Hokonui awards just part of the fabric of NZ

WARDROBE BOSSES: Hokonui Fashion Design Awards heads of wardrobe Helen McCurdy and Francis Michels go through garments at the final model fitting the day before the awards.
WARDROBE BOSSES: Hokonui Fashion Design Awards heads of wardrobe Helen McCurdy and Francis Michels go through garments at the final model fitting the day before the awards.

If there were any constants in the tumultuous world of fashion it would be that fashion is fickle and trends come and go.

For those in the know, or aspiring to be so, a wardrobe staple, something tried and proven over time, is something of a necessity.

Gore's Hokonui Fashion Design Awards are in many ways the little black dress of the New Zealand fashion industry.

After 25 years kickstarting careers and fuelling creative passions in the tough-to-crack industry, the awards have more than earned their place in the wardrobe.

Long-time executive producer Heather Paterson describes the event as almost a rite of passage for aspiring designers, particularly those from Southland and Otago. But it would be remiss to dismiss the event as just another student design show.

Over the years, so many winners had gone on to do great things in the fashion industry it was hard to keep up with them all, Paterson said.

In the past, the A-list of New Zealand fashion - the forces behind mega-labels World, Zambesi, Nom*D, to name a few - have flocked from their lofty High Street locales to the southern hub of Gore to be a part of the spectacle. Many choose to come back again.

The awards have reached that sought-after point where not only have the power players in the industry heard about them, but they want to be a part of them, Paterson explained. "People really understand what we're trying to achieve down here."

Not quite wearable art, not quite the standard garb of the hoi polloi, the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards are unique.

"We do look for things that are wearable . . . but at the same time the awards give designers the opportunity to be totally creative," Paterson said.

Last year, the 25th anniversary, proved the claim. A glittering spectacle - the silver-themed awards event was by all accounts the most successful yet, with tickets to both the Friday and Saturday night shows selling out in record time.

Top-level judges, with internationally renowned collections themselves, come down to cast their critical eyes over the entries of hopeful designers, analysing design, structure, fabric use and wearability. They were, by their own admission, blown away.

Paterson said, for her, the most rewarding part of the awards was seeing the reactions of entrants when they saw their hard work up on the catwalk in a professional setting. Even better was seeing the winners' reactions.

"It's really a unique event [for New Zealand]. It gives young designers and models an inside to the industry which can be very difficult to come by."

With all the hype behind the landmark event, last year was also a tumultuous time in Paterson's personal life. A diagnosis of oesophageal cancer meant she had to take a step back.

And the team stepped up, she said. "They were simply incredible."

Husband Wade has this year taken on the director role to allow Heather to focus on her health. However, she was still very much the creative force behind the show, he said. "It's still her baby."

Every year that "baby" gets bigger and brighter.

While last year was the anniversary special, this year has topped it with a record number of garment entries.

A backstage army of volunteers works to ensure the heat of the event is more a controlled burn than an out-of-control blaze.

The event is a far cry from the inaugural show held back in 1988. A rather understated affair, the models, who designers provided themselves, sashayed down a makeshift catwalk in the James Cumming Wing at the Gore District Council and then at the St James Theatre from 1992.

Gore woman Rebecca Gutschlag has been involved in the awards for about 16 years, starting as a model before moving on to help out back stage.

"It's got so much more professional now. When I first started, it was at the St James Theatre and there were push-lights along the catwalk."

Her role as choreographer means she works with the models, training them for their first foray down the catwalk. Because the event gets recognised nationally, you never know who is watching, she said. "A lot of the girls [from previous years] are in agencies getting work now."

This was largely because of the reputation of the awards, which she witnessed when travelling to New Zealand fashion week with Paterson two years ago.

"It's amazing talking to people up there in Auckland who have heard all about the Hokonuis. Heather has so many contacts, " Gutschlag said.

Like any growing event, sponsorship has been key in developing the awards, providing bigger prizes and more incentive for promising designers to enter.

A major milestone for the awards was when car company Peugeot came on board in 2005 as naming rights sponsor.

"All of a sudden we had this international brand as naming rights sponsor. That was probably the moment," Paterson said.

Each year, entries have swelled and its reputation grown, something Paterson said she was immensely proud of. "It's humbling really." bridget.railton@stl.co.nz

The Southland Times