International Women’s Day 2021: Six women who are challenging the fashion industry

The fashion industry is powered by women and today, on International Women’s Day (IWD), we wanted to champion local women in fashion who are choosing to challenge the status quo. This year’s IWD theme is #ChoosetoChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and we can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements, and together we can all help create an inclusive world.

When women lead, we all see positive results. In this past year some of the most efficient responses to the global pandemic were led by women, our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, among those leaders. Around the world women are also leading diverse and inclusive movements campaigning for social justice, climate change action and equality.

International Women’s Day is about recognising the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women in a positive way while acknowledging that there is still more to do to achieve equality. It’s important that we celebrate women in all their diversities and embrace their facets and intersections of faith, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, or disability. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate those who came before us, those who stand beside us now, and those who will come after us in a meaningful way.

We’re proud to share the voices of six inspiring women – Nora Swann, Amy Lautogo, Charli Cox, Nichola Te Kiri, Amy Conlon and Judy Gao – who are choosing to challenge the fashion industry in their own unique ways. We asked each woman to share their thoughts on the challenges facing women today, who they look up to as female role models and discuss the ways that the fashion industry can be used as a tool for good.

Their answers are thought-provoking, motivating and demonstrate an inspiring vision for what the fashion industry could be. The accompanying imagery was shot using natural light with each of the women wearing outfits that they feel best represents them. The authentic voices of these strong women who #ChoosetoChallenge is a fitting way to celebrate International Women’s Day.

International Womens Day 2021 Nora Swann

Nora Swann

Nora Swann is a woman of many talents who uses her love and knowledge of fashion as a tool to support and showcase her community on a national and international level. Nora founded Pacific Fusion Fashion Show in 2016 as a way to showcase creative Pasifika and Māori designers with the event growing in popularity year on year. While 2020 was a tough year for many with the impact of the global pandemic, Nora and her team utilised technology to create an innovative digital version of Pacific Fusion Fashion Show that was livestreamed to a huge local and international audience. Nora is also a skilled personal stylist who has created a popular Dressed in Confidence programme that is supported by the Ministry of Social Development and empowers young Pacific and Māori women to learn positive body image and self confidence.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you and how are you challenging yourself?
As an entrepreneur I am no stranger to navigating uncomfortable spaces so when I am confronted with a challenge or change, I tend to focus on the potential positive outcomes and the excitement that may come with it, so I say, ‘Bring it!’

This year I am challenging myself to question narratives, ask the hard questions and to back myself a bit more.

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day and what does it mean to you?
It is important that we acknowledge all the different hats we woman wear because it’s a hard job and we sometimes put the pressure on ourselves to make it look like we’ve got everything under control when that is far from the truth so for me International Women’s Day means that we are letting all other women know that you are not alone, I see you and I’ve got your back!

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
I believe the biggest challenge women face is having low self-confidence.

My Dressed in Confidence programme was originally marketed for young Pacific and Māori girls aged 8-18 because I believe it was important to start confidence building from a young age however I soon realised that women had similar insecurities and is why I now run bespoke versions of my DIC programme which include workshops for women and a programme called Mama + Me which is specifically catered to strengthen the bond between a mother and her children. Body image is one of the main reasons why women have low self-confidence, so my Dressed in Confidence programme includes exercises such as sharing what your favourite physical features are and why and an open discussion about our gut feelings towards different body parts. The purpose of these exercises is for participants to start thinking more positively about their bodies.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
It is so important. It is quite sad that at my age of 41, I still see, hear and experience pettiness. At my age, I’ve learnt to just live my life and accept things that I can’t control but in my perfect world I envision a world where women genuinely support each other both in the good and bad times.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
To me success is living the life that you’ve always wanted to live and having control of your life. Having the financial freedom to work and do as you please. Also feeling good about yourself, feeling free of your thoughts and not caring what others think.

