Designer Tanya Carlson on creating stunning custom outfits for NZ musicians

Tanya Carlson custom outfits

Designer Tanya Carlson (left) and musician Julia Deans (right) both wearing Carlson. Image courtesy of Julia Deans.

Fashion and music go hand in hand with each drawing inspiration from the other, and in New Zealand our local musicians love wearing Kiwi designed clothing for events, tours and music videos. Stylish local musicians like Hollie Smith, Ladi 6 and Julia Deans are often seen in gorgeous custom made outfits from some of our top brands, with Tanya Carlson a favoured go-to designer for eye-catching looks that are glamorous and unique. Carlson has been creating beautiful clothing for over 25 years and in that time has designed many amazing garments that have graced red carpets and stages both locally and internationally.

Every single piece the designer creates is made in New Zealand with Tanya Carlson utilising her dedicated team to craft clothing that is perfectly cut and impeccably finished. She has always prided herself on the incredible level of craftsmanship of her brand and relishes every opportunity to create custom pieces that push the limits of her imagination. Tanya honed her skills in Sydney in the late 80’s and early 90’s studying not just fashion design but also fine arts which is evident in her intelligent and artistic design style. Whilst a tomboy at heart she has always been drawn to the romantic side of fashion and enjoys creating delicately pretty garments that are feminine and often vintage inspired. She’s particularly fond of the silhouettes from the 30’s and 40’s not to mention the playful shapes of the 70’s, all of which have been referenced in her carefully considered collections.

Alongside her gorgeous seasonal collections, Tanya Carlson creates custom garments every couple of months and has worked with many stars of the stage and screen in her impressive career. She first got into making outfits for performers through her involvement with dance companies and worked with esteemed choreographers Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter and Daniel Belton. “Over the years I’ve made so many dancer’s outfits, that’s my grounding in making stage clothes and understanding how they should look and move,” says Tanya Carlson. “I got into dressing musicians through stylist Sammy Salsa as he was dressing Hollie Smith and had dressed Ladi 6. I met Julia Deans at Natasha Utting and Anika Moa’s wedding but I didn’t recognise Julia at the time as she had really long hair.”

Tanya’s meeting with Julia turned out to be a fateful one which resulted in the designer making one of her favourite custom pieces to date – an alluring sequined jumpsuit that Julia wore for a live performance. “It was an amazing wedding with lots of people performing and she was singing and I heard this voice of an angel and I thought ‘Wow, who is that?’. I met her and I was fangirling and I told her if she ever needed an outfit that I would love to make one for her. We exchanged numbers and she contacted me afterwards and said ‘Were you really serious about that?’. I said ‘Yes, of course’ and she told me she had an event coming up at the Aotea Centre for Starman, which was the David Bowie tribute performance with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra.”

Tanya Carlson custom outfits

Sketches and a fabric swatch for Julia Deans’ custom outfit (left) and the jumpsuit on a dressmaker’s dummy in Tanya Carlson’s workroom (right). Images courtesy of Tanya Carlson.

A Bowie fan herself, Tanya relished the challenge of creating the perfect stage outfit for Julia Deans that referenced Bowie but wasn’t too obvious. A big fan of research, Tanya threw herself into examining Bowie’s style to figure out what to make that wasn’t literal but suited both the occasion and Julia’s style. “I didn’t want to make a suit but I wanted the outfit to pay homage to him without making a caricature of him,” adds Tanya. “Initially I really wanted to make something that was green and sequins but I couldn’t find the material. I then looked at the famous photos from his Aladdin Sane period with the amazing suiting by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. I didn’t want to go that extreme but I loved the style, I then looked at lots of other Bowie images because he had such great style. Then it came to me that Julia’s look should be a jumpsuit.”

The garment itself took about a month to create from start to finish with discussions with Julia and fittings along the way to get it just right. For stage outfits there are lots of aspects to consider from transparency of the fabric under stage lights, where the performer’s mic pack is going to go, how sturdy the zip needs to be for quick changes and what kind of shoes the performer would wear with it. Figuring out each of those elements takes time and while it isn’t very glamorous things like whether the garment would visibly sweat stain also has to be considered to create the right garment that works best for the performer on stage.

