Op-ed: The ship hasn’t sailed, doll, but you still missed the boat

FashioNZ editor Phoebe Watt on why unconstructive criticism has no place at New Zealand Fashion Week

I’ve read three post-NZFW op-eds this week. The first and second were from highly respected journalists and fashion week veterans, whose words were nuanced and thoughtful and honest and fair. The third was penned by someone with more dubious credentials, and it felt cynical and ungenerous in a way that, for me, said more about the writer than the event.

Does fashion week matter? It’s a question that’s been debated for many years, long before NZFW: Kahuria 2023 and long before Covid, when digital and VR technology coupled with the rise of social media began to democratise how fashion could be consumed. Naturally, these options immediately appealed to new designers for their relative ease and economy, and the pandemic only shored up our notion of what could be achieved off the runway.

Pre-NZFW, Business of Fashion editor at large Tim Blanks – one of Aotearoa’s most accomplished fashion exports and a front row fixture in New York, London, Milan and Paris – wrote an opinion for FashioNZ on this very subject. TLDR? He’s still pro-fashion week.

Another recent FashioNZ coup with her piece on New Zealand’s world-leading initiatives to centre indigenous talent, prolific Australian fashion writer Patty Huntington is also firmly of that camp. I know this because I sat beside her at several shows last week. I desperately wanted to record our conversations for posterity but I didn’t, so I hope she will forgive me for this paraphrased version of what she said:

“Fashion week is like having to do a presentation at work. It forces you to distill a collection down to a 10 minute show. To use every second on that soapbox to communicate and connect with your audience of media, buyers and consumers and ensure that they will remember your clothes for as long as they are on the shop floor.“

We talked about how a fashion show means taking every nebulous idea and emotion that went into the creative soup of that collection, and reducing it right down to its pure essence.

“It requires discipline,” says Patty (still paraphrasing). “There are hard deadlines to meet and, particularly for younger brands, these hugely valuable learning opportunities are few and far between. No one actually likes to make the PowerPoint, or present the sales deck in the meeting. It’s much easier to have loose conversations over lunches and circle back ad infinitum. But it sure is the most compelling way to get people on the same page as you, and that’s what a fashion week is all about.”

Now, an economical argument. NZFW is an industry trade show, and one that over the course of its 22-year lifespan has employed and created future employment opportunities for tens of thousands of New Zealanders. A great many of these New Zealanders have come from less-than privileged backgrounds, despite the event’s elitist connotations (the lowest-hanging anti-fashion week fruit, if you were to spend just half an hour on the premises making conversation with delegates, workers and attendees from every walk of life).

I cannot think of another industry trade show whose economic value, cultural relevance, environmental impact and social responsibility towards every marginalised community in Aotearoa is so routinely questioned by commentators who are never more concerned about their tax dollars than when a few governmental gold coins are tossed in the metaphorical guitar case of the arts.

I have certainly never read a think piece by a fashion commentator about the social responsibility of Fieldays to our underrepresented communities and our environment. The closest we’ve come might have been a moment referenced by Zoe Walker of Ensemble this week, which recalled Kate Sylvester taking a direct swipe at the then-National government, imploring them to “look up from over the farm fence” and see “that there is more to NZ than milk and mutton”.

Farming is the bedrock of our economy. I’m not fucking dumb. And, our fashion industry also generates 2.3 billion dollars a year, with a projected annual growth rate of 12.08% setting it up to be worth 3.6 billion dollars by 2027. A report published in 2021 cited that the New Zealand fashion industry employs 30,000 people across local manufacture and retail. In a country that has such a perpetual hard-on for entrepreneurialism and that elevates – at times misguidedly – made-in-New Zealand manufacturing, maybe we should all be a little more supportive of the small group of designers and slightly larger (but not enormous) number of local businesses propping up this entire sector.

And then there is the Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei partnership, which solidified New Zealand Fashion Week’s long-standing commitment to supporting Māori designers and artistry. A personal passion of NZFW founder Dame Pieter Stewart and an arm of the event she nurtured in her two decades at its helm, the unprecedented number of Māori and indigenous designers in this year’s main schedule – which included Kiri Nathan’s history-making opening show – set a new standard for Māori and Pasifika visibility that will not only enrich the event in years to come, but infuse mana and brilliance into our local fashion industry as a result.

The Māori name Kahuria, meaning ‘to adorn’, was officially gifted to New Zealand Fashion Week by Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei following a moving powhiri at Ōrākei Marae last Monday. This early morning invitation overlooking the Waitematā Harbour replaced the usual Monday evening opening soirée, which has historically given way to a lot of small talk and even more imbibing – frequently to undignified ends.

One critic has openly lamented the lack of such indignities at this year’s event. You might be familiar with some of the stories from fashion week’s so-called ‘hey day’: C-list WAGs throwing champagne in each other’s faces, taking the spotlight – and precious column inches – off the hardworking designers we’re all supposed to be there to celebrate. I know I’m not alone in saying that I would choose a sausage roll and a cup of tea at Ōrākei Marae every time. And to that critic – it’s a shame you weren’t invited to the private boat party where one mystery guest (don’t ask who, I didn’t) allegedly fellated a bottle of Mumm. Sounds like much more your scene.

Yes, this year’s event left room for improvement. And how exciting that such improvement is all-but guaranteed under the stewardship of NZFW’s new owner Feroz Ali, whose multi-million dollar international business portfolio belies his humble beginnings as a Fiji-born, South Auckland-raised Papatoetoe High School student. A true man of the people, Feroz was everywhere at fashion week, attending shows and tirelessly introducing himself to attendees up and down the food chain, sincerely asking for (and listening to) their feedback and – I am absolutely certain, because he told me – noting it all down at the end of each day. From this working document, NZFW: Kahuria 2024 will be born.

So sure, the front-of-venue situation was a touch tumbleweed-y when compared to the hundreds of influencers, street style photographers and brand activations that contribute to the buzz of our closest competitor and frame-of-reference, Afterpay Australia Fashion Week (psst, the clue is in the naming sponsor). Add a few blocks of empty seats, and some might call this evidence that the NZFW ship has sailed.

Not only do I disagree, but I must ask: if you really purport to care about local designers and their teams, and are ostensibly here to hype up their work – not least after four years of them being battered by Covid and now in the unenviable position of trying to rebuild their businesses in a global recession – why would you use the privilege of your platform just to put punters off?

If the ship has sailed, doll, I guess we won’t see you next year, and that’s okay. From what I saw at fashion week, there are plenty of serious fashion enthusiasts who will gratefully take your seat.