International Womens Day 2021 Nora Swann

What are you most proud of doing?
As a small business owner, I would say it would be my business surviving Covid-19. It was really sad to hear of a lot of small businesses closing down because of Covid-19. I feel God really blessed me last year and helped my business flourish, so I am really proud of my strategic planning during the lockdowns which resulted in some great projects for the second half of 2020 as well as this year.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
I can’t pinpoint one particular woman, but I have always admired single mums. I know a few women who have raised their kids on their own who are homeowners, run successful businesses and their kids are happy and healthy. I am married and have an 11-year-old and an adult daughter and sometimes my husband and I find it tough raising our two children while doing everything else and then I think about these superwomen who have single-parenting down pat.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as tool for good?
I have always seen the fashion industry as a vehicle to promote good even though it took others a while to see it from my perspective. I recall going to social service gatherings filled with academics and doctors and people wondering why ‘someone like me’ would be at the event and not being able to see a connection.

I am grateful for the Ministry of Social Development for believing in my Dressed in Confidence programme which teaches self-love and self-worth through fashion because the youth who come through my Dressed in Confidence programme, leave the programme more accepting of who they are as individuals and a little nicer to themselves.

Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
Obviously, I love fashion and as a Personal Stylist, I understand all the rules of styling but then I’m also all about embracing who you are and rockin’ it to the beat of your own drum, so I tend to find myself in contradictory situations so as a result I’ve told myself to ‘learn all the rules about Personal Styling and understand why they exist and then choose when you want to use them to your advantage’.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
If you truly believe fashion is your calling, then GO FOR IT! My advice would be to not lose yourself in the process of trying to make it in the fashion industry but at the same time, because you will be new to the industry, be teachable and be patient. Learn as much as you can, do free gigs, network and collaborate and when the time is right, you’ll have more freedom to do things your way. The fashion industry is a fun and glamourous industry, but don’t forget all the hustle that needs to be done behind the scenes also.

What are your goals for the future?
My short-term goal is setting up my new Dressed in Confidence office that I’m getting ready to move into which I am really excited about. I will be running my Dressed in Confidence workshops from my new headquarters in South Auckland and the plan is to also include a boutique second-hand store in the space so that’s what’s keeping me busy for the moment.

I’d love to take my Dressed in Confidence workshops around New Zealand and then eventually throughout the Pacific Region so watch this space…

Amy Lautogo

Amy Lautogo is the designer and founder of Infamy Apparel and creative director of FATFEB – a grassroots neighbourhood arts festival dedicated to radical fat body sovereignty. Amy’s take on fashion is colourful, proud and eye-catching with the designer noticing a gap in the market for beautiful, unapologetic clothing for plus size people so she decided to put her ideas out there. Her stunning designs have been showcased on the runway at Pacific Fusion Fashion Show 2019 and she’s also created gorgeous custom designs for singer Lavina Williams. Infamy Apparel is based in South Auckland which is also the home of FATFEB, where Amy uses her voice in support of people of colour and in particular fat activism. FATFEB 2021 was created as a love letter to the fat, BBIPOC, queer community, and by centralising art and visibility of fat bodies, stands as a call to action for society at large to destigmatise the fat experience, confront the intersectional systems of fatphobia, and divest from the perceived morality of fat.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you and how are you challenging yourself?
I love this theme and I think I have been focusing on challenging the way I think and why. I do this and allow myself to be uncomfortable as a way to challenge my own limitations.

I say this a lot to people in context to fatphobia that it is a constant challenge to interrupt that negative self-talk and really probe your response. I think this method of interrupting ourselves when we impose limitations on ourselves or others, followed by examination – leads to more thoughtful considered decisions and exchanges.

In the last few years I have challenged myself to put kindness and acceptance out into the space that I hold and that is HARD! Kindness and understanding are the most important things to have to me and sometimes that means sitting in the state of ‘uncomfortable’ and maybe unlearning or rejecting things that we believe because we are taught or come to us as a result of our privilege.

Essentially – you can never stop evolving and learning. Challenge your own perceptions – CONSTANTLY!

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day and what does it mean to you?
For me, it is a day for acknowledgment. It is about acknowledging our ancestors, all womxn, our Sisters and Mothers. That their experience, especially in the Fat BBIPOC Queer differently abled space – is a tough road and often traumatic and inequitable.