For Julia Deans’ Bowie inspired look the result was a stunning striped sequin jumpsuit with a plunging neckline, defined waist and in true 70’s style it featured wide legs that finished just above the ankle. The semi-sheer garment had a nude lining for the performer’s modesty but created the effect of an alluring, powerful woman in killer shimmering stripes, with Julia adding black high heeled boots and red lipstick to complete the look.

Tanya Carlson custom outfits

Anna Coddington (left) wearing a Carlson archive suit and Julia Deans (right) wearing the custom Carlson jumpsuit performing in Starman with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. Image courtesy of Julia Deans.

The process of working with performers is something Tanya really enjoys and she’s worked with many local musicians in recent years. “A lot of the time performers will come to me with their own ideas, particularly Hollie Smith and Ladi 6, they’ve got quite strong ideas around what they want. When I made that gold dress for Hollie for the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards in 2016, she had definite ideas about it being gold because of her album cover and she also showed up with lots of references to Alexander McQueen. You get to know what people like as you work with them more. Hollie is very clear about what she likes and what she doesn’t like, for example she loves a high neckline. I find with singers they can be quite chameleon-like, they change their style quite a bit.”

As you would expect after 25 years plus in the fashion industry Tanya Carlson has built up a serious archive of beautiful clothes and while she enjoys making custom pieces often performers will borrow garments from her impressive archive too. Summer is a busy time for garment lending with winery tours and festivals meaning performers regularly stop by to peruse the racks. “It will depend if they can move around or do what they need to do in an existing garment,” adds Tanya. “Julia has worn quite a lot of garments from the archive and I have altered things for her as I’ve done for Hollie too.”

Those gorgeous archive pieces are often borrowed for television appearances as well with Tanya regularly working with MediaWorks head news stylist Sarah Stuart who dresses television presenters like Kanoa Lloyd and Samantha Hayes. Both women have worn a lot of Carlson’s garments and the designer has made custom pieces for them as well. “I made an incredible gown for Kanoa for the VNZMAs in 2018 which was burgundy and had the feminist pink contrast, she looked amazing in that dress,” says Tanya. “The dress weighed so much but it was all supported by boning and I built that structure into it and because she has a tiny waist it sat perfectly above her hips. She’s so tall it was a really elegant look on her.”

It takes a serious amount of skill and knowledge to create the amazing custom pieces that Tanya and her team design on a regular basis but for the designer what she loves most is the creativity of the process and the immense pleasure and satisfaction of the finished result. Pushing the boundaries of what she has done before often leads to other new ideas and even after 25 years in fashion there is still the thrill of creating something she hasn’t done before and the client’s joy at wearing the final piece.

“I think the exciting part is when you’re getting into it and it’s working and you can see how it can come together,” adds Tanya. “Part of the design process is figuring out how it will work and sometimes the client isn’t sure about something so it has to still work for them but once you can see it working and the smile on their faces it’s great. Then going to see them perform and actually seeing the garment doing what it’s meant to do under the lights is exciting. The feedback is nice too, people saying that the performer looked amazing and they loved the outfit.”

“I went and saw Hollie perform in a pounamu green velvet gown from my archive and she looked so beautiful. Another time she was performing supporting Alison Moyet and she was standing up on stage wearing a garment I made for my 20 year anniversary show at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2017. It looked so amazing on her, it was a great moment.”

During the recent lockdown Tanya has been sharing some of the winsome garments she has made over the years on her Instagram account including the Bowie inspired outfit for Julia Deans. Reflecting on her past designs makes the designer remember the incredible efforts of herself and her team to innovate and create clothing that stands the test of time. Tanya Carlson has come a long way from the first wedding dress she was commissioned to make in 1993, with her love of design and the depth of her practice meaning the designer has created some of the most memorable looks to ever grace the red carpets and stages of New Zealand. She is truly a master of her craft and no doubt wherever a Tanya Carlson custom design turns up next, it will be in a spotlight.


Images supplied.

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