Tamsin Cooper and the NZ Ballet

22:47, Feb 16 2013
en Pointe: Tamsin Cooper has produced a range in collaboration with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Like a lot of little girls, the young Tamsin Cooper had dreams of being a ballerina. There were classes, hours spent perfecting pirouettes and pliés, and if it hadn’t been for a few uncooperative, God-given factors, she could have made it on stage. 

“I remember saving up my pocket money to buy a book about going to the Royal Academy in London. To me ballerinas are like Olympians: their physique, the way they train, their athletic ability. But I’m a little bit short, I’ve got chubby legs – I was never, ever really going to be a prima ballerina. But this is the next best thing.”

“This” is the fashion designer’s latest collection, celebrating the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary and set to debut at iD Dunedin Fashion Week 2013 next month. It also coincides with Cooper’s own 10th anniversary in the business.

Tamsin Cooper's Duster coat.

Not only will it be Cooper’s first full show at the fashion showcase, and the first time the RNZB has collaborated with a designer in this way, but two of the company’s ballerinas will model the collection of coats and accessories, dancing their way down the catwalk in a specially choreographed routine, alongside models and a live performance by violinist Miranda Adams of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

“When you’ve been a designer for 10 years, this is the kind of thing you dream of doing. You see those haute couture shows offshore, where they do amazing, dramatic things. I wanted to something for my 10th anniversary too; something that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of show. 

“And I’m a fairly dramatic person. I did a drama degree at university, so maybe that’s where it comes from – there’s a bit of theatre in there.”


Long Bustle coat.

Dressed in clothes that create what can only be described as a perfect, purple 1950s silhouette, Cooper, 37, bubbles with enthusiasm when she speaks about the project, and about how far her career has come.

The Tamsin Cooper accessory design label was born in the back bedroom of her Arrowtown home in 2003, just six months after her first son was. 

In the decade since, she has gained attention not only through her unique, embroidered designs, but also a stoush with fellow designer Trelise Cooper, who in 2007 launched a legal attack against her Southland counterpart over the use of her name.

Short Bustle coat.

While she says strangers remind her of the incident on a weekly basis, Cooper has well and truly moved on. 

In 2009 she was approached by the RNZB to collaborate on a merchandise range to sell in support of the company, and she says it’s a relationship that has only got stronger, culminating in this latest collaboration.

“It’s a real honour. The Royal New Zealand Ballet is the most amazing company, so to be designing a collection to commemorate their 60th is kind of a big deal.”

The RNZB agree. “This show will be special for a number of reasons,” says Amanda Skoog, the ballet’s managing director, “not least for the integral involvement of dancers from the RNZB, who have been released from their touring commitments in order to take part.

“We will be breaking new ground at iD Dunedin Fashion Week as the dancers bring their own brand of ballet magic to the runway.”

While the names of the two dancers hadn’t been confirmed as Sunday went to print, Cooper was sure it would be a much sought-after gig, with dancers having to audition for their first chance to be involved in a fashion show, albeit with a few twists.

“There are quite a few elements to the show: there are models as well and it’s a long catwalk – it’s 120m – and not that wide. So there are quite a few factors around this.” She laughs, nervously.

Right from the start, it was nail-biting stuff. With the iD Dunedin dates set in stone, it all came down to the RNZB being at a certain point in their rehearsal schedule.

“They don’t have a plethora of dancers waiting in the wings, waiting for their turn in the spotlight, who can do extra things. They run on a shoestring. So there was a lot of time in this whole process where it might not have happened.”

And an empty dance-card wasn’t an option for Cooper.

“Without a doubt for me, having the dancers involved was the ultimate; I had the vision straight away. And 

it puts the garments in context, because if you have a collection that says it’s for the RNZB and celebrating its 60th anniversary, but ‘where’s the ballet?’, then how does that work?”

Cooper, now the mum of Hugo, nine, and Louis, three, says getting the chance to play in the dance world is “definitely a very feminine outlet, in a household of testosterone”, and the show’s 15 different looks, which are all one-off designs, will reflect this. 

With diamonds the symbol of a 60th anniversary, Cooper promises the collection of coats, bags and accessories will use lots of sparkle, silk, lusciousness and a nod to Swan Lake, the RNZB’s centrepiece production taking the stage in July. 

“My brand is quite feminine, and basically they are a bit glam and a little bit blingy which, at the end of the day, is what the ballet is also about – that inner princess in all of us.

“And I think there is a real correlation between ballet and fashion. I guess it’s the magical world that they can both transport you to. I hope that the designs I’m creating are pieces that will make people feel like they are being transported into another realm, or getting a glimpse into a fantasy life.”

Like the rest of Cooper’s designs, the coats have been handmade in Vietnam, where – over eight weeks – they were not only constructed, but also heavily detailed with embroidery work by village craftsmen, whose art has been perfected over more than 1000 years.

It has taken more than eight months for Cooper to get from first sketches to this point, but when she looks back even further, she finds it hard to believe where she’s come from and what’s still around the corner.

“I would never have dreamt in a million years that I would go from that back room to doing something for the RNZB. It is a girl’s dream come true. I remember going to performances as a child in the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, and thinking how magical and how in awe I was of the dancers – and how much I would love to get the roses at the end of the performance. 

"So this is definitely the closest I’ll ever get.” 

Sunday Magazine