Tanya Carlson on celebrating twenty years of her brand and returning to NZFW

Tanya Carlson celebrates 20 years

Designer Tanya Carlson wearing the Rhea dress from her Winter 2017 collection. The designer was photographed in her Ponsonby workroom, July 2017. Image by Carolyn Ebrey.

Celebrating milestones is an important part of life and while Tanya Carlson has created countless dresses for weddings and special occasions over her career, this year she is celebrating a big milestone of her own; twenty years of her eponymous womenswear brand. Carlson is also celebrating her return to the New Zealand Fashion Week runway later this month after a ten year hiatus, during which there’s been a great deal of change for the designer and her business.

When I sit down to chat to Carlson on a chilly winter’s day in Auckland, the down-to-earth designer is wearing a winsome tunic-style dress of her own design in a delicate floral print flecked with bronze lurex. The bishop sleeves of which billow like sails as she chats animatedly about her impressive career and adoration of fashion. She possesses a laidback charm which is complemented by fierce intelligence and a self-assuredness that comes from many years of forging her own path.

Fashion was a predestined path for Carlson, who grew up on the Otago Peninsula, the rugged beauty of which has been captured in transfixing artworks by the likes of Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon. It was there that the young Carlson found joy in playing dress-ups and spent a great deal of time fuelling her imagination with books as her family eschewed television. The isolation and wilderness bred a romanticism that has been a hallmark of her career and is still evident in her designs today.

With her head sufficiently full of inspiration, Carlson moved to Sydney at the tender of age of seventeen to study painting and printmaking at the East Sydney Technical College. She spent two years completing a fine arts certificate before a further four years of study to get her diploma in fashion design. Returning home to Dunedin she threw herself into work, gaining clients for her impeccably tailored garments through word of mouth before she established TC Works that encompassed the different services she had on offer.

She disbanded TC Works in late 1996 and created her first proper womenswear collection that launched in early 1997, rebranding her business as Carlson. The designer’s love of colour, delicate fabrications and feminine silhouettes influenced that early collection and became defining features of her brand. Success quickly followed and Carlson hit the runway at the 2001 L’Oréal New Zealand Fashion Week with a Russian aristocrat-meets-gypsy collection that made the fashion media sit up and take notice.

The rise of her label during the 2000s was an exciting time for Carlson and among her accolades she won the Emerging Business Award at the prestigious Westpac Dunedin Business Awards in 2002. When the designer talks about her successes though it’s not in the singular ‘I’ but always ‘we’ and what sticks in her mind from that time is the loyal team that she surrounded herself with. “I realise that it was such a privilege to employ people and particularly the kind of women that I was employing at the time,” she says. “I’ve repeated this quite a bit about employing women that were in their fifties, sixties and seventies, but those skills that we learnt, being the younger part of the business, were so important and we learnt so much. It also felt like a family at times.”

She cites moving into their purpose-built workroom that had a massive fire-proof pattern room, six metre long shelving, huge cutting tables and a small dye house within it, as feeling as though she’d arrived. It also meant much of her manufacturing could be done in-house and Carlson’s team grew quickly as her business expanded.

Tanya Carlson celebrates 20 years

Industrial sewing machine in Tanya Carlson’s Ponsonby workroom. Image by Carolyn Ebrey.

“When I look back on what we were able to do it was extraordinary, all these young women. We were stocking thirteen David Jones stores, had 35 wholesale stockists and a store in Auckland. We opened the store in Auckland really soon after starting the womenswear label. But I wish someone had slowed me down and said ‘Stop and smell the roses’” she laughs. “But you’re working so hard you don’t notice it. You don’t notice the accolades. I was always in a panic every time they wanted me to fly business class to David Jones to shoot the big ad campaigns. I can’t be away from work. I’ve got so much to do. I always felt like I was chasing my tail and always behind but little did I know that’s life. I wish I had the opportunity to skite a little bit more about what we were doing and take a moment to be more proud for my staff as well.”

