The Dame behind Fashion Week

KIM NEWTH
Last updated 10:56 27/09/2012
Pieter

Dame Pieter Stewart reflects on her hometown.

Pieter Stewart
Christchurch is still home for this high flyer.

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Our first lady of fashion and New Zealand Fashion Week founder, Dame Pieter Stewart reflects on a lifetime spent promoting this country's clothing trade.

No-one was more surprised than Pieter Stewart at the announcement of her Queen's Birthday and Diamond Jubilee appointment as Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to fashion and the community.

"It was a huge surprise, to the extent I went online to make sure it was correct! I had no idea I was nominated ... I haven't introduced myself as such [Dame] yet. It takes some getting used to and to understand the responsibility of accepting an honour like that. I feel it brings a responsibility to do more for one's country."

The petite powerhouse has since been in touch with several other dames - including Dame Jenny Shipley - to get a few pointers. "There are quite a few different protocols I need to comply with and lots of little things to think about."

Judging by the hundreds of cards, phone calls and texts of congratulation that have landed, Dame Pieter's honour has been well received. "I'm still ploughing through over 300 replies to say 'thank you'. It is quite overwhelming, really."

Dressed in a classic cream top and dark leggings for our interview, which took place just ahead of New Zealand Fashion Week, Dame Pieter is remarkably composed for someone managing this country's premiere fashion event. There are dozens of things to juggle, from sponsorship deals, production meetings and model castings, to ensuring temporary toilets are booked, and brochures and tickets are printed on time.

Dame Pieter has owned and managed New Zealand Fashion Week since it first hit the catwalks in 2001. It has grown to become a mainstay of the New Zealand fashion industry, which contributes more than $250 million to the economy each year. The event is estimated to sustain the equivalent of 124 full-time employees a year and, throughout the week, 35,000 to 40,000 people go through Auckland's Viaduct Events Centre.

To stay on top of the role, Dame Pieter spends a good deal of time away from her country home in Hororata at a small Auckland apartment, her northern operations base. Sometimes, family members come to stay and she has a handful of loyal friends to call on, but mostly she's there to work - and the work associated with this juggernaut event never really stops. Once it's over, there are sponsors and designers to be debriefed and discussions with stallholders. "We're always thinking about what we can do better and how we can evolve it."

It is now difficult to remember a time when New Zealand Fashion Week wasn't an essential part of the industry. In the 1990s, designers relied on vehicles such as the Corbans' Fashion Collections, a live televised annual showcase for local fashion houses. Wella became the main sponsor by the late 1990s, by which time Dame Pieter was co-ordinating the whole show, (having also co-ordinated the Corbans' fashion line-up). But it all came to halt by the end of the decade, with television dropping both the seasonal Wella Fashion Report and the Smokefree Fashion Awards.

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"All of a