The harrowing inspiration behind a healing showcase

Campbell Luke creative director Dr Bobby Luke reveals the multiple layers and common threads that form the tapestry of his new collection

When FashioNZ speaks with academic and designer Dr Bobby Luke days ahead of his NZFW: Kahuria runway show, his collection is almost complete. Unsurprisingly, some nerves are beginning to crackle. But this year, the designer also feels a little fragile. His show, Oranga Ngākau, comes from a heavy heart that has been healing.

“When I start a collection, I always start with a kind of feeling,” says Dr Luke (Ngāti Ruanui). “My brother passed away last year, so I’ve been in a space of grief and vulnerability. And I think that was the feeling that I attached myself to – to help me create this show. It is more sensitive, to the point, because he committed suicide. So I have been considering wellbeing, and really appreciating my process as a form of healing.”

Deeply personal and powerful, the approach is typical of Dr Luke. “You are what you create, and sometimes you can be in different spheres of mental wellbeing,” he says. “I think if we are able to shape our creative practice by the way we are shaped, then our outcomes become authentic. It also widens the opportunity for other people to relate to it.”

It’s a sort-of paradox until you consider that Dr Luke’s very personal experience is not unique here in Aotearoa. On the subject of our nation’s collective wellbeing, he remarks, “It’s not great, particularly when it comes to male suicide. It’s actually quite horrible.”

While such devastating subjects are not your usual New Zealand fashion show fodder, since his first solo show in 2019, Dr Luke has become well-known for creating atmospheric and ambient spaces that transcend the traditional idea of a runway as a platform for turning out new looks. “I think it’s important to address [wellbeing] in spaces where it doesn’t usually get addressed,” he says.

His second solo showing will again start with an inspiring film and performance. Then, we will encounter the focal point of the collection – transparent clothing. It’s a reference to the unseen layers of grief. “I’ve been thinking about and working with this concept of layers and layering, and specifically how it speaks to the dexterity of the healing process,” says Dr Luke. “The meaning of Oranga Ngākau…it’s about life, really. It’s about the nuances of uplifting our spirits.”

Lovingly passed-on fabrics that are as evocative as they appear sensible have always been central to the Campbell Luke story. The new collection will start with a crisp, white palette made with sheets from a friend whose mother recently passed away. Then there is a moment for rich chocolate browns, before moving into patterns made from more special sheets. “A lot are from my own family and imbued with different stories,” says Dr Luke. At the show’s end, there is a return to nature through light green-coloured cloth. “Everything is considered,” he adds. “Everything has been touched, felt and voiced.”

For the collection, Campbell Luke has collaborated with Noa Blanket Co and its founders, Whakaawa and Josh Te Kani, who share his same sentiments for the show. “They are two beautiful human beings that have created a business around wool blankets in a way that emulates a lot of our Māori Taonga,” says Dr Luke, citing the pair’s use of kaitaka, korowai (cloaks) and toi raranga (art of weaving) in their practise. “It brings this idea of wrapping someone, and that reminds me of the blanket of my mother. I’m covered and I’m cloaked in her korowai.”

The label has also partnered with Aotea, a skincare brand led by Rongoā Māori (traditional Māori healing systems) to launch a nurturing skincare package and a soon-to-be-revealed installation. “It speaks to the different nuances of what rongoā medicine is,” says Dr Luke.

The many references to wellbeing that are infused into the show mean that the show itself functions as a kind of mirror that Dr Luke is holding up to the industry. “It’s stressful. You’re up late trying to sew something, or you’re trying to meet a deadline – and these things need to be addressed,” says Dr Luke. “That’s part of the journey that I’m on now. I need to stop, and I need to consider my rest.”

It’s fitting for an event that is reemerging this week after a four-year reset. Under new ownership and management, NZFW has partnered with Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and been gifted a Māori name – Kahuria. Dr Luke was among a group of designers who were consulted on the changes, and asked what they would like to see during the Week. “I probably wasn’t the only one, but one of my ideas was to acknowledge the people where the land is. We’re part of iwi and hapu, and it’s about respecting that space and centralising the manawhenua that we are associated with in Tamaki Makaurau,” he says. “It probably moved [the new owners] towards this idea of centralising a Māori worldview of Fashion Week, which has been present in previous years, but never to the extent that it should have been.”

While some may question the resurgence of NZFW: Kahuria during a cost-of-living crisis being felt across the country and around the world, Dr Luke has, as ever, a holistic view. “I know the living crisis is global, and that living is way too expensive. It affects different businesses, and people’s spending behaviours are different now,” he says. “Even so, I think an event like Fashion Week is important for giving a leg up to new designers and new businesses. We need to focus on the emerging designers that are coming through. To add to the industry, and to just have a moment to celebrate.”

Dr Luke has been to every Fashion Week since wagging school to volunteer as an usher at age 15. Now, at 30 years old, he can appreciate how the event has changed. “I can’t help but think about the 15-year-old Bobby, if he could have gone to a show and seen beautiful Māori, and felt that acknowledgment that we actually belong in this space. It might’ve saved me from having to go through this kind of assimilation, just to be someone I’m not.” he says. “I think I would have had an easier and more inclusive experience coming up in the industry if I had seen myself reflected in it sooner.”

After high school, “little Bobby” became a design student at the Auckland University of Technology, where issues with representation persisted. “Going into tertiary as a Māori, I didn’t have any wrap-around of how to imbue more Māori concepts within my design practice,” he says. “Because I was still going back home [to Tauranga], I didn’t disregard my Māori Taonga. I just never acknowledged it.”

It wasn’t until putting together his final graduate collection that Dr Luke saw how he could bring his two worlds together: through lens-based work. Film and photography were his passions as a teenager, and inspired by the likes of Ans Westra and Fiona Pardington in New Zealand, and Christian Boltanski internationally, he learned how to tell stories by referencing clothing in memorable imagery. “It does have a certain ‘style of the times’ about it, but I knew that a lot of my community, my whanau, would recognise what that was about,” says Dr Luke. “That little shiver you get when you see something that brings up a nostalgic moment, or that makes you remember something that was important to you.”

Dr Luke says he was “fortunate enough” to have “good enough” experiences at the start of his fashion career, which included an internship at Iris van Herpen in the Netherlands and various roles at Trelise Cooper in New Zealand. “I knew what to take from those experiences and what to manipulate to work for myself, as well as other Māori,” he says. “The only really negative was just not seeing myself represented. I never had a problem being part of the community. I love this industry. I love the people in it. It was just not being able to see myself in it from the outset.”

As a pracademic (practising academic) at Victoria University Of Wellington Te Herenga Waka – and one of the first Māori artists to gain a PhD in fashion – Dr Luke is able to pass his knowledge onto new talent coming through. From research to creative projects and mentoring, his work is driven by symbiotic relationships. This includes being a programme lead and lecturer, as well as a chair or member of five different University committees. The emerging academic is also part of Māori business community the Kāhui Foundation – founded by fellow indigenous designer, Kiri Nathan.

While tight-knit local connections are integral to its mahi, the Kāhui Foundation has a global outlook that is shared by Dr Luke. “In Aotearoa it’s just so inwards, in terms of how people see fashion and the potential that it has,” he says. “The global industry doesn’t have to be the biggest problem. It can be the biggest thing to be a part of – in different, more nuanced and inclusive ways.”

Last year, Campbell Luke attended Fiji Fashion Week for both a showcase and whakawhanaungatanga (the process of establishing meaningful relations with others). Following on from NZFW: Kahuria, most of Dr Luke’s collection will travel with him to the Indigenous Fashion Arts’ Biennale in Canada early next year. Looking even further ahead, his long-term plan is to explore the potential of indigenous fashion film on a global, moving scale. “That’s kind of my next thing, to connect more indigenous across the oceans.”

Wherever he goes, Dr Luke is responding to his environment in holistic, healing ways. “People talk about sustainability as a journey, not a destination,” he says. “I believe indigenous people made that journey over 600 years ago – and if we are all on board, we will be able to get to the destination.”

If you, or a loved one, is struggling with mental health, free call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 to talk to a trained counsellor at Lifeline.