Fashion for our feathered friends

Last updated 13:00 05/10/2012

Our native flora and fauna have hit both national and international runways this week - and fashion is giving back.

Kakapo dress - Jay McCarrollFirst, the inaugural winner of Project Runway, Jay McCarroll, is promoting the protection of kakapo on the front page of his website. Jay designed a kakapo-inspired dress for conservation organisation Gabby Wild foundation, who are featuring kakapo as one of their fashion-inspired campaigns. Jay, for his part, will donate 10 per cent of all of his online sales to Kakapo Recovery.

Closer to home, when the lovely ladies at Chalky Digits phoned me and asked if I'd speak at a fashion show where they would be launching their summer range, it's fair to say I got a bit nervous.

I do a lot of public speaking about nature these days (and being no shrinking violet, I thoroughly enjoy it!) but fashion, for the record, frightens me. An almost-decade sporting khaki and those wonderful stubbies for DOC has meant that nowadays I have to think hard about what I wear when I go to public events, or on the telly to do my nature thing... and it's HARD!  Hard because I can never figure out what goes together (I'll never forget Mum telling me pink and red didn't "go" when I tried to pick my own outfit at age six). But also hard because I have a bit more of a conscience and buy stuff that reflects my values. Which was why I couldn't say no to the Chalky Digits team in the end. They are staunchly New Zealand made, use materials that are kinder to the environment (e.g. merino, organic cotton), and they truly go the extra mile (sometimes miles into the bush!) to do their bit.

New Zealand fashion has gone through a real resurgence in showcasing our native wildlife in the past few years. Many a skirt features a tui, fantails are emblazoned across the front of T-shirts, and that's a good thing in my book. Connecting to the keystone of our national identity through fashion is clever. A recent international survey showed that, more than any other country's people, New Zealanders consider their most important identifying characteristic as a "connection to the land" that was described by researchers as "ethereal, almost soulful". This statistic fascinates me, given that around 85 per cent of us now live in towns. Despite our townie lifestyles, we have not lost our love for our home, land and sea.

The problem with the plethora of native wildlife icons strewn across our clothing, CD covers, artwork and so on is that it can lull us into a false sense of security, perhaps have us believe that everything's good as gold in the bush. It's not, of course. We only do sustained pest control on a tiny portion of our public conservation land (12 per cent). We know that in areas where we don't do pest control, we lose (for example) 95 per cent of North Island kiwi chicks, more than half of all kea nests and in some areas nearly all of the local females of species like kaka and kokako.

Chalky Digits - hearts beat for kokako badge1What we are starting to see now with companies such as Chalky Digits who go out of their way to design beautiful images of our flora and fauna on their clothing, is a further step - an active engagement and reinvestment into the things they market their clothing with. Chalky Digit's first step into this process was raising funds for and taking part in a relocation of South Island robins to the aptly named Chalky Island in Fiordland. Two years ago, they started a promotion to help pay for pest control in the Kaharoa Forest to protect kokako. By purchasing an "Our hearts beat for kokako" badge, all proceeds go back to the Kaharoa Kokako Trust. Pest control isn't necessarily a very "sexy" sponsorship option, but in this country it's the most important conservation contribution businesses can make.

So last night I fronted up to the fashion show stood at the top of the catwalk, started talking about nature, and then basically spent my speaking time encouraging all the fashion enthusiasts who had come along to go home and kill small furry animals! (Ethically and with the proper equipment/traps, of course.) Wasn't quite sure how that went down until after, when I was approached by several different people, working on their own conservation projects, and a guy who proudly mentioned he'd shot a few possums. The Chalky Digits team, for their part, put their hand up to be a part of contributing to a Predator Free New Zealand. Nice one!

New Zealand nature is quite fashionable, but the great thing I'm seeing is the designers who see the need to make conservation fashionable as part of the story of their product. That gives consumers a great choice, and our wildlife a good outcome.

What about you guys and gals? Do you choose clothing with native wildlife on it? Are you aware of other designers who give something back to nature? I'd love to hear your flora and fauna fashion stories.

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