Carlson’s former team regularly meet up in Dunedin and marvel at the craziness of those hectic days. Cara Cotton, Carlson’s long-time design assistant (who is currently on maternity leave) likes to remind the designer of the time she was standing up on top of a table pinning sketches to the wall and Carlson fell asleep and actually fell off the table. Admittedly it was 4am and the designer says now that although her loyal team worked hard and often late into the night it probably wasn’t always necessary but was done because they had the idea that unless they worked late they weren’t achieving as much.

A decade ago things changed again for the designer when on the advice of her accountants she wound up her workroom in Dunedin, restructured her business and relocated herself and her team to Auckland. Since 90% of New Zealand’s fashion industry is based in Auckland and Carlson was having increasing problems finding production staff down south the move made a lot of sense.

“Since I was by myself and didn’t have that much support, I talked to people and went to see a few factories up here and it all just looked so easy,” she adds. “It got to the point where I probably wasn’t managing it very well and we were always struggling with machinists. I had a workroom on the main street in Dunedin and rents were going up and I was also in a relationship with someone in Auckland and so it all just pointed to doing it. It was the right move at the time. Then we just pulled the whole thing down, stopped all wholesaling, pulled out of Australia and just tightened up our reins and held on. It was intense. I don’t know how many stockists we had in New Zealand but they were just falling over like flies. By then it was 2008 and it was actually incredible to see things fall as the global financial crisis hit.”

New Zealand signed a Free Trade Agreement with China in April 2008 that immediately began to change the fashion industry here and brands like Carlson found that more factories that they worked with were closing because they couldn’t compete with the cheaper offshore labour. “When you heard it was going to happen you kind of knew what was going to happen next and first of all it was the footwear industry that seemed to go,” says Carlson. “Then you could feel it, there was a lack of machinists, there weren’t young people being trained, and you could start to see lots of the industry weren’t hiring apprentices. And I was thinking ‘What’s going to happen when we need to get machines repaired or there’s no young cutters coming through?’ You could definitely feel it in Dunedin that it was the end to the glorious manufacturing that would have been there since Odenbergs and Sew Hoys and all those factories.”

Tanya Carlson celebrates 20 years

Interior of the Carlson boutique at 120 Ponsonby Road in Auckland. Image by Carolyn Ebrey.

Change was also taking place at a retail level where consumers were embracing the idea of mixing up high and low fashion and mentioning that you found something at a chain store had less of a stigma in fashionable circles. The 2000s also saw online shopping rise in popularity with many international fashion brands available to New Zealand for the first time. Initially the fashion industry were pretty sceptical of the idea and designers felt that it was never going to be that popular at a higher price point because people would always want to try the clothes on and to have assistance. Over the past few years local fashion brands have come around to the idea and Carlson first launched an online store in 2012 which now enjoys regular traffic and good sales. It’s a convenient way to open the brand up to the world and due to the consistent nature of the garment fits the website has a very low return rate. “We are just so lucky with what doesn’t come back and I think that’s because we are still working from the same blocks that I would have done ten toiles on back in 1997,” laughs the designer.

Those great fits are one of the things that Carlson has become well known for and her cleverly designed garments really do flatter the female body. She cites her art school training as the grounding for her understanding of bodies with her sculpture and life drawing classes proving very useful in a fashion context. “I’ve been around a lot of naked bodies and you really understand what the shapes are,” she says. “Now it’s one of those things where I can look at someone and pretty much know their measurements, but that’s also because I’ve measured hundreds of women. It’s my trade.”

Perfecting her craft has long been an obsession of Carlson’s with the designer initially spending many hours honing her tailoring techniques. An obsession with bias-cutting, which was so popular in the 90s, saw the designer experimenting with bias-cut nightgowns. She pinned pieces of silk-satin on the wall overnight to see how the fabric fell, weighted hems and worked on different techniques until she had mastered bias-cutting and could add it to her repertoire of designs. The irony of course is that everything that was once popular in fashion comes back around and Carlson has once again found herself making bias-cut dresses this ball season although she admits that she still enjoys it and loves the look of the gowns.

