Clothing has long been a way for human beings to express themselves; it’s a signifier of social status and a powerful means to make a statement about who we are, where we fit in society and how we interpret the world around us.
Globally, the fashion landscape is changing and there has been a definitive shift towards the fluidity of identity, where ‘difference’ is embraced whether in gender, sexually or ethnicity.
This has filtered into the designer space and a new ‘eclecticism’ in fashion.
For designers, being part of an eclectic mix is fine as long as long as the key ingredient - ‘originality’ - is present.
But how challenging is it to find a unique voice in an overcrowded market? And what does it take for designers to establish a sense of authenticity in a landscape like New Zealand - a country without a long-standing fashion tradition or history - and a growing multicultural identity?
Zimbabwe-born designer Chido Dimairo came to New Zealand 15 years ago and says people have a limited perception of her culture and what it looks like.
It’s something she found challenging when exploring her identity in her design process and she found herself playing with the cultural cliches of colourful head wraps and bright African prints.
“That’s not African fashion,” she laughs but says venturing into that territory was necessary to find the subtle nuances that are now present in her work. Dimairo says embracing her cultural roots has given her more freedom.
A recent spotlight on African fashion on the international stage has also inspired the designer who says it breaks down cultural barriers and misconceptions by showcasing luxury pieces made by African designers.
“I really enjoy is being part of the changing face of African fashion, especially in New Zealand because it’s an incubator for ideas and creative people,” she says.
Christchurch-born Yoshino Maruyama works for sustainable label Kowtow. She’s a designer in her own right and this year showed a collection at New Zealand Fashion Week.
Maruyama says establishing her voice in the industry has come with questions about her Japanese heritage and the way she wants to work with her point of difference.
“I don’t want to ‘other’ myself and [say] I’m this Japanese designer, but I think that it’s part of who I am,” she says.
Fashion designers from Jean Paul Gaultier to Alexander McQueen have looked to Japan for inspiration.
Some extract ideas from the kimono through to Japanese minimalism, or youth culture movements on the streets of Harajuku as famously photographed in Fruits Magazine by its founder, Shoichi Aoki.
But for Maruyama, none of this relates to how she sees and understands her culture and the way it informs her design.
“That wasn’t my perspective,” says the New Zealand-born designer who wants to add something long lasting to the industry, and that means avoiding trends and steering clear of cultural cliches.
“New Zealand is [a western country and] we see a lot of Asia through the western gaze, so I think it can be confusing to see it through that lens and then to see what it’s really like,” she says.
Identity is fluid and our cultural roots are part of who we are, but the importance we place on our heritage and how we relate to our sense of identity can shift.
Wellington-based Yuka Maud is an established designer who runs under the label, Otsu.
Establishing herself first in the Japanese fashion industry she was often told that her garments fit a European aesthetic.
But on arriving in New Zealand over a decade ago, her approach to design transformed unexpectedly, becoming identifiably more Japanese.
The designer takes inspiration from Japanese patchwork and says limited access to textiles in New Zealand has indirectly informed her quirky aesthetic.
“To be a designer here you have to use more of your imagination, more techniques and more of ‘you’ rather than [relying on] materials,” she says.
For emerging menswear designer Jacob Coutie there is a direct correlation between identity and style.
This year, he won the Emerging Designer Award in the Miromoda section of New Zealand Fashion week and says his nomadic streetwear aesthetic was informed by investigating Tikanga Māori - it’s traditions and philosophy, and the idea that Māori play many different roles within society.
“I’ve definitely departed from the very western look [so] I’m not doing obvious sportswear, or obvious tailoring,” Coutie says.
The realm of Māori design isn’t fixed, and nor should it be. Coutie’s work speaks of luxury, new ideas, texture, light and shade and a fresh approach to masculinity.
It’s rich and expressive and he injects his own interpretation of his experiences as a bi-cultural New Zealander into his work.
Coutie says his culture isn’t something he’ll always think so overtly about in his work, but he knows he can draw on for inspiration because it will always be part of him.
“There’s a lot of expression that happens within design [and] I have this moral obligation [as] the eldest of the mokopuna [to express my identity]. It definitely has an importance for me moving forward,” Coutie says.