Margi Robertson, founder of Nom*D. Image by Russell Kleyn.
Dunedin’s Margi Robertson has been a key figure in defining New Zealand’s style over the past few decades with her celebrated brand NOM*d. It began as a small knitwear brand to complement the other labels in her beloved boutique Plume, and now NOM*d is celebrating 35 years in fashion this year and reflecting on an incredible journey that has seen the brand showcased around the world.
Fashion was always in Margi’s blood and along with her elder sister Elisabeth Findlay, founder of Auckland-based label Zambesi, she learned to sew from their seamstress mother at a young age. While Liz left for Auckland in 1969, Margi remained in Dunedin, which is still her home and where she has taken on the fashion world from over the past few decades. From early on, Margi became a fan of the conceptual fashion from Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, whose utilitarian approach and monochromatic colour palette caught the designer’s attention. She also admired the work of Belgian designer Martin Margiela, founder of French fashion house Maison Margiela.
When it came to designing NOM*d, Margi looked to some of those international conceptual design conventions including utilising vintage and reappropriation (upcycling was already popular with Dunedin’s student population). She cleverly melded them with her own local references including the detailed graphics that are now designed by Margi’s son Sam for NOM*d. The underground style of NOM*d has had a significant impact on fashion in New Zealand and while Margi’s collections have been shown internationally in the likes of London, Paris and New York, pieces of her work are also part of exhibitions including at our own Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
To celebrate 35 years of NOM*d Margi is hosting an exhibition this week as part of design festival Semi Permanent. NOM*d’s SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET exhibition will be on at Objectspace in Auckland from November 12th – 13th and will showcase the visual content from NOM*d’s many artistic collaborations.
We caught up with Margi to find out more about running her celebrated brand from Dunedin, the best piece of advice she’s received as a designer and what it’s been like sharing her fashion journey with her sister Liz Findlay from Zambesi?
Congratulations on celebrating 35 years in business this year, how are you marking the milestone?
We are so honoured to be featured in Semi Permanent this year, which is enabling us to host an event at Objectspace Art Gallery over the 12th – 13th November. ‘SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET’ is an exhibition showing much of our visual content over that time and the artistic collaborations we have enjoyed over those years. This imagery has been appropriated once again and presented in a new and exciting format.
Take us back to 1986, what was the original plan and vision for NOM*d?
No plans really just a desire to create and produce knitwear and be able to wholesale it to similar stores to our own, and sitting alongside the same brands we stocked at Plume.
Garments by NOM*d.
What made you become a designer?
We had been in retail since 1975 stocking a variety of brands that I admired and felt were unique, and exclusive. I realised that I would love to be involved in the creative side of fashion, began with making knitwear which complemented many of the brands we stocked and it was able to be manufactured in Dunedin! Things have moved on drastically since then but it was my beginning.
What does fashion mean to you?
It’s a statement about who you are and the style you follow. It speaks without words about your individuality. There are so many factions now to ‘fashion’ that the word is bigger than it’s original meaning. It’s what you may or may not follow, it’s about trends, it’s not really a word I like to use, I feel NOM*d is about attitude and this is reflective of the nature of every collection, the wearer can mix a piece from 10 years ago with one from the current, the look is still relevant.
How do you balance the creative and business demands of your role in your brand?
I pursued a commercial education at high school and to be honest that simple form of book keeping that we learnt has never left me. We have always been self funded and have taken a modest approach to the business side of our brand, I guess that’s what has kept us afloat all these years. The creative side is often influences by those individuals I am working with so it keeps me in touch with what is happening now and their input is invaluable. We talk a lot about ideas and choose fabrics together, we are all on the same page.
Over your career you’ve amassed numerous awards and accolades but how do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
Success to me means that I am happy with what we have achieved over the years. I am comfortable with where we are and so pleased to still be based in our hometown of Dunedin but still able to associate ourselves with the international fashion world and feel good about where our brand sits. I do also look to the future, however right now it’s hard to know what the future will bring, many stores and brands have been forced to close down due to economic hardship. We are actually doing fine, so maybe that is a measure of our success also.
Conversely, how do you deal with failure and what have been some of the challenges of growing your brand?
Recognising when to stop going down a path that is not leading anywhere (i.e. opening a retail store in Melbourne) was a pretty big challenge. Not exactly a failure but realising that we we were better concentrating on our strengths here in New Zealand with such a loyal client base and growing that side of our business. Developing our own online store was such a good move and is really the biggest growth area currently.
You opened your first retail store opened in 1975 and then Plume in 1978, 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 rapid development of communication would be the most significant change. Initially disruptive but then embracing it with growing our own website and keeping it fresh constantly.
Garments by NOM*d.
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?
Fashion week shows used to be about showing your wholesale clients and press the next season’s garments not yet produced but would be retailing in stores in six months. There was a discerning audience that had to be invited and people could not buy tickets. These days in New Zealand it’s more about in-season collections and more relevant to the retail sector of the city they are presented in. In Europe however, it’s still about the press and wholesale clients, presenting an impressive and unique view for press and an opportunity for buyers to imagine what the garments would look like in their stores in six months and buy accordingly. The future of this model is still in limbo, its what’s being discusses constantly in the northern hemisphere with the consideration of the uncertain times we are now faced with. Watch that space.
How would you describe your personal style and how does it influence your designs and collaborations?
I suppose I am not really a ‘trend’ follower, I do like to have a unique approach to my own style, and often customise even NOM*d garments to make them ‘mine’. I love collaborating with our design time, each of those individuals are carefully chosen for their individual style and how they relate to our brand. They influence me but I also influence them with what I expect a NOM*d garment to be, the DNA of the brand must always be present.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received that you keep referring back to as a designer?
Stay true to what you believe in, and follow that path. Better to have a strong and identifiable trademark than trying to cover all aspects and areas of fashion.
What has is been like having your sister Liz also in fashion with Zambesi to share the journey with over the years?
Well of course it’s been a wonderful relationship, Liz and Zambesi are recognised as at the top of the game in New Zealand fashion. I feel their vision was much grander than ours, maybe living in a big city with many designers and stores having big profiles. We had chosen to take a more underground approach to our brand, and kept to our initial philosophy of creating unique but utilitarian garments, that were designed to be worn easily and stood the test of time.
We love seeing NOM*d complementing my most admired brands, both local and international, and those brands complementing NOM*d.
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?
I think about the incredible relationships I have enjoyed with such a vast array of creatives, each journey has been at a different time, but many of these individuals have become life long friends even though they may live in New York, Paris, London or Auckland. To have the support of NZ Trade and Enterprise back in 1998 took us outside of New Zealand to London Fashion Week, it enabled us to go out of our comfort zone and opened up a whole new world of opportunity. It was a milestone. We committed to making woven garments as well as knitwear and seeing our garments hanging up in stores in London or Japan alongside brands that I personally admired was an amazing experience.
Looking to the future, how far ahead do you plan and what makes you excited about the future?
As always I am pretty much working in the present because we are working in the future and the next collection, whether it be our own or an international brand we are buying for Plume. The process is being turned upside down and everything is new. New challenges!