This year marks the 20th anniversary of New Zealand Fashion Week. As part of The Last Fashion Bible’s event coverage, our editor Melissa Reid spoke to Dame Pieter Stewart about NZFW’s journey over the years. In part one, Stewart talks about the event’s conception and early days at Auckland’s Town Hall, to her stand-out shows and special memories.

Dame Pieter Stewart
Archival photos of Dame Pieter Stewart with daughter Myken. PHOTO | Supplied

Dame Pieter Stewart is widely regarded as the maven of New Zealand fashion. Not that you’d ever hear her assert such a claim — her unwavering modesty is part of her charm. She never professes to know fashion, claiming “there’s lots of people around me that know fashion really well.” However, Stewart has tenaciously led somewhat of a revolution for New Zealand’s fashion industry, creating a platform to showcase the crème de la crème of local talent.

How Dame Pieter Stewart Built a Legacy

Stewart’s career in fashion began in her hometown of Christchurch, where she ran her own modelling agency, and worked for Fashion Quarterly before the publication moved north to Auckland. From there, Stewart formed her own PR company, which led to a pivot into television production for TVNZ.

Towards the end of the Nineties, she was approached by designers, some who had just returned from showing their collections at London Fashion Week and had nowhere in New Zealand to show them.

“There was no platform in New Zealand for fashion at all,” said Stewart. “I had people saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ ‘What can you do for us?’”

So Stewart and a group of fellow mavericks of the local fashion scene — including Liz and Neville Findlay from Zambesi, Francis Hooper from World, Susie Walker from Vamp, Gaye Bartlett, and Tony  Milich from Sabatini — met up at Bartlett’s office and “drank lots of wine, and after a few wines you think you can do anything.”

They landed on the concept of creating New Zealand’s own Fashion Week. From there, Stewart was faced with the onerous task of convincing the government that it could be done. They agreed, and she set out to find the event’s first naming sponsor, and found it in L’Oréal. Everything was aligning, and the inaugural New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) event was set for October 2001.

Then, tragically, 9/11 happened.

“We had 10 or 15 people coming internationally, and every day, somebody would ring up and say ‘my company won’t let me fly’ — because they didn’t let anyone fly after 9/11.

“I remember Liz Findlay standing up saying, ‘Look, the world’s in absolute turmoil. We really think we can do this. And even if we can get Australians here, that would be fantastic. And we can do a fantastic show.’ So that’s what happened,” said Stewart. “L’Oréal came on as naming right partner for the first three years. That was fantastic. And then after that, Air New Zealand came on board.”

Pamela Anderson and Richie Rich at NZFW 2009. PHOTO | Supplied

Location, Location, Location

Auckland’s Town Hall was NZFW’s first home for three years, but renovations on Aotea Square meant a new location had to be found. Fortuitously, in the area that is now Wynyard Quarter, Team New Zealand had built sheds, sail lofts and other various buildings for the America’s Cup. Stewart’s team repurposed the area, adding a huge showroom tent and walkways to the existing structures.

“It was quite amazing,” remembers Stewart. “I think some people look on that time of Fashion Week as being one of the most exciting, because it really felt international, and it was very well done. But hugely expensive as you can imagine, because we had to build flat floors before we could even put a big marquee on top of it.

From there, NZFW moved to the Viaduct Events Centre (VEC) in Wynyard Quarter, its home until 2019 when it returned to Auckland’s Town Hall and Aotea Square when Team New Zealand took over the building.

For Stewart, being back in the centre of town marks a new challenge to make the city a backdrop for the excitement and glamour of Fashion Week. She claims one of the biggest benefits of the return is that she knows where to go — “I know every inch of that place!”

Miramoda 2010. PHOTO | Supplied

20th Anniversary Milestone

Like so many global events, NZFW 2020 was cancelled due to the pandemic. Now, in 2021, NZFW is finally able to celebrate its 20th anniversary milestone.

While Stewart can’t believe it’s been 20 years, she says it’s a great honour to have managed to get this far.

“Nobody thought it would make it to year two, including me, never mind building an event that was going to transform the industry, especially with regard to diversity and inclusion.

“20 years is a huge milestone and we’re going to do as much as we can through the week to celebrate it,” Stewart continued. “For instance, I was thinking about what I plan to wear, and I thought, no, I’m going to wear old stuff. I think a lot of people are going to recycle or bring things out of the archives during the week.”

Steward says the announcement of NZFW21 has made people very excited to be able to get back to doing what they love doing. And it’s not just designers. NZFW has created a platform for untold backstage crew, including hair and makeup artists, stylists, photographers, and models.

“I can’t underestimate the power of what the event has done for the industry and the influence it’s actually brought. But you don’t think about it at the time, you just do it.”

Part of the planned celebrations includes a retrospective runway show that will feature over 50 designers from the 400  who have shown at NZFW over the last 20 years.

“It’s going to be a fantastic show,” says Stewart, “and very lively. Sonja de Mari, and Haley Brooke, who was one of our original producers, are pulling it together. And almost every day, Sonja ends up with another exciting idea for a section.”

In a first for the event, a few selected Fashion Week shows are going to available with hosting packages open to the public , with quite a lot of public facing action planned for Aotea Square, including a big screen showing the shows in real time.

Archival photo of Dame Pieter Stewart with American delegates. PHOTO | Supplied

Stand Out Memories

When asked to summarise the first twenty years of New Zealand Fashion Week in three words, Stewart doesn’t hesitate —  “Exciting, stressful and fulfilling.”

Her untold memories of the last twenty years “all sort of float around into one,” however, some are particularly memorable — especially those featuring international celebrities.

“The first big one was Rebecca Weinberg, who was a stylist for Sex and the City. She brought Brian Long with her, who ended up being our press contact in the United States for over a decade. He found most of the international media — and don’t forget, it was print media and not digital. He had all of those contacts for media and buyers that helped us in those early days.

“It was Brian who organised Pamela Anderson and Richie Rich to come over for their collaboration — a swimwear range. I think they were only just pulling it together backstage — it was hilarious! They were amazing. They also had a huge entourage, and because we had Air New Zealand as a partner, we were able to fly over some of these people. They went back saying how wonderful it was!

“Air New Zealand’s six years as naming partners was a wonderful, formative time for NZFW. It was great to have the luxury of being able to fly people in business class, and then have the air crew ushering at the event, too.”

Stewart says she doesn’t have an all-time favourite show. To her, they are all fabulous.

“I would never, ever want to single one out because I tried to treat all of the designers equally.

“The great thing for me is that I do a certain amount with the production meetings. But I don’t sit through all of the details, so when I actually get to the shows, I’m often surprised and there are things that I don’t know about. I find it the most exciting, I sit there and I think, Wow, doesn’t it look fantastic? I love their ideas. And with show after show after show, I sort of sit there and almost pinch myself and think, ‘Did we really put this together and pull this off?’”

New Zealand Fashion Week 2021 will run from 23-29 August in Aotea Square and Auckland Town Hall. Tickets for the public Fashion Weekend shows can be purchased via the New Zealand Fashion Week website.

Stay tuned to The Last Fashion Bible for the next conversation with Dame Pieter Stewart and ll the latest NZFW updates.

Main Image photo: Jason Dorday

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