Adrienne Whitewood was taught how to sew by her kuia when she was eight years old — and she has been in love with designing ever since.

Whitewood studied fashion design at Auckland University of Technology and began showing at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2013 with Miromoda, the Indigenous Māori Fashion Apparel Board, before debuting her first NZFW show in 2017. She opened her store, Ahu Boutique, in Rotorua in 2013. Ahu translates to fashion in Māori.

Whitewood describes herself as a decorative designer and believes decoration is a key idea in Māori art — the art of adornment —which is prevalent in her work. She is passionate about increasing the profile of Māori design and evolving ways to present it to a wider audience.

The Last Fashion Bible spoke to Whitewood about her family history, her inspiration and her advice for aspiring designers.

Tell us a little about the meaning behind your designs.

I love to draw inspiration from my home town of Rotorua. It’s a beautiful place to live and the culture is really rich and I just love living here.

You opened your store Ahu Boutique in 2013. How has the brand evolved since then?

I think the offering is more diverse. When I first opened, it was really hard to get local products in, so I collaborated with labels or created them myself to fill our store. We have launched so many collections over the years, it’s been so much fun!

You come from a family who all worked in the industry. Did this influence your decision to become a fashion designer?

My whole family has been in the rag trade and definitely clothing was an important part of my life growing up. My mum sewed my sisters and my dresses for special occasions. When we moved away for a few years, my grandmother would come to visit us and she always brought me a new dress or clothing. I have an emotional connection when it comes to clothing.

Where do you go for inspiration when working on a new collection?

It’s not hard to find inspiration for collections! I have what I call a design bank — a mental album of things I’ve wanted to do but the timing hasn’t been right. When I see something that resonates with what I am doing for that season, I can pull it out and combine it with research I am doing at that time — like photographs I’ve seen or inspirational Instagram — and combine it all together.

I also follow what my customers want. A customer will say, “Oh I would’ve brought this if it was done like this”. If I hear that a few times, then I do that style. Also, I look at what colours have done well in previous seasons and just keep repeating and tweaking.

How important is sustainability to you in today’s eco-conscious climate?

When I think of sustainability I think of the impact on the environment and also social sustainability, the people that are working on my clothing — I want to be involved in the whole process knowing where the cloth is coming from and who is making it. I work closely with my two factories overseas in China and India and I really enjoy that close community.

How important are natural materials in your work?

I love natural materials but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s better for the environment. It’s exciting to see all the recycled plastic that is been put into fabric through technology. I look for quality and care and innovation when I seek out new fabrics.

Do you have any design heroes?

I love Manaola in Hawaii, I think his print work is amazing and very inspirational. In terms of luxury labels, I love Virgil Abloh. What he’s doing with American hip-hop culture and bringing it into luxury is amazing. He’s loosely followed by Kanye West’s collaboration with Adidas. It’s just amazing how he changed the scene with colour palettes and shoes. I thought that was innovative.

Adrienne Whitewood as NZFW. Photo credit

Do you have a career highlight?

Career highlight is probably opening up my Wellington Ahu pop-up. It’s been such a great move expanding and I think I’m going to try to do regular pop-ups.

What’s your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in the creative industries?

My number one tip for thriving in this industry is don’t be lazy and be careful who you surround yourself with. I try to hang out with people who are pushing boundaries and have a big vision, or have had amazing experiences, or have done incredible things. I also try my best to avoid gossip and people who are constantly negative. You’ll be surprised how easily you can fall into that trap and it’s just not good in this industry.

Where can we follow you?

@adriennewhitewood on Facebook and Instagram.

What don’t you leave the house without?

I don’t leave the house without my water. I need hydration!

Discover more about Adrienne Whitewood and visit Ahu Boutique when you’re next in Rotorua.

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