I also think that each year it is a reminder that we operate in this intersectional system and that the ultimate goal is to lift all womxn. I mostly use this day to reflect on how I am contributing to the discourse around intersectional feminism, fat liberation and community advancement.

I like that at this time of year we spend a lot of time celebrating womxn but also think we can and should do this every day!

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
A lack of kindness and understanding. We can be each other’s greatest allies but we have to first understand the lived experience of the womxn around us who don’t have our privilege.

A fear of losing privilege and being uncomfortable is a huge barrier I think to all womxn being able to elevate each other – but marginalised voices first.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
Oh so important! It permeates everything that I do with Infamy Apparel and the arts collective I am part of, Fat Gal Pals.

We are just wrapping up FATFEB 2021 which was delivered by an all womxn BBIPOC Queer powerhouse team and it meant the world to me to be able to be a part of something like that. To be deliberate in this space was so liberating and affirming.

I think in the creative industry there is a tendency to silo ourselves and try and hold onto our space no matter what. My ideal situation is the market being inundated with fat fashion designers who can take the reins and really go for it.

The Fat BBIPOC Queer community succeeds when we all do. We are all fighting against the same thing so making room for people is so important. In fact – moving out of the way and celebrating this is the absolute ideal!

You’re not always going to be the best at everything and that’s no reason to not support talent.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
I grew up quite poor so I have difficulty defining my success with money (which may seem counterintuitive but here we are).

Financial insecurity is a really hard thing to unpack when trying to envision monetary success. I tend to think more in terms of my village or family. The one I have made for myself with like-minded activists and artists who are so talented and generous.

Success for me is seeing those in my family or community standing in their power, taking their moment and living in joy. In some cases I can provide that platform but in most cases I am cheering loudly from the audience.

International Womens Day 2021 Amy Lautogo

What are you most proud of doing?
I think I am most proud of my contribution to FATFEB 2021 – NEBULOUS.

It was a love letter to my Fat BBIPOC Queer community and a chance for them to see themselves through my eyes. As celestial beings, Titans in a garden.

It was so challenging – professionally it was risky never having created a stationary installation with 4 models on platforms making them at least 6 foot 5. I have a disability so physically the process was strenuous and very painful and mentally it was tough. I had my car stolen the night before opening and had to rework an entire outfit but that’s when my village/friends came to help and support.

Resilience is almost the cornerstone of our section of society. Despite all the things that could have gone wrong and did go wrong – it was a magical moment and felt so rewarding.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
For me – it’s always been my Mum. She’s shown such strength and resilience throughout my life.

She’s the woman who taught me to argue and protest. When something isn’t right – what are you going to do about it?

What is beautiful though is as I have gotten older the relationship has obviously changed from that Mother-Daughter dynamic to one of mutual respect and support.

I’ve always been able to be vulnerable with my Mum but learning about her vulnerabilities and dreams has only made our relationship stronger.

So although the reasons why I admire her have changed over the years – it’s always been her.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as tool for good? Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
They have to.

There’s no other way to shake up the fashion world except Intersectional Feminism. The industry as it stands is a monolith to upholding western beauty standards and gatekeeping access (through size inequity, financial insecurity, lack of access for those differently abled or just straight out racism and prejudice).

However this is just one aspect of the overarching issue of one group of people setting the rules. If we are able to nurture new talent through the ranks who have a social conscious and then this is backed by individuals who buy these products then we can slowly start to level the field.

For me this doesn’t necessarily mean throwing money at a bunch of new grads but allowing designers and artists space to develop and this is intrinsically linked to privilege. Equity must be the goal and this means taking into account each persons lived experience and equalling the playing field.

Intersectional feminism forces you to do this through the Author Kimberlé Crenshaw’s analysis of the Black Woman’s experience. It’s important for me to acknowledge that this form of feminism which is so crucial to me – was brought to us by Black Women.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
Go for it! Seriously!

But make sure you learn how to sew. I mean really learn to sew. I haven’t met a single person in my entire career who has walked out of school and been able to pay someone to sew their samples or their garments. Become a confident sewer and this will make you an adventurous designer!

