Esse designer Alicia Tee’s ode to Aotearoa’s native plants


Alicia Tsi, designer and founder at Esse

Designer Alicia Tsi’s love of hiking through nature is the creative seed behind her newest collection. Her sustainable label Esse pays homage to New Zealand’s flora and fauna this spring/summer, introducing new styles and re-imagined signatures in a palette that invites wearers to bathe in the soft, soothing shades of New Zealand’s natural beauty.

An ode to Aotearoa’s native plants, with colours like the soulful Kumarahou green and bright Kiokio fern red, the new collection also explores unique textures that mimic the natural world, introducing undyed fabrics to Esse’s library of sustainable fabrics, like the Yoyru Organic Cotton she sourced from Japan.

Aptly named ‘The land we tread’, the collection draws inspiration from nature and sense of place from Alicia’s nature hikes, where always she finds most peace.

“So many places inspire me, and I return from each hike/walk with renewed inspiration,” says Alicia. “A few recent highlights are the Te Henga walk, a two-day tramping trip up Mount Angelus and day walks in the Mount Arthur region.”

Esse is also collaborating with New Zealand-based Danish artist, Mamakan, on a series of botanical art installations, called Forestscapes, featuring many of the native plants that are represented in the Esse collection. The pair met through an Art of Foraging workshop hosted by Mamakan and a shared appreciation for nature, in particular New Zealand native plants, led to the creation of a fashion colour palette for Esse and Forestscape artwork created from the same native plants.

Mamakan is a botanical artist working with art, cuisine, and nature, creating contemporary fine art photography and multi-sensory art/food installations and exhibitions. The Mamakan x Esse Forestscape is an installation of foraged native flora and fauna from Mamakan’s forest, Velskov, in Waitakere Ranges and is an ever-evolving art piece that transitions through the seasons.

Forestscapes will be on display and be available to purchase exclusively at Esse’s store at Bloc Collective from 16 October 2022. Proceeds from the purchase of each Forestscape will go towards the regenerative efforts of Velskov to raise awareness around the benefits of native forests.

To celebrate the launch of the collaboration, Mamakan and Esse are hosting a meet-the-artist and botanical tasting at Esse’s store (located within Bloc Collective, Auckland) on 16 October for people to immerse themselves in a sensory experience where fashion, art, and nature intersect. ‘The land we tread’ collection is also available in-store and online now.


FashioNZ finds out more about the collaboration and Esse’s new collection.

As a designer, what appeals to you about collaborating with other creative minds?

I try to embrace longevity in everything that I do and a slower, more thoughtful way of life. This has naturally trickled down to the creative minds our brand chooses to collaborate with, especially artists, creatives, and makers who do things a little differently. I believe that nurturing relationships with other creative minds also inspires my design practice and pieces that I put out into the world.

Secondly, I understand how tough it is to be running a woman-led brand and would like Esse to stand for something more. Our brand, therefore, has a deep commitment to nurturing creative, women-led communities, fostering thought, enriching others, and championing positive change.

Finally, these collaborations give us an opportunity to foster bonds with our community beyond digital connections. Through our collaborations, we can create a space where like-minded people can come to connect, interact and build real-life connections.

What part of the collaboration process do you most enjoy?

Definitely the ideation stage, where we’re putting our creative hats together. Whether it’s designing a product, conceiving a colour palette, or creating a concept, it’s pretty amazing what different creative minds can conceive together.

What was the highlight of this specific collaboration with Mamakan?

Working with Mamakan to create a special colour palette that inspired our collection. We were out in her forest, Velskov, foraging and looking at plants. I’ve learnt a lot more about native plants through this process.


From your original meeting at the Art of Foraging workshop, how did your relationship progress and evolve through to the completed collection?

I think it was an organic progression. I know Mamakan personally and we have mutual connections. The collaboration felt like a natural thing because of both our ethos and approach to the way we create/design and the source we draw our inspiration from.

Do you have designs in mind first or do the colour palette and inspiration of nature inspire the designs?

That’s a tricky one. I think that the inspiration behind our designs is sparked from a myriad of sources. I usually start with classic and timeless silhouettes that I add contemporary touches to. The colour palette that we work with is definitely inspired by nature as I am drawn to earthy and neutral tones.

How important is that connection to Aotearoa’s great outdoors to you, both personally and professionally?

On a personal level, nature is a powerful reminder of my roots and local heritage. There have been many moments where I’ve found peace and a sense of self when I’m out in nature and it has been a source of instilling well-being – making time for self, meditation, and exercise.

On a professional level, nature is the impetus behind our brand’s purpose to build a better fashion brand that minimises our impact on the environment.


Some thoughts around New Zealand flora and fauna and your love/appreciation of it

I love the unique flora and fauna of New Zealand. Many of New Zealand’s animals and plants are endemic, and New Zealand’s biodiversity makes a significant contribution to overall global diversity with an estimated 80,000 endemic species, making the country a ‘hotspot’ for biodiversity. The fact that there are so many unique animals and plants to discover is something that continuously fascinates me.

Pests and habitat loss is pushing many of New Zealand’s endemic species toward extinction, and I hope that this collection will shine a light on the diversity of New Zealand’s flora and fauna and help others gain a newfound appreciation of our land.

How important is where you source your fabric from to you?

Much of the environmental impact of fashion happens at the raw materials stage, even before the actual garments have been made. That’s why fabric selection is important to us; it affects the way people will care for their garment and how their garment goes back to the earth eventually.

Is there a hero piece in your new collection that you find yourself reaching for most regularly?

The Twist and Turn Toga Top and Twist and Turn Toga Dress – I have that in all three colours. It’s an elegant style that’s figure-flattering and they are both versatile and easy to dress up and down.


How has your own personal style evolved in recent years?

I’ve been gravitating towards classics that work within my existing wardrobe and have been conscientiously trying to develop a capsule wardrobe with versatile pieces that work for many occasions. I also like a mix of feminine styles that are minimal, simple and clean.

Three things you’d love everyone to know about Esse

  1. We’re always trying to move the needle forward in our initiatives to improve our environmental and social impact. More information about our brand’s progress can be found here.
  2. We work solely with fabrics made from natural fibres.
  3. We work with a team of tailors located in Vietnam and Indonesia, which ensures that we know each of them and that all our pieces are ethically made. It also keeps us nimble and allows us to tailor our pieces to our customers (especially with our made-to-order range, Wardrobe Heroes, and bespoke pieces for special occasions).

Something about you people might be surprised to know

I’m not design-trained and am entirely self-taught. When I was 20, I took night classes with a tailor for three to four years to learn the ropes behind dress-making.




Images supplied