finale of Kate Sylvester’s 2019 New Zealand Fashion Week show.

Images supplied.

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