A blanket fashion statement

JEANINE CLARKIN: Customers bring her their blankets, or pick one from her stash, and she fashions them into garments.
JEANINE CLARKIN: Customers bring her their blankets, or pick one from her stash, and she fashions them into garments.

Winter can transform street style into a dismal scene full of worn beanies, same-same scarves, and - the sure sign of fashion's capitulation to the cold - thick, bobbly tights. 

As stormy weather and winds dominate, we face the eternal struggle of it simply being too freezing to look good.

But it's in the streets that a warm approach to high fashion is brewing: blankets. It started with blanket-coats at Chanel's pre-fall show in Texas and the fall Burberry Prorsum show in London.

In May, Kate Moss was snapped wearing an orange, yellow and brown Hermès blanket - with the trend decking out a whole page in British Vogue that month.

And then there's New Zealand designer Jeanine Clarkin, using Maori culture to weave in the past as well as the warm. On the side of her regular collections, Clarkin runs a made-to-order service.

Customers - both men and women - bring her their blankets, or pick one from her stash, and she fashions them into dresses, coats, hooded garments, or whatever particular item they're after.

Blankets are in every crevice of Clarkin's Waiheke Island studio and her attached home. Where the long arm of the law once came down on misfits - the studio was once a police station - the space now offers a cosy embrace.

But it's not just cloth. New Zealand blankets, says Clarkin, have a historical context. 

"When Maori were colonised they swapped acres of land for [them]. They'd never seen blankets before and would make their own coats using harakeke [flax]. But with a blanket it was just this huge, instant piece of warmth.

"It's about taking that and making it into something positive. Reclaiming the past. There's depth and meaning behind it and my customers know that."

There's no specific technique to a Jeanine Clarkin blanket design - just give her a blanket and a day and she'll freestyle something.

"It depends on what the blanket wants to be. Every blanket is different - there might be a stain I have to work around. It's quite holistic and organic."

At first she only used grey blankets as it was the main shade she associated with colonisation - along with a touch of symbolic red.

"When wool came here [in colonial times] we were so excited by the colour we started weaving it into flax. But it rotted... and the moths ate it. But there was this short period of time where red wool was really the thing to have. 

"The blankets eventually got laced with diseases that killed quite a lot of the population. The whole thing was no longer such a treat."

The 44-year-old has a strong background in Maori street-wear. As a teenager, Taupo-born and Piroa-raised Clarkin dreamed of designing high couture for Remuera ladies. 

Instead, she "accidentally" landed in Maori street-wear, playing an influential role in the rise of identity fashion in the early 90s. Jeanine Clarkin Design was established in 1994 and the brand was responsible for dressing Keisha Castle-Hughes for all her Whale Rider premieres in 2002.

"It all really started in Hamilton, in 1994. At that stage there was the big Maori renaissance. Everyone was getting ta moko and learning te reo and with me they were able to buy clothes that encouraged their development and made them really proud to be Maori."

When she was 20, Clarkin moved to Auckland to work with her cousin Kim Fraser, now a fashion lecturer at AUT, at Shakti fashion boutique in Ponsonby. Her time in Auckland inspired the identity-focused element of Clarkin's work.

"You'd go to Grey Lynn supermarket and all the Islanders would be in their traditional clothes and lava-lavas and they were really proud of their culture. I wanted to enhance that for Maori. In a sense, just using your clothes as a non-verbal way of identifying yourself or each other in the crowd."

Back then Clarkin could count the number of Maori fashion designers on one hand, but that's changing thanks to organisations like Miromoda (The Indigenous Maori Fashion Apparel Board - IMFAB), which showcases and advances Maori fashion design.

She's also witnessed a shift in aesthetic: "Us early ones, we've always done the obvious Maori design - koru, Maori patterns or cloak-like styles... The trend now is to have more subliminal little touches rather than in-your-face obvious Maori design."

It's a good balance, she says. New Zealanders travelling overseas want to reinforce where they come from - even if it is just a bracelet with a pattern on it.

When Dick Frizzell released the Four Square 'Man with a Moko' it stirred up debate about cultural appropriation: when one culture adopts specific things from another without permission.

Then there is reappropriation: groups who have been the target of bigotry attempting to reclaim the language of that bigotry, such as the gay community and the term 'queer'. Is Clarkin turning the tables on appropriation of Maori culture, which sees kitsch Tiki salad-servers sold in shops?

"Yes and no," she says. "Blankets were originally an English thing. I couldn't get annoyed at non-Maori wearing the blankets; they could very well say that we were appropriating their culture. I think it's merging the two together, so it's for both."

Ultimately, it boils down to a love of the look and the comfort factor.

"Sometimes at small-town hotels they still use these old blankets, and some of them are just really beautiful," she says. "I hold them up and imagine them as dresses."

Sunday Magazine