Also, you don’t have to go to school for this. There are obviously pros and cons but if you are passionate about creating garments then work on your craft! Fashion to me is about being innovative and authentically you – school doesn’t teach you that.

What are your goals for the future?
Oh so many! I think my big goal would be to engage with more Māori and Pasifika Artists, Creatives and Designers based in South Auckland to try and get a collective workspace going.

So that there is a space away from home to develop ideas, construct garments, hold workshops and create!

The ability to take time and have space away from responsibilities to nurture your creative talent is very rare in South Auckland but so needed.

Mostly though it would be a great space for Talanoa and shared growth. Not to mention I’d get more of my bedroom space back with the machines somewhere else!

International Womens Day 2021 Charli Cox

Charli Cox

Charli Cox founded not-for-profit Koha Apparel in February 2019 as a pay-as-you-can retail experience that utilises repurposed apparel. Koha Apparel’s pop-up shops in Auckland offer clean clothing that is donated by individuals or businesses for free to vulnerable people who need clothing but can’t afford it. Charli sees clothing as a basic human right and it was while volunteering in an op shop that she realised the inequalities of access and an opportunity to do something about it. With the demand for the pop-up shops growing, Charli and her team have expanded Koha Apparel’s reach to Tauranga, Whangarei and Wellington so far to help meet the need in our communities. The repurposing of clothing through Koha Apparel’s mahi also reduces the amount of clothing waste going to landfill.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you, and how are you challenging yourself?
Koha challenges me daily. I had never run a business before stepping into this. Expanding Koha to Wellington this year will be my most significant challenge yet, letting go and allowing a team to run it was huge for me. Many moving parts allow Koha to happen each week — running a team, sourcing donations and ensuring we are providing the best possible experience for our community. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day, and what does it mean to you?
This day is as important as any other day of the year — something we should think about and practise daily. Everybody should be treated as equals; there should be more focus on inclusivity within the human race in general.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
To add to my point above, while most garment workers are women, what is required is a focus on equality throughout; decent human rights protection for all, not only women. I believe and wish the reality was that we all have equal chances in life, people shouldn’t have a poorer chance at life because of where they were born, what they believe or who they are.

How important is it for women to lift each other up, and what does that mean to you?
All of us must take one another higher, whatever your gender, sexuality, religion. Life isn’t easy. Take a moment stop and think about what we desire in life and what kind of world you want to create. Your impact, both professionally and personally, could be invaluable to the next person.

How do you personally define success, and what does it mean to you?
Setting out to achieve your goals and dreams on whatever the scale, the pressure is on to climb the corporate ladder, but success can mean so many things. I encourage anyone who is thinking about setting out to make their passion project a reality. You will not regret it.

International Womens Day 2021 Charli Cox

What are you most proud of doing?
Starting Koha Apparel, for a long time, it was a dream. I am beyond proud of the reach we have had since beginning in 2019. I feel the proudest when I see the impact Koha is having on our communities lives. Sometimes it isn’t even about the clothing but the conversations we share. The social aspect of Koha is so essential; it’s such a unique experience seeing our community come together from all walks of life, and our volunteers.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
I had the honour to attend a Transgender Day of Remembrance Service in November last year. Four transgender women spoke about their stories, their upbringing and experiences. Listening to these ladies, it was eye-opening. I admire their courage, what it must have taken to share their experiences, the abuse, humiliation, alienation merely being themselves.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as a tool for good? Can feminism and fashion coexist?
We’re talking about a trillion-dollar industry. The fashion industry’s potential to significantly improve workers’ livelihoods and lift people out of systemic poverty is immense. Sadly, unless there are legal frameworks to ensure minimum wages and satisfactory health and safety standards, nothing will change.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
Invest your time, skills and values into the right brand. A brand that is making a positive impact and ensures you are not adding to the detriment of what is happening today. Never compromise on what’s important to you.

What are your goals for the future?
My dream is to be able to provide clothing throughout New Zealand to communities in need. Improved access has been a long term mission since starting Koha; to have a much broader reach. There are people in need in every corner of this nation, this world. Perhaps even more so now.

