Dame Denise L’Estrange-Corbet, co-founder of WORLD. Image supplied.
Dame Denise L’Estrange Corbet has been a prominent figure in New Zealand’s fashion industry for three decades as co-founder of WORLD, which she established in 1989 with her then husband Francis Hooper. Her theatrical style and penchant for making a statement has seen both herself and her label become household names over the years. WORLD is New Zealand’s leading avant garde fashion label and has shown on the runway countless times here and overseas with consistently outstanding reviews for the brand’s wonderfully flamboyant and impeccably tailored designs. The brand currently has six stores in NZ and is known for its philanthropic endeavours as well as its sublime seasonal collections.
The designer herself was born in New Zealand but was raised in London and studied fashion design in the early 1980s at the prestigious London College of Fashion, which is now incorporated into the University of the Arts London. It was on a trip home to Auckland that she met Francis Hooper who had also recently been in London and together they decided to combine their talents and anti-establishment viewpoints to create WORLD, and the rest as they say, is history.
Denise detailed her early life and the beginnings of WORLD in her 2008 autobiography All That Glitters which is a fascinating read from a woman unafraid to tell it like it is. Over the course of her career to date Denise and WORLD have won numerous awards and accolades for the brand’s unique and creative take on fashion. In 2002, Denise was the first female fashion designer to be appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM), for services to fashion design. In 2018, she was promoted to Dame Companion (DNZM) of the same order for services to fashion and the community.
As 2019 is the thirtieth anniversary of WORLD, we caught up with Denise to find out how she’s marking the milestone, what made her become a designer and what she’s most proud of from her remarkable career?
Congratulations on celebrating 30 years in business this year, how are you marking the milestone?
WORLD, from day one, has always been a very philanthropic brand, so to celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2019, we joined forces with the IHC Art Awards, whom I have worked with for the past decade, three of those years as their Ambassador, so it made perfect sense to come up with a project to promote one of the charities I am very passionate about.
Each year the IHC Art Awards are held in September, so this year I chose four of the designs by their incredibly talented artists, and WORLD designed a limited edition of 12oz reusable cotton canvas bags, and each artist’s work is printed on a bag. We launched this at the Auckland Art Gallery in November, with all our favourite people present, and it was magnificent.
Take us back to 1989, what was the original plan and vision for WORLD?
There was no original ‘plan’ per se, Francis and I were just two people that had worked in fashion all our lives, and were really bored, so instead of moaning about what New Zealand had to offer, we decided to do something about it, and launched in a 100sq. ft. shop in Auckland’s High Street in 1989. It was a time when shops shut at 1.00pm on a Saturday and remained closed all day Sunday! The retail industry needed a kick up the bum, it was catering to what it wanted, and not the consumer.
Fast forward to 2019 and WORLD is New Zealand’s leading avant garde fashion brand with multiple retail stores, including dedicated beauty stores, and has done shows all over the world as well as many philanthropic collaborations. How do you keep it all under control and what makes you say yes to new endeavours?
Fashion is probably one of the only industries where we have to continually reinvent ourselves, each season. You would never expect an author to put out a new book, or a musician to release a new album every 6 months, every year, but fashion is a relentless beast, it is all about evolution, and by looking at what people wore in the past, you are able to pinpoint the time in history, so it certainly plays its part. You keep it under control as that is your job. We do not say yes to all the ideas put before us, we have a brand to protect, and a collaboration has to fit our ethos, as we have to have a reason to want to be involved with that, it has to resonate. We do not just plug brands for the sake of getting it free, like ‘influencers’ do, I find that so fake, and selling yourself out. Our collaborations are 99% for charity brands, not other retail brands.
Looks by WORLD on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2011 (left) and in 2008 (right). Images by Michael Ng.
What made you become a designer?
I became a designer as it was the only thing that held my attention for any length of time. I have the attention span of a gnat, and so much bores me rigid, people, stuff etc. It is not only fashion design that piques my interest, but everything about design. I especially love colour, and new design of all forms, that really excites and intrigues me. I love having to question how something was made, as so much is mass marketed, churned out by the millions, and ends up on the tip, throwaway everything, we live in a cheap ‘want it, chuck it society’, and it has to stop.
How do you balance the creative and business demands of your role in your brand?
I loathe the business side of business as it just saps all your energy and creativity, and seems to take up more time than anything else, but it has to be done and you just get on with it. Being a responsible grown up is not as exciting as it is made out to be!
In your autobiography you detailed the challenges of living with mental health issues and you’ve worked with several organisations to raise awareness, what do you think still needs to be done to better support mental health?
I have worked with the Mental Health Foundation since 1998 when I first appeared in their ‘Like Minds Like Mine’ campaign, and also did a documentary with them about living with a mental health problem. It was the first time mental health issues had been put out in TV ads to help people, and it was just the most phenomenal campaign, one of the most, if not the most successful ever. It struck a chord with so many. There are countless charities that need so much help and resources, and what I do is only minuscule in the scheme of things, it is the Government and other bodies that need to step up. So many centres have closed for people with mental health issues, and I am not saying some centres were not archaic in their treatment of some sufferers, but the amount of homeless I see with obvious mental health problems causes me such great concern.