All those dresses and in fact everything that the Carlson brand has ever produced has been made in New Zealand and it’s a twenty year history that the designer is particularly proud of. Although she explored the idea of offshore production in the early 2000s and again recently, it’s not an idea that sits well with Carlson partly because of the human rights and ethical issues around it as Carlson’s brother has long worked for Greenpeace.

She’s really pleased that the public are picking up on the ethical issues in fashion lately, noting that documentaries like The True Cost have had an effect on shoppers and they’re more conscious of buying local brands. “We’ve had ‘Made in New Zealand’ on the window for I don’t know, ten years, and I always felt a bit funny about it but I can’t remember who convinced me to do it,” she says. “Because I didn’t think it was relevant and that anyone cared but something’s changed that people are now asking ‘Where do you make your clothes?’ And I say ‘Well, here in Auckland, we make them in small factories and we have Mark upstairs who has made the pants I’m wearing and he’s been a tailor for many years.’ And they’re like ‘Really?’ It can just about push a sale over the line and before people did not care it was just lip service.”

That change in attitude and awareness of ethical issues is something Carlson has seen a lot of over the past few years in her role as head judge at the iD Emerging Designer Awards held as part of iD Dunedin Fashion Week. Carlson has been involved with iD since its inception in 1999 and she relishes the opportunity each year to support young talent. Carlson has also supported many emerging labels over the years and is well-known for nurturing up and coming designers. She loves their enthusiasm and creativity and is fascinated by the trends that come through in their work often long before it’s seen on the mainstream runways. “You start seeing this stuff coming through and you can see it from way out especially when they come from different parts of the world,” she says. “We’ve seen the zero waste idea and that they’re aware of pollution and they’re using natural dyes and that kind of thing. There has been this real feeling of small, tight collections, handmade, exclusivity and we were calling it technological craft because it’s this idea of doing all these things with technology but then the final result being hand crafted.”

Designs by Tanya Carlson on the iD Dunedin Fashion Week runway in March 2016. Image by Chris Sullivan.

It was at iD Dunedin Fashion Week that Carlson got to know good friend Amie Richardson, who has been the event’s publicist for the past few years. “I had been to Tanya’s workroom in Dunedin years ago and oohed and aahed over garments with friends but I first met Tanya properly in late 2011 at finalist selections for the upcoming (2012) iD International Emerging Designer Awards,” recalls Richardson. “She absolutely terrified me. I was pregnant, in that ‘frumpy’ stage and feeling very unfashionable – and she was, as always, fabulous in this amazing shirt and tailored pants. But it wasn’t just that she looked good, she had all of this knowledge that fell out of her – references to art, music, literature, design, she’d pick up each application and pore over it, citing this or that. It was impressive and frightening all at once.”

The two bonded during the busy days of iD preparations and the event itself with Richardson noting how generous Carlson is with her time and how her passion for the emerging designers meant that she would do anything she could to help them. Carlson’s skills as head judge are also invaluable to the competition especially her sharp eye for design. “She’s an absolute genius when it comes to understanding how garments fit on the body and creates the most incredible garments seemingly effortlessly. She’s also so much fun to work with, whether it’s a stressful situation or not,” adds Richardson.

Carlson’s long involvement with iD has given her the opportunity to invite several of her fashion designer friends to Dunedin over the years, either to show their collections at the ever popular Dunedin Railway Station show or serve as judges for the competition. This year she invited close friend Adrian Hailwood to return to iD and the two also hosted a joint event together with Bee Yu skincare. “She got me to come down to iD this year which was great. I hadn’t been down there for about ten years so that was awesome. I loved doing the show down there,” says Hailwood.