International Womens Day 2021 Nicola Te Kiri

Nichola Te Kiri

Nichola Te Kiri is a talented designer and artist who founded her contemporary, eponymous Māori design label over a decade ago. Nichola’s unique creations include kākahu (clothing), whakakai (jewellery), nga rama (lamps) and mahi toi (artworks) which are available through her Hamilton store, online and via stockists around Aotearoa. The designer recently collaborated with Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira on revamping the museum’s front of house Visitor Host uniforms to allow the staff to feel more connected to their workplace. Nichola incorporates Māori symbols and stories into her designs which express her heritage and the environment around her. Her stunning designs have been showcased at New Zealand Fashion Week and Hong Kong Fashion Week, and Nichola has big plans to showcase her label on a global stage.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you and how are you challenging yourself?
Choose to challenge: to me means we as individuals have the choice on ‘how’ we challenge or call out behaviours and attitudes that don’t serve us as wāhine (females). In regards to challenging myself, I do this in many ways, shapes and forms. It can be from little things, such as exercising to experiencing new foods. To bigger challenges like unpacking self limiting beliefs that I carry and pushing myself outside my comfort zone.

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day and what does it mean to you?
I think it’s important to celebrate wāhine EVERYDAY! Because we are amazing and fabulous beings, and it’s important to acknowledge that on the daily if you ask me! International Women’s Day is also a wonderful thing, as it puts it on the radar for many people to stop, support, recognise and celebrate all wāhine around the world.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
I feel recognition and societal expectations are the biggest challenges facing wāhine today. I mean how often do we hear about the tāne (mens) sports teams compared to the wāhine teams? We aren’t recognised as much as our tāne are in business and at work and we aren’t recognised or acknowledged in our every day settings as well. Let’s give it up to all the amazing Māmā (Mums) out there holding it down for her whānau (family)! Don’t even get me started on the gender pay gaps!

In regards to societal expectations, this kōrero (topic/talk) came from a discussion I had with my team (who are all Māori wāhine) and their response is that wāhine have so many expectations put on them by society to act a certain way, raise their children a certain way, look a certain way, the list goes on… that it creates a lot of unnecessary pressure for us to deal with and work through.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
Sooooooooo important! I think we should definitely help out each other out because we are often faced with more barriers and challenges than our tāne counterparts. To me this would be sharing information, building networks, supporting and attending events together, collaborating and being authentic with one another.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
I measure success on many different levels, business-wise success for me is reaching my goals (well more like smashing them!) and on a personal level it ranges from the little things, e.g. my children achieving something they wanted to do/obtain/get, to self reflection and understanding myself more.

International Womens Day 2021 Nicola Te Kiri

What are you most proud of doing?
I am most proud of pushing myself outside my comfort zone. That’s where the magic is for my growth.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
There are so many to choose from, my Mum is who I normally admire and praise the most, but today at this moment in time, I admire my little sister Christine. She is a single Māmā who is making waves and growing in her mahi (work) and who is now looking to buy her first home (which I think is a crazy time to do it, but that’s her!). She’s pretty amazing.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as tool for good? Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
The fashion industry needs changes to happen for it to be used as a tool for good and we as designers, brands and even consumers have an important role to play on all the different tiers of the industry. From design to processes, from manufacturing and creating to consumers and buying. So much change is needed, we need to look after people and papatūānuku (our planet) and we can, but it starts with us and the actions we take.

Feminism and fashion MUST co-exist, we need to change mindsets, old inherited mindsets. Honestly it’s a big beast to tackle, but it needs to be tackled and it needs to start today.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
My initial advice to rangatahi (young people) considering a career in fashion is to understand why you want to be in the fashion industry. What is it that draws you to this space? Are you wanting to create change? Challenge the status quo? Or to create beautiful and amazing garments? Whatever it is, make sure it’s clear in your mind… your why, your purpose, your drive. Because that is what will get you through the highs and lows of this industry. Then I would say research and learn as much as you can, in whatever way, shape or form you can. Just so you know what the industry is about and potentially what direction you want to head in.

