Karen Walker represents New Zealand at Buckingham Palace

Tukua Turia (left) and Karen Walker (right) who collaborated as part of the inaugral Commonwealth Fashion Exchange. Image supplied.

Fashion excels at exciting and unexpected collaborations which was celebrated at the inaugral Commonwealth Fashion Exchange showcase held overnight at Buckingham Palace where designer Karen Walker represented New Zealand. It is the first time 53 nations of the Commonwealth have come together to celebrate the talent, power and potential of artisans and designers and encourage new partnerships between them. The significant project was created and managed by Eco-Age and developed in partnership with Swarovski, The Woolmark Company and MATCHESFASHION.COM with the support of the Commonwealth Fashion Council and the British Fashion Council to help mark the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit that will be held in London in April 2018.

The designer/s representing each nation, which included Stella McCartney and Burberry for the United Kingdom, were partnered with artisans to create each special one-of-a-kind looks. Karen Walker’s partnership was with craftswomen from the Cook Islands, the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās based in Māngere in Auckland, led by  73-year-old lead artisan Māmā Tukua Turia. The bespoke creations were showcased at a special reception at Buckingham Palace which was hosted by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sophie, Countess of Wessex during London Fashion Week. Both Karen Walker and Tukua Turia were among the 300 guests in attendance which also included fashion icons Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell.

“Being part of such a significant project has been a really special experience for me and seeing all the designs together at Buckingham Palace, alongside my new lifelong friend Tukua, was the icing on the cake,” says Karen Walker. “This collaboration is one of my career highlights and I’m so proud to have represented New Zealand and worked with Tukua’s beautiful tivaivai skills in this way. There’s such a freshness to the collaboration and what grew throughout the project was an enormous sense of awe, working with this team of artisans on a completely handcrafted piece, using skills that have been lovingly passed from generation to generation. For me, it was even more about sharing in the history, culture and meaning of tivaivai than it was about creating a dress. It’s been a very special project for us.”

Together Karen Walker, Tukua Turia and her team of talented artisans created the Karen Walker x Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās tivaivai dress which is a beautiful formal, strapless gown that features a complex bow and pleated bodice with six metres of fabric gathered and tucked into a full-length skirt. The dress is crafted in dusty pink Italian wool flannel and is covered in claret-coloured embroidered flowers. The finished design suggests a tall tree surrounded by flowers and represents the concept of Tivaivai which is central to Cook Islands culture. In essence, Tivaivai are bed coverings, but to Cook Islanders they are much more than that and represent a manifestation of love and honour which are gifted to family and community to mark special occasions. The creation of each one can take several months and they are meant to be treasured so are seldom sold. Cook Islanders believe they are love in a physical form and to be gifted a tivaivai is to be literally wrapped in the love of the person (or people) who made it for you.

Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās and the finished tivaivai dress on model Anmari Botha. Image supplied.

Māmā Tukua Turia (who is from Aitutaki, one of 15 Cook Islands) learned to create tivaivai from her grandmother and says creating tivaivai is intrinsic to what it is to be a Cook Islands woman. “Every design tells a story,” adds Tukua. “And as I’m working I feel like I am in a forest of all the beautiful flowers and leaf shapes that are so symbolic of my home.” She welcomed the opportunity to represent Cook Islands craft and culture on a world stage in collaboration with Karen Walker and has found the experience empowering for herself and her team of Māmās aged 60, 68, 73, 75, and 91 that worked on the project. The garment was created in Māngere and Walker’s design room in Grey Lynn with the Māmās and Karen Walker and her team all getting to know each other and bonding over their love of sewing. “I’ve loved getting to know Karen and her team,” says Tukua. “Sewing tivaivai is all about enjoying time with the ladies, working together, singing together and learning from each other and it was a real pleasure to have the Karen Walker team join us.”

The tivaivai dress features beautiful flora of the Cook Islands such as gardenia, jasmine, orchid, fruit salad plant, hibiscus, fringed hibiscus, red ginger, frangipani and the Cook Islands’ national flower, Tiare Māori, not to mention Karen Walker’s iconic daisy motifs. Each flower was brought to life by 12 different stitch-styles including double chains and satin stitches, feather blanket and vertical herringbone that were embroidered by Tukua and her Māmās.

“It’s been a masterclass and a privilege to watch the ladies work,” adds Karen Walker. “I’ve always loved the look of tivaivai; the strong graphics, fantastic colour combinations and beautiful detail in the stitching, but with this project I’ve learnt so much more. I’ve learnt about the detail of the craft, the meaning and history of tivaivai and about the strong sense of community and aro’a (love) tivaivai carries. I’ve also loved the embracing of the time the craft takes and how that time is spent not only creating the work but being with friends and community and having many people come together around the one project which is what brings so much love into the finished works.”

The Karen Walker x Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās tivaivai dress, along with the 30 other dresses created for this project, were presented at Buckingham Palace before the dresses move to a public exhibition at Australia House on February 21st. They will also be on display at other locations in London where the exhibition will be open to the public in the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in April 2018.

Thanks to digital partnerships between MATCHESFASHION.COM and Google Arts and Culture, the exhibition from The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange will be available to view via online platforms that will also provide insights into each designer and artisan, providing a compelling educational resource and living directory of artisans and designers from the 53 countries.

Images supplied.

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