The two designers first met back in 2004 and have been close ever since. “I first met Tanya at the Hokonui Design Awards. It was her, me and Karen Walker, we were the judges. Cut to about four hours later and we were hooning around in the back of an old Holden drinking moonshine while these kids drove us around town. It was hilarious and we’ve been friends since then,” he laughs. “She’s a very loyal friend and she’s fun.”

Richardson concurs that Carlson is a loyal friend and counts the designer as one of those people that is always there when you need her. “When you’re a kid, you imagine your perfect friend – the one who always has your back, who’s at the end of every phone call, whether it’s three in the morning or seven at night, who tells you what you need to hear every time, who makes you laugh uncontrollably with every story and who will make you a stunning dress that fits you like a glove without ever having to be measured – well, that’s TC,” says Richardson. “She was on the phone to me every day when my husband Wayne died two years ago. But not just for the first few weeks. Every day for two years. And what’s truly incredible about her is that she’s always that kind of friend. To every person that she loves. I don’t know how she does that, and runs a business, and does iD and volunteers at the soup kitchen and is an amazing daughter, niece, sister, and boss, but she’s all of those things. As well as a genius designer who whips up a dress for a party in an afternoon – or who crafts an amazing slip out of vintage French lace for a friend just because she asks (that was me, Princess Amie)!”

Designer friends Adrian Hailwood and Tanya Carlson in Dunedin, March 2017 (left). Image from Tanya Carlson’s Instagram. Amie Richardson in a dress by Carlson (right). Image supplied.

Her friends couldn’t be happier for the designer’s successes and back in 2014 Carlson was very nearly an international name when the Duchess of Cambridge’s team came calling before the royal tour of New Zealand and Australia. Catherine has made a habit of wearing local designers in some of the different countries she has visited and her team requested a hard copy look book from the designer months out from the tour, eventually ordering twenty-five pieces of clothing to be sent to London. “It was kind of like Russian roulette,” says Carlson. “The first four came back and then five came back and then about three weeks later another two came back and then another one came back. And we were counting them off like we’re down to the last four and a suit came back and we were disappointed. But then she kept this one dress and we were like yes! It was navy silk and it had a bishop sleeve and it had pockets and it was just perfect. And we were like she’s keeping it. Oh my god!”

Given the well documented “Kate Effect” overseas the designer checked in with her factory as she had been told that they could sell a thousand units of the dress should the duchess wear it. “Vanessa who used to work for me said 56% of her wardrobe is navy, we’re in, we’re going to be famous and my whole staff were beside themselves,” she enthuses. “My mother was excited and she said ‘I told your aunt’ and I said ‘Mum, you’re not meant to tell anyone it’s confidential!’ Because you get the big letter from them saying it’s confidential. Anyway, in the end the dress came back and I came into work on a Saturday morning and it was there and I was upset. We were so close because it was the last one and we were so sure. And I was sniffing the armpits going oh my god it smells like her perfume she definitely tried it on. And then guess what happened? We got stung for VAT, Customs tried to make us pay for it. We fought with them for so long because it was a lot of money but in the end it got wiped. I was going to throw the packaging out the other day but an artist friend said ‘Keep it and we’ll make an artwork out of your rejection from the royal family.’ Anyway, it wasn’t to be but it would have been a lovely thing.”

While her garments may not have been worn by royalty yet, they have been worn by many well-known New Zealand women, with singer Holly Smith, Olympian Lisa Carrington and supermodel Rachel Hunter among those who have graced red carpets in Carlson’s designs. Twenty years is a long time to be making dresses but the designer still loves the work and is happiest when deftly draping fabric on a mannequin and then getting to work cutting and sewing her ideas.

When I return to Carlson’s Ponsonby workroom a month after our first interview, it’s just three weeks shy of New Zealand Fashion Week 2017 and the designer is busily preparing for a show that will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of her brand. Prince in his early 80s glory is gyrating on YouTube in the background while Carlson explains what she has in mind for her return to the fashion week runway.

