The WOW factor

KIMBERLEY ROTHWELL
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2013
WOW
Ella Brockelsby

TAKING IT TO THE WORLD: Dame Suzie Moncrieff with Lucy Aitchison at the WOW launch at Auckland Museum in February.

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There are so many "what if" moments in Suzie Moncrieff's story. What if she had made it into art school, and followed her dream to be a sculptor? What if she had chosen to rent a space in Nelson to set up a gallery, not a historic cottage out in the country? What if she had not made back the $4000 she borrowed against her house to keep the World of WearableArt (WOW) Awards Show going? What if she had taken that job filleting fish, rather than continue to produce WOW and survive on the DPB?

There are so many moments when Moncrieff could have turned her back on or been steered away from the gigantic, glistening, noisy monster that became WOWWearableArt Awards. Since she staged the first show 25 years ago, it has been her obsession. It led to her nomination been nominated a finalist in the 2012 New Zealander of the Year Awards and to her being made a dame.

There is no line between Suzie Moncrieff the person, and WOW. It's her family, her home. The kitchen table has and always will be, she says, cluttered with CDs, clippings, sketches and ideas for the show. She is already dreaming up what it will look like in 2014.

Her daughter, Emma, has grown up with it and is part of the WOW universe. When it began in 1987, she was 14 and Moncrieff put her on the stage to model.

Sister Heather Palmer supported Moncrieff from the early days of the show, and today is the competition director. Moncrieff calls showtime "a great family reunion each year. Everyone feels part of it."
There's hope that one day, Moncrieff says chuckling, 4-year-old granddaughter Daisy, "WOW's biggest fan", might take over the reins.

You could say Moncrieff is a woman of her own creation, right down to her name. One of four children, she grew up in Hope, near Nelson, and her parents encouraged her to embrace her creative, theatrical tendencies.
Dorothy, known as Dossie, and Jack Dick, a sawmill owner, were not scared of the stage.

"My mother was part of the Country Women's Institute and took part in plays and singing circles. She also became famous for her one-act comedy theatre, and I remember her bringing down the house as she pulled out, first, a bantam named Rosie, and then a large white hen named Elvis, from her ample chest as she sang. She's 89 now and produces great paintings, so she's never given up her artistic side of life.

"My father had his own dance band. He played the piano and they often practised at home, so it became normal for us to have all this stuff happening, and he played at many a country hoedown. He played by ear and it's a gift that

I also have, so I've been very fortunate genetically to have parents who had both the things that I needed in life to do well."

Young Suzie spent hours creating plays and drawing characters and sets for her productions.
Trips to Oamaru to see her grandmother often involved her "going around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors and offering to sing a song".

At Waimea College, art became her thing. She spent most of her time in the school art room sculpting. She wanted to be a full-time artist, but she couldn't get in to art school. She ended up in Christchurch at teachers' college, but stuck it out for only 14 or 15 months.

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"It wasn't for me and I left. I came home and packed up all my gear and decided I wouldn't go back again. The disappointment was so huge."

Marriage followed. "I thought that was a good way out," she laughs.

"I was very young, 20 or something."

She worked at a psychiatric hospital, went through one divorce, then another. Sculpture came back into her life in her 30s, and a few years after she started the "Wearables", as they became known in Nelson, Suzie Moncrieff was born, like a phoenix rising out of her old identities.

Friends convinced her to change her name to anything she wanted. She chose Moncrieff, a name from her mother's side of the family - rugged people, from the Shetland Islands, who emigrated to Oamaru. "It empowered me as a person to choose who I wanted to be. My own person, finally."

WOW 2013 will be the show's 25th anniversary (not every year had a show early on). Entries closed last month and this year promises to be another bumper issue, with entries from Taiwan to the Netherlands.

Moncrieff will begin judging in Nelson on Friday, with guest judges Margi Robertson, from fashion label NOM*D, and artist Christine Hellyar.

Despite what you might make of WearableArt as an artistic endeavour - and whether or not a woman dressed as a pincushion is art or not - WOW is a money spinner. A 2009 study estimated the show contributes $15.1 million to Wellington's economy. Every year it sells out. This year's show is set to sell out too, Moncrieff says.

It has been a sellout since that first show, held at the restored Cobb Cottage in Spring Grove, outside Nelson.
Disillusioned by the whopping commission fees taken by the gallery representing her first sculpture exhibition in Wellington, she opened her own gallery with six other artists in the cottage in the mid-1980s. The cottage had been derelict, but was on the main road in and out of Nelson and, although she had no money, Moncrieff was determined to buy it. She turned up on the doorstep of Baigent Forest Industries, which owned the cottage, and found that if she helped with its restoration, she could have it for the princely sum of $1 a year.

The William Higgins Gallery, named after the man who built it, was born, but the gallery had to be promoted heavily. Moncrieff was concerned that being in the sticks, it might not be on many people's radar. She ran an annual sculpture award with prize money provided again by Baigent Forest Industries.

"I had the cheek to go back to them the following year after we'd moved in to ask if they would sponsor $1000, which was quite a bit of money back then to cover the prize money. He said yes, but later on every time I went to see the man there, he would hide under his desk."