What are your goals for the future?
I have so many goals! But our biggest goal for this year is based around growth. Business growth within Aotearoa and overseas.

International Womens Day 2021 Amy Conlon

Amy Conlon

Amy Conlon is a talented fashion designer and passionate sustainability advocate. She launched her own sustainable bag label Outliv in early 2018, which combines her love of fashion design with her personal commitment to sustainability, as every piece is created from recycled materials. Amy’s long career in the fashion industry includes 12 years in design roles in the UK, before she returned home to New Zealand in 2014 and began freelancing as a designer later creating her own label. In 2019, Amy established the first New Zealand Fashion Revolution team, activating and growing the Fashion Revolution movement locally in Aotearoa. She recently moved from being Country Co-ordinator for the New Zealand Fashion Revolution team to a Working Committee member focusing on partnerships and collaborations. This gives Amy the opportunity to continuing her mission to use fashion as a force for good, alongside her brand Outliv and the work she does for Dove Hospice.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you and how are you challenging yourself?
I love this. #ChooseToChallenge. To me this resonates with #TakeAction. Challenge yourself, challenge others, push yourself out of your comfort zone and with this you will learn, grow, experience great things and help to fashion a more considerate world.

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day and what does it mean to you?
In my opinion we don’t need one day to celebrate women, we should be celebrating achievement and progress of women, of our mothers, aunties, friends and sisters all the time. Celebrating progress, action and confidence is a great thing. However, I do love the fact that having an International Women’s Day gives women a specific day in which we are encouraged to stop and consider our achievements and the achievements of others. It is important we stop to reflect on what IWD and #ChooseToChallenge means to each of us.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
A personal challenge I have had in the past, and am still learning, is finding my voice. It is not enough to be in a role and to ‘sit at the table’ so to speak. We must speak up and stand up for what we believe and what are passionate about. We must support and empower each other. Women worldwide have the ability to lift each other up and to change the path for those that come after us.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
This is very important to me. I have been raised by a very strong mother who always knew how to support me, how to push me forward when I needed it, and to reassure me when I wasn’t feeling strong. This is important to me, that I do this for my family and friends, and it is invaluable to find friends that have these values.

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
This is a question that I have recently been looking inward to find the answer to. To me, success is to be inwardly calm, happy and content. To be content in the way in which I live my life and the choices I make while I am doing this. From this place of contentment, I can see my values so clearly and I can see how I can align with them in a way that helps to create the impact I am so passionate to make.

International Womens Day 2021 Amy Conlon

What are you most proud of doing?
Having two beautiful babies and taking action for our, their future.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
My mother and grandmother were raised in a way that paid respect to the planet and to the people around them. I feel very thankful for my upbringing and to be able to look back and recognise the life lessons I learnt from them and to hold them as my personal ethics and values.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as a tool for good? Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
Fashion can absolutely be used as a tool for good. When fashion brands are stripped of ego, and the creativity of the brand is held in equal measure with profit, people and the planet, there can be a really positive outcome. I created my brand, Outliv, for that reason of wanting to use fashion for good. At Outliv we create bags and accessories by upcycling pre-loved and forgotten clothing and textiles. It is important that we avoid the production of new fabrics and the pollution and waste this can create. Outliv also donates back to local humanitarian and environmental organisations with each sale we make, collaborating for good with other like-minded brands and encouraging upcycling. It is important that the future of business is more considerate to everything in which it comes in contact with.

I believe feminism is already co-existing with fashion through brands like Nisa (an underwear label and social enterpise, employing women from refugee and migrant backgrounds), Outland Denim (founded for training and employment of women who experience sex trafficking), Katharine Hamnett (known for her political tee shirts and her ethical business philosophy), and Miraculous Me (A call to action to create change through connecting to self).

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
Use your creativity while also considering the people who make your clothes and the planet from which resources are taken for materials. Don’t hold back… give it all you’ve got!

What are your goals for the future?
To continue to take action for our children’s future, for people and this planet.