“I kept thinking about how I would represent those twenty years on the runway and thinking about what my voice would be and because I’m not really wholesaling. I’ve got five stockists and I’m online but the landscape has changed so much it’s just incredible,” she says. “But I’ve always collected fabric because that’s what I’m interested in. And then I started thinking about the work I’ve been doing with the emerging designers and the changes that have come through over the past ten years with people’s attitudes and from digital printing etc. This year there was so much concern about upcycling and rethinking fashion and we’ve always seen it and it’s been influenced by Commes and Margiela etc. And I knew that with Cara being away it would be quite different for me just working by myself with one machinist. Cara and I have been working together for so long that we’re on the same wavelength and have a shorthand. I couldn’t really get my head around what would be the point of doing a great big winter collection either. I don’t know how relevant that is now if you’re not really wholesaling. So then I started thinking about this idea of making one-off pieces and finding the joy in making those again. And it doesn’t matter how much it costs or doesn’t cost and what fabric it’s in but just making clothes for the pure joy of making clothing.”

Tanya Carlson celebrates 20 years

Patterns (left) and rolls of fabric (right) in Tanya Carlson’s Ponsonby workroom. Images by Carolyn Ebrey.

The designer has done very few drawings for her collection this time but has been creating as she goes with influences ranging from the forties to the nineties in style. She is cleverly utilising her amazing collection of vintage fabrics that she acquired many years ago in Dunedin, so the colours are quite different from modern fabrics and she’s also used bits of delicate embroidery from older collections as well as a sample of fabric from her upcoming spring collection which beautifully ties together her past and present.

Carlson’s loyal team and many friends she’s worked with before have stepped up to help the designer with her show. Celebrated photographer Fiona Pardington has shot the images for the invitation while talented stylist Sarah Stuart is styling the looks for the runway. It’s support that Carlson is grateful for especially with the demands of the creative process. “What’s interesting is when I had a wobble I talked to Fiona and she said ‘Stop forecasting what you think it’s all going to look like, just keep working on each piece because it will all happen.’ So I can’t even particularly tell you what I’m going to do next, I don’t know. I’ll just play with the fabric and stand in front of the mirror until it gets there,” adds Carlson.

The collection will also be a reflection of where she is at as a designer, with Carlson less keen on doing glittering evening dresses as it’s not where she is at, at the moment. She is however going to explore big shapes and volume with the intention being that all the garments from the show will be available for sale in Carlson’s Ponsonby boutique a couple of days after the show. Giving Carlson fans a chance to own something truly unique and completely one-off.

The designer is also excited about being able to recognise her brand ambassadorship with Holden for her NZFW show. “It’s another opportunity to work with Holden as they’re such an extraordinary partnership for me,” she says. “I’ve loved working with them and I’m not just saying that. They’ll ask me what I want to do and then they’ll make it happen and it’s been magic, the cars, the support, and I think for them it’s quite interesting too because this twenty years is a special celebration.”

Carlson’s friends are excited for the designer’s big milestone celebration as well. “It’s a big achievement. It’s good that she is back doing a show at fashion week because she does do a great show. I’m really looking forward to it and I’m so proud of her,” says Hailwood.

“It’s such a significant achievement to reach this twenty-year milestone and this collection is a wonderful celebration of everything unique about her label. Tanya is a fighter who remains true to her design ethos and she should be very proud of reaching this twenty-year mark,” says Richardson, who is also doing Carlson’s PR for the event.

The days are counting down quickly now to New Zealand Fashion Week 2017 and of the many talented local brands that will take to the runway, Carlson’s show is definitely one of the most anticipated. The designer herself is excited about the chance to thank her loyal supporters and to treat them to a night of gorgeous fashion in true Carlson style.

“I’m quite looking forward to doing this,” she adds. “It’s interesting because so much of it is going to be great for so many people that I’ve worked with. I’ve invited so many people across the board that have helped the brand. It’s a thank you to everyone and that’s great. We’ve had a really interesting career as a brand and it just went up for a long time but I’m quite happy with where we are now, we’re in a good place.”

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