And then there's one of those "what if" moments, a seemingly inconsequential thing, but ultimately it led to her creating WOW. It was, if you like, a eureka moment.

Baigent was bought by multinational Carter Holt Harvey, and with it went the $1000 prize money.
"I needed to keep the promotion up on this gallery, because it was so far out in the country, so I decided to take art off the wall and put it on the moving body in the form of a wearable art show. I could see it really clearly."

She had heard of a wearable art exhibition in Auckland, so flew up to see it, only to find tie-dyed and handpainted dresses. "I was horribly disappointed. On the plane home, I was already planning how this show would take shape and how I would describe it."

There was another lot of door-knocking to get prize money, which was eventually provided by a coffee shop-owning friend. The first show attracted 200 punters, who turned up in the pouring rain. Music blared through a borrowed tape deck.

"[We had] two lights that flashed and some smoke, but I thought it was the greatest show on earth. We got complaints from the neighbours because we partied till six in the morning."
Although it was a success, the concept of wearable art had not quite got through, she says.

"We were still getting painted dresses and hand-knitted cardigans that were fashion statements in those days. An artist friend of mine spent two days on the farm I lived on finding anything we could, just trying to create wearable art.
"I remember picking up some cow pelvic bones and putting them on my head and thinking, 'Wow, what a great helmet!' We painted designs on them and stuck them on people's heads. It wasn't entered. It was just to say, 'This is what wearable art is about'."

In the early days, she was determined to see it succeed. "It was a mad, crazy time. I worked seven days a week all year basically, just on the show. It totally obsessed me. People kept saying, this isn't going to work and the more they said it, the more I thought it would work.

"In the early years after my second marriage breakup, I was on the DPB, but I managed to pay not only my mortgage, but also the various bills to do with the show. My daughter and I did become great rice eaters during that time.

"Each show covered its costs. I handwrote the budget and watched over it very carefully, daily actually.
"My father was a great one in those days for saying to me, 'You must pay the bills and never borrow money and don't ever owe anyone'."

For years, the show only broke even, leaving Moncrieff and the people who supported her vision unpaid. She begged and borrowed gear - once it was tents from the army - and scoured second-hand shops for props. One year she lost money and had "this $4000 bill staring us in the face".

"I either sat back down and said I'd had enough, or I rose to the challenge and decided right, I'm going to borrow on my house, so I did that. I was lucky to pay it back the following year."

It was an enormous risk, but she never saw it like that. "I had this crazy attitude of: 'What's the worst that can happen? I go broke? So what!' "

As the show grew, she had to give up the William Higgins Gallery and her sculpture. "That was hard, but I see WOW as my big sculpture. The joy of seeing my dreams realised on stage is beyond anything you can imagine."

Today, WOW is a key event on Wellington's cultural calendar. It outgrew Nelson and was staged in the capital for the first time in 2005. Last October, the Wellington City Council renewed funding for it for another nine years.
Leaving Nelson was hard, but necessary, Moncrieff says.

"I became a very unpopular person. Now, Nelsonians are very proud of the part they've played in taking WOW where it's got today. At the start, they felt very hurt that I could just lift this thing up and take it away from them. Not only was it great for the economy of Nelson, but it was great fun to be involved in for the many people who volunteered.

"That was the hard part for me, that these people had given their time."

Nelsonians were indeed upset. A pile of poo was left on the doorstep at WOW's offices. Letters to the Nelson Mail accused Moncrieff and her sister Heather Palmer of "high treason" and "greed and ego".

The move to Wellington followed an economic effect report that showed WOW brought $6.5 million to Nelson from 9000 visitors, but it also showed that if the show continued in Nelson, it would almost certainly die.

"I wasn't going to let that happen. I still couldn't get the support that I needed, in sponsorship, and without sponsorship, it simply could not happen. Ticket money is not enough. It's a more than $1 million show to put on."
From a staff of 12 during the year, when it's showtime, there are more than 400 staff, including makeup artists, models and crew to pay.

For the first time this year, the proportion of foreign entries has surpassed 40 per cent. Moncrieff says she is committed to keeping the show in Wellington, but has ambitions to see WOW developed overseas. She has hired a chief executive, Meg Matthews, to work out how that's going to happen.

"My dream for WOW is to see it out in the world and celebrate it internationally. There's nothing like it in the world and for something like this to come out of New Zealand is a wonderful thing. We're strategising on how we take this to the world."

All while she has to keep the WOW New Zealand monster fed. Planning for each show starts after the applause has ended on the last night of each season.

Moncrieff is in a hurry to get back to work after a morning looking after Daisy, back to the kitchen table where the 2014 show is taking shape. She's so busy, in fact, that it has taken months to get time for an interview pinned down.

"It was a very big surprise and a very humbling experience to be nominated as New Zealander of the Year and become a dame in the same year. It was something I had never in my wildest dreams imagined happening.
"It's an accolade to the many people who over the years have supported my crazy dream and helped me drive WOW to where it is today.

"Has it changed me? I don't think so. I'm too busy getting the next show up and running."

WOW runs from September 26 to October 6 at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena.

- Your Weekend

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