International Womens Day 2021 Judy Gao

Judy Gao

Self-taught fashion designer Judy Gao first caught the nation’s attention as a contestant on the debut season of Project Runway New Zealand in 2018. She had launched her eponymous contemporary eveningwear label in 2017 and brought her skill with gorgeous gowns and intricate design details to our television screens on a weekly basis. Judy showcased a stunning eveningwear collection on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 but it was in 2020 that the talented designer grew a global audience, thanks to her popular sewing videos on TikTok. Currently closing in on one million followers (she’s at 981.4K at the date of publication) and with over 15 million likes of her videos, Judy Gao is successfully utilising the app to sell her creative designs to a worldwide audience that grows by the day, inspiring more people to take up sewing along the way.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, as a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. What does that mean to you and how are you challenging yourself?
Choose to Challenge is an important theme for this year as the best way to learn, improve, and grow is to step outside of our comfort zone and face our challenges head-on.

With the platform I have recently gained on social media consisting mostly of young women from around the world, I need to challenge myself to set a better example in the fashion industry. Some key focuses this year is to challenge the standard of beauty in fashion by using more diverse models and by reducing retouching on models. Although New Zealand has seen a huge improvement in this aspect, the rest of the world needs to catch up.

Why is it important that we celebrate International Women’s Day and what does it mean to you?
It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the progress we have made and all the challenges we have faced as women. I am so grateful for all the hardworking women who have helped me get where I am today, from the people in my life to the pioneers who have given us the rights and freedom to chase our opportunities.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
A challenge I face is being taken seriously as a designer and business owner. I feel there are still many biases towards women in CEO and leadership positions (traditionally male jobs). They are expected to be demanding and cutthroat – like Miranda Priestly, whereas that’s not the case at all! I’m the opposite of those traits and the “delicate” and “shy” me gets mistaken for a fashion student/assistant all the time.

We all need to work together to break down these “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypes, especially in the workplace.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
In competitive industries, we sometimes forget that other women are friends, not foes. It is important for us to support one another which opens new and mutually beneficial opportunities, rather than tearing each other down to climb to the top. There is enough room for all of us to succeed and achieve our goals. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without the support and collaborations with other women.

International Womens Day 2021 Judy Gao

How do you personally define success and what does it mean to you?
Coming from an Asian household, the reason why I wasn’t allowed to study fashion was that it’s hard to find a job in this industry. I proved them wrong by being able to grow my business, as a self-taught designer, to financially support myself (especially surviving COVID-19). Success to me means being able to do what I love every day for the rest of my life.

What are you most proud of doing?
I am proud of the journey that has brought me here and how that journey will inspire other young people to work for their passion and goals. I’m always so delighted with the messages and comments saying how it’s inspired them to learn how to sew, or to pursue their career in fashion. Knowing that my sewing videos/tutorials are making a positive impact makes me excited to keep creating content.

Which woman do you admire the most and why?
I really admire female creatives and entrepreneurs. It always amazes me how motivated and driven they are to keep achieving their milestones and to keep striving for bigger goals. They inspire me to aim higher and to dream bigger.

In what way can the fashion industry be used as a tool for good? Can feminism and fashion co-exist?
Fashion and feminism can absolutely co-exist. Women, like myself, are able to use fashion as a medium of self-expression and creativity. It’s so empowering putting on your favourite outfit that brings out the most confident you. It might seem counter-intuitive that something “superficial” like your outfit can bring confidence, but it’s about taking control of how you choose to express yourself and having fun doing so!

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in the fashion industry?
Some advice I would give to anyone wanting to work in the fashion or creative industry is learning how to take criticism. In such a subjective field, we need to take on feedback and criticism from our peers, clients, and industry leaders in order to improve, but also without losing ourselves in the process. Ultimately, you want to create clothing that represents your unique vision, but also have it marketable in order to sustain a business.

What are your goals for the future?
My goal for the future is to keep making designs to make women feel beautiful. Of course, in 2021, this means adapting and catering to men and non-binary people who want to wear gowns.

Images photographed by James Yang and shot on location at Studio 58 with production and creative direction by and then…

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