I would ideally love to see centres where they could get a bed for the night, a hot meal and a shower each evening, just basic amenities that we take for granted. They are at the mercy of the elements, not to mention the safety aspect, and they are not well, and it is no different from the treatment others with obvious physical injuries receive, and are given a bed in hospital, it just happens to be that their illness is in the brain and you cannot readily see it, like a broken arm, and we see it fit to let them wander the streets with no facilities at their disposal, it is not good enough.
Over your career you’ve amassed numerous awards and accolades but how do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
That is easy. Success is when people commend you on what you have achieved, not you continually telling people
what you have achieved in the hope of being recognised.
Conversely, how do you deal with failure and what have been some of the challenges of growing your brand?
Depends on how you define failure. After 30 years in business, obviously there are things I wanted to do, and have not been able to achieve for one reason or another, but I do not see that as failure. I learnt long ago, that being told ‘no’ is not finality, you can still get to the end of the road, you just take a diversion, take the back roads and not the motorway! I always see the word ‘no’ as a challenge, always have, ever since school, and I love a challenge. If I had a dollar for every time I have been told ‘no’, and ‘it won’t work’ I would be a trillionaire. If you want something, just set your mind to it and go get it!
Your first retail store opened in 1989 on High Street, what has been the most disruptive change in fashion retail for your brand since then and how have you evolved your business to manage it?
The most disruptive change to all retail brands, is undoubtedly, the internet. In one fell swoop, it came along and changed everything about how we shop, read, eat, not just with fashion, but absolutely everything. In 1989 we used to hand write receipts for customers, and chat to them, everything is now done on a screen, machines spit out printed receipts, there is less interaction with humans, you can buy anything online and not have to talk to a person! I can have something shipped halfway across the world and receive it quicker than a letter posted from around the corner, and that is crazy!
WORLD has adapted by having an online store, and a social media presence etc. I personally do not have any social profile, as I really cannot understand why anyone would be interested in what I am eating and where I am eating it, and I have absolutely no interest in what others are doing, I follow no one, I just do not have the inclination or time, its the ‘gnat attention span’ coming into play! People have become fixated and so self obsessed and self important about how they look and what others think of them, that it genuinely scares me.
Looks by WORLD at the Wella Fashion Collections show in the 90s. Image supplied.
Among the many changes in fashion has been the changing role of fashion weeks, how have you changed your approach to runway shows as a brand and where do you see the future of fashion weeks?
Personally, I think fashion weeks are a thing of the past, technology has seen to that. People love live fashion shows, don’t get me wrong, but it can all be recorded in a studio and put online now, without the humongous cost of having to put on a show, invitations, seating plans etc. Brands are becoming multi seasonal, so winter/summer collections are not as important, they are just collections, there can be crossover. Everything changes, it is just the way we evolve.
How would you describe your personal style and how does it influence your designs and collaborations?
I have no idea how I would describe my personal style, I just wear what I like, and I design what I like. I have always preferred quality over quantity, throwaway fashion does not impress or excite me.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received that you keep referring back to as a designer?
I have never been given any advice that I remember, or want to use, but my personal mantra is that ‘If you want to do something or see someone you make time, if you don’t, then you make excuses’, and I remember this all the time.
It does amaze me however, that at this present moment, we have more time saving devices than at any other point in history, yet nobody has any time? Is it because everyone is so busy taking selfies? What are we doing with all the ‘time’ we have supposedly saved by all the devices we have?
When you look back on your achievements to date in business and in life, what are you most proud of and what are the moments that stand out to you?
So many things stand out, it’s hard to pinpoint, but in a nutshell: Being singled out by the Creative Director of Italian Vogue, Anna Piaggi in 1997 at Australian Fashion Week for our incredible work, winning the Avant Garde B & H Fashion Award in 1995 for our origami outfit, now housed in the Auckland Museum, having a 15 year retrospective at the Auckland Museum, being commended by Andre Leon Talley of US Vogue for the most outstanding work he had seen in NZ, and so many other firsts, hundreds, too many to list. The most humbling was being made the first ever NZ Female Fashion Designer to be recognised by Queen Elizabeth II for services to fashion with an MNZM (formerly MBE) in 2002, that opened the door for others designers to walk through, and that is what it is about, it is not about you, but what you can do, that made history.
Family has been a big part of WORLD as you started the business with your ex-husband Francis and your daughter Pebbles has been involved at times, how do you balance your personal and professional lives together when fashion can be such a 24/7 business?
Family for me has always come first, and always will, nothing comes above my family, and I try to keep the business out of home life. Home is private, not for public. I am asked relentlessly to be shot in my home (camera shot) and to have it featured, but I have no interest, that’s for family and friends only. Francis is a workaholic, always has been, and cannot separate work and home, but that’s fine, he knows my cut off point!
Looking to the future, how far ahead do you plan and what makes you excited about the future?
Obviously for the business we have to ‘plan’ things, collections, drops, collabs etc. Personally I plan nothing, being a Pisces I swim in both directions, so one day I might want to do something, and the next I won’t! The only thing I do plan is the charity work for the following year, to ensure where I am and that I can fulfill my responsibilities, which I take very seriously, otherwise I am a very free spirit, and do most things on a whim, I find that much more exciting. If I wake up and want to do something, I do it, I do not like constraints.
I often wonder if there was a reason why we were born when we were. The future we cannot see, but I would love to be transported back to certain points in time, particularly the Tudor period, to see how all the fabrics were made by hand, and the incredible artistry used, not to mention everything else around that point in history that fascinates me.
Looks by WORLD at New Zealand Fashion Week 2008. Image by Michael Ng.