Exclusive op-ed: Australasia’s biggest fashion critic Patty Huntington takes on NZFW: Kahuria

Australia’s foremost fashion journalist Patty Huntington has reported from NZFW for over a decade. Here she reflects on Aotearoa’s world-leading approach to indigenous fashion


With one word New Zealand Fashion Week wakens, reimagined, from its four-year COVID slumber. It’s a new era for the event, which is under new management, and there is a greater First Nations focus than ever before. Kahuria is the Māori word for “to adorn” and it’s a gift from the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei people. For the first time, moreover, a Māori designer – Kiri Nathan – has been accorded the week’s opening slot. No less than 10 Māori designers will stage solo shows. Even the cocktail party that usually opens proceedings on the Monday evening was jettisoned this year in favour of a traditional Māori pōwhiri at a local marae. It’s a cultural watershed moment for the event.

In 2021, a year after the pandemic put physical fashion shows everywhere on pause – and the Black Lives Matter movement swept the world – Afterpay Australian Fashion Week similarly returned from its own pandemic hiatus with an unprecedented First Nations focus. Unlike AAFW, however, which had previously only ever showcased one or two Australian Indigenous brands, NZFW introduced the group Māori showcase, Miromoda, back in 2009. In recent years, a reflection no doubt of the development of the Māori and Pacific Islander fashion sector, more and more Māori designers began to show solo on the broader schedule. In 2018 I recall seeing Nathan’s magnificent hand-woven korowai cloaks and dresses, paired with Pounamu jewellery crafted by Jason Nathan. In 2019, Jeanine Clarkin showed a collection made from upcycled vintage blankets alongside Shona Tawhiao’s spectacular couture pieces woven from flax. The same year, Bobby Campbell-Luke made his solo NZFW debut with a spine-tingling multimedia presentation, at the conclusion of which a spontaneous haka erupted from the audience.

Thursday’s Miromoda show will feature not only another group of emerging Māori designers, but also the work of Ikuntji Artists from the remote Haasts Bluff community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Three months after they became the first Aboriginal arts centre to stage a solo show at AAFW, they will be the first Indigenous Australian designers to present at NZFW in a decade and the first ever Aboriginal arts centre to show there.

I think it’s a fair call to say that New Zealand and Australia are playing key roles in what is emerging as a global flowering of First Nations fashion. In 2017, the first Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week was launched. Earlier this month it was announced that the first Indigenous Fashion Week in the United States will be staged in Santa Fe in May 2024. In June I attended Fiji Fashion Week where there was not only a small delegation from the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia, but another group all the way from Saskatchewan in Canada, with Plains Cree designer Helen Oro bringing an entourage of models, colleagues and friends to support her show in Suva on June 3rd.

I have attended NZFW: Kahuria as a guest so many times, I have lost count. Easily a dozen. Event founder Pieter Stewart and her team did an incredible job getting the event off the ground and shepherding it through its first 20 years. One of New Zealand’s greatest fashion exports, Karen Walker, once made an interesting observation to me, something I have often relayed to others. “It’s a hug” said Walker, about the value of NZFW to the New Zealand fashion industry.

Patty Huntington talks to FashioNZ ahead of NZFW

Patty Huntington

The event has wrapped its arms around, and lifted up, a galaxy of NZ fashion stars. From industry stalwarts such as Zambesi, Nom D, Kate Sylvester, Tanya Carlson, Trelise Cooper and World, brilliant retailers all, to the new, much more globally-ambitious generation that has emerged in recent years. The latter include Wynn Hamlyn, Maggie Marilyn, Paris Georgia, Georgia Alice and Harman Grubisa, the first New Zealand brand to make it to the global finals of the International Woolmark Prize for the competition’s 2017-18 edition.

Many, many memorable moments include every edgy show by Stolen Girlfriends Club, World’s creative extravaganzas and Kate Sylvester’s 2019 ‘Love Letters’ show. For the latter, the runway was strewn with reproductions of love letters Sylvester’s parents had written to each other during their courtship in the 1950s, with the show set to a hypnotic live soundtrack from local dream pop duo Purple Pilgrims. Yes a number of those brands have shown at AAFW, but it’s never quite the same as seeing them on home turf, with a home town crowd.

Beyond their long-time First Nations focus, Pieter and team also deserve credit in the #disabilityvisibility space, partnering with Grace Stratton’s All Is For All consultancy and creative agency in 2019 to cast models with disability in multiple shows that year. Bravo.

The event also always punched above its weight on special guests. From Sex And The City stylist Rebecca Weinberg to fashion bloggers Bryanboy and Diane Pernet and American fashion designer Nicole Miller. And who can forget Pamela Anderson and her side-kick Richie Rich, who travelled to Auckland in 2009 to present their A*Muse collection. I recall the riotous press conference that preceded the show, Anderson barely managing to cover her breasts, wrapped in nothing more than a large pink pareo.

It’s so great to see the event back down at the Viaduct Harbour, the bustling heart of Auckland, a city that has been transformed, time and time again, by the America’s Cup. New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria was born slap bang in the middle of the 2000 and 2003 regattas. It’s a water baby and long may it reign on Waitematā Harbour.