Kiri Nathan: “There’s a mindset that Māori fashion is just patterns on shirts. We’re changing that”

8 takeaways from our conversation with NZFW: Kahuria opening act, Kiri Nathan

Back in lockdown 2020, Showroom 22 founder and director and FashioNZ publisher Murray Bevan invited a handful of Aotearoa’s most formidable fashion forces to speak on a podcast about the state of fashion here in New Zealand and around the world.

Poised to open NZFW: Kahuria with her much-anticipated runway show on Tuesday August 29, designer Kiri Nathan was one of those voices. We share an exclusive excerpt of her conversation with Murray, here.

On perceptions of Māori design

“People think Māori design is patterns on shirts. We decided early on that we wanted to try and create something that had never been seen or experienced before. We wanted to offer an high level garment, beautifully made, beautiful pounamu – quality pounamu, authentic pounamu – and woven pieces that just simply weren’t being made at the time. We made a conscious decision that we were going to be in that higher retail bracket.”

On taking Māori designers to the global stage

Founder of mentoring programme the Kāhui Māori Fashion Collective, Kiri notably led a hikoi to China in 2019 for 15 Māori designers.

“I had some wonderful connections here in New Zealand who introduced us to some incredible contacts throughout China. These fashion leaders in China – for example Shang Xia, which is a top luxury Chinese brand and by extension, one of the top luxury brands in the world – were so generous with the information they shared, from their business philosophies, to how they meet their markets.

The whole experience was such a crucial reference point not just for these 15 Māori designers I was mentoring, but for myself as well. It was living, breathing proof of how you can move traditional culture into a contemporary context while still maintaining total respect for those cultural traditions and origins.”

On fostering a trust-based industry 

“I’ve had a few young Māori designers come to me and say, ‘Look, I really need some help with such and such, can you help me?’ My immediate response is always, of course. It really sparks a fire in me because I think there’s no reason for designers to go through the challenges that I did. And I quickly found that the only way to put my money where my mouth is was to completely open all of my networks, all of my learning and all of my industry experience, not just bits of it.

I feel that the fashion industry, for such a long time, was running on fear. Fear of someone else taking your market position, fear of someone else finding the better machinist or the better pattern drafter, or just getting some leverage over the next person. And it just makes me feel quite sick to the stomach to be honest, that the industry and so many people have suffered under that system of gatekeeping for so long.”

On the challenges for local brands to scale and export

“There are lots of Māori fashion brands that are in the ready-to-wear bracket, they’re all New Zealand made. But they are operating at a level where it’s just too hard or too expensive to do the big orders from overseas or to take on the big overseas players.”

On moving beyond tokenism

“In the past there was no space at all [for Māori fashion design], and there was very little encouragement from the industry and the big fashion stakeholders unless it was kind of tokenistic. It was like, ‘Oh, we need a little bit of culture in here, so we’ll find someone that’s got a koru on something and we’ll pop that in.’ But there was nothing that was legitimately supportive of business for indigenous fashion.

So at the moment, I’m trying to build – or I’m in the process of building – an online department store for indigenous fashion.”

On creating her own department store

“My idea is to build a space that eliminates the challenges indigenous designers face in terms of being carried by certain stores that, if I’m honest, probably aren’t set up for our market to walk through their doors. And also, they probably couldn’t sell the pieces appropriately. For instance, if we stocked particular pieces of pounamu in New Zealand’s mainstream department stores, they probably wouldn’t even be able to pronounce the words properly, let alone communicate the stories and the depth behind the designs. Ultimately, the idea comes down to supporting indigenous creatives, and that means having total respect for where they’re drawing inspiration from.”

On balancing indigenous knowledge with modern business

“The Kāhui Māori Fashion Collective is a 12-month mentorship programme where I can take on 10 designers, introducing them to specialists in Māori IP. They’ll talk about responsibility to culture, they’ll talk about how you commercialise and grow without compromising the cultural integrity of your brand. There’s always going to be a whole lot at play, but the responsibility comes down to the creative and to the owner and business person, and I see my role as empowering them to make the right decisions.”

On celebrating and creating from a cultural point of view

“It’s more a way of being for us. And it’s all about authenticity, and the fact that we started a business that was an extension of what we believe in, and of our personal values. When I speak to the brand or the label – because it has such a strong Māori ethos and aesthetic – we’re drawing on our culture, and being endlessly inspired by our country. And because I draw so heavily on that inspiration, I feel a direct responsibility to give back in every way that I can.”

Listen to the full conversation with Kiri Nathan here.