In February this year, fashion designer Kiri Nathan created the physical manifestation of a vision she’d been carrying in her head for three years – a luxury pop-up shop in Auckland’s premier shopping precinct, Britomart, for the Kāhui Collective of Māori fashion designers.
Along with Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Waikato Tainui), designers included Ryan Turner (Ngāpuhi), Kohi Woodman (Ngāpuhi), Mitchell Vincent (Ngāti Tūwharetoa), Bobby Campbell-Luke (Ngāti Ruanui), Nichola Te Kiri (Ngāi Tūhoe), Te Orihau Karaitiana (Ngāti Kahungunu) Jacob Coutie (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Wairere) and Adrienne Whitewood (Rongowhakaata).
Kāhui, the te reo word for collective – “like a flock of birds or a constellation of stars” – marks the beginning of a Māori fashion movement, something that Nathan believes has been non-existent in Aotearoa, in spite of the best efforts of Miromoda at New Zealand Fashion Week, a competition run by Ata Te Kanawa and supported by Dame Pieter Stewart that will go into its 11th year in 2021.
Although Miromoda does an excellent job as a showcase for Māori designers, it falls short on creating the crucial trade opportunities needed to ensure these small and micro businesses become viable.
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The Kāhui pop-up closed two days before New Zealand’s borders did.
“It was a great success,” says Nathan. “We were able to gauge how we could operate in the same space, while still maintaining our individual brand identities and we had fantastic sales.”
Of course, the world has changed since then and plans to show at New York and Shanghai Fashion Weeks were scrapped, but, Nathan says, from a business perspective she sees only opportunities for Kāhui.
The mother-of-five is no stranger to overcoming hardship. Her journey from a troubled childhood in Glenn Ines, Auckland, cleaning toilets as a young, single mother to put herself through a fashion design course, financial hardship that saw her put her fashion career on hold for years while she worked as a flight attendant for Air New Zealand to pay the bills, has been well-documented.
So, too, has the frosty reception she got from the local fashion industry when she finally launched her eponymous brand 10 years ago, producing bespoke fashion, contemporary handwoven Kākahu (garments) alongside pounamu jewellery and artwork carved by her husband and business partner, Jason Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Ngati Whātua).
Then there are her many accolades: She won Style Pasifika in 2008, the inaugural Miromoda fashion award at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2009 and was the first New Zealand creative to be invited to London Fashion Week’s International Showcase.
She was also the first selected for an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) by the US State Department for Women in Entrepreneurship. She won the Supreme Award at the Māori Women’s Development Inc. Business Awards, and a Blake Leader award in 2019.
She was honoured as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Māori and the fashion industry in the 2020 Queen’s Honours List and was a finalist in the recent Stuff-Westpac NZ Women of Influence Awards.
She dressed Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her UN General Assembly Speech, Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Disney’s Pacific Princess Moana and Chelsea Winstanley for her turn on the red carpet at the Oscars. Mariah Carey and Demi Lovato are also fans. Pounamu and kākahu cloaks have been gifted to Barack Obama, Beyoncé and the Duchess of Sussex.
Although, on the surface, it may appear she is living the dream, it has been a long, hard road.
“Non-Māori fashion designers who started in 2010 had a challenging time breaking in to a very small and exclusive industry in the middle of a recession,” Nathan says.
“We had that challenge too, but because we wanted to sit in a certain space in the New Zealand fashion industry and we wanted to do that by wholeheartedly celebrating our culture, it was really hard for people to figure out who would want to buy what we were making.”
Instead of being put off, Nathan dug her heels in and went for depth, going back onto the marae and to Unitec to learn the art of raranga (traditional Māori weaving) in harakeke (Flax) and contemporary korowai (Māori cloaks). Nathan’s approach has always been one that wholly encompasses te ao Māori, her whakapapa, and her tīpuna.
“It is a privilege for us to be learning all of these beautiful processes and techniques and art forms that our tīpuna have passed down to us. It’s also a huge responsibility respecting where this has come from,” she says.
“We are very considered in the way that we go out into the market.”
Over time, she and Jason ended up finding and connecting with people who championed the Kiri Nathan brand. “We’re lucky it worked out for us.”
Still, instead of resting on her laurels, Nathan has put her own business mostly on hold in the last year, as she works to ensure that other Māori fashion designers can have a chance to survive and even prosper.
“I looked around and saw all these other Māori or indigenous designers coming through that are literally coming up against the same kinds of buyers prejudice [as I did]. And that just broke my heart,” she says.
The only way Nathan realised she could help was by opening up all of her networks.
“Fashion has always been a very guarded community,” she says. “In order to change that, one has to be fearless and collaborate. That’s the win. When there’s more than yourself doing it, and then there’s more than 10 people doing it and it starts to grow and then it becomes a business culture.”
Nathan first raised the funds to take five Māori designers on a hīkoi to China in 2017 as part of the Tripartite Economic Summit in Guangzhou.
She introduced them to fabric markets, and they showed at Guangzhou Fashion Week.
While there, she met then NZ Consul General Rachel Maidment who became a champion of what would eventually become Kāhui.
With the support of Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development and Poutama Trust, Nathan raised funds for a second hīkoi two years later – this time 10 designers visited four cities in China to figure out where – and how – to sell in those markets.
“We had phenomenal meetings with Alibaba and Lane Crawford and were able to build relationships and collect priceless information for businesses that are essentially tiny blips on the radar.”
Waikato-based Jacob Coutie of the menswear label J’AKE says of the experience: “I am grateful to be a part of multiple business opportunities where I feel comfortable knowing I’m surrounded by other Māori creatives who respect and value each other.
“We want each other to succeed. There’s no competition, it’s our kaupapa to support one another.”
Rotorua designer Adrienne Whitewood describes Kāhui as her ahi kā – that whanau bond that keeps that flame for kākahu design alight and burning. “I truly believe we can build our brighter futures together,” she says.
The success of the hīkois led to the first Māori fashion coalition with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). The NZTE Maori fashion coalition recently gave a part-digital presentation to buyers in Shanghai, opened by Trade Commissioner Pete Frost.
Nathan attended on Zoom from her partially renovated 1950s house-cum-studio in Mt Wellington, Auckland.
“In 2019, we learned it was going to be difficult to position ourselves so that we could be understood and that we could understand where we were going to be best placed, and without a million dollars to enter the market,” she says.
“Post-Covid, China has shifted and channels for small pockets of bespoke fashion or brand offerings now exist. It’s like someone went into my brain and said: ‘This is what you want? Ok, I will create it. And then we’ll have a meeting with you and then we’ll buy your stuff’. Timing is everything.”
Next on Nathan’s agenda? Raising the final funds she needs to go live with a website that is part department store for Māori and indigenous designers, and part community for designers to find buyers, suppliers, mentorship programmes, or simply connect with other indigenous designers around the world.
Nathan is hopeful that the idea of a Māori fashion community will start to garner the kind of support that Mindful Fashion NZ, an organisation that Nathan sits on the board of, receives.
“When I talk about sustainability, I speak of it first from the perspective of the sustainability of people. If Māori fashion designers aren’t able to sustain a business they won’t ever be in the privileged position to be able to choose sustainable cotton,” she says.
“It’s still so fragile at the moment, but it will be a really positive thing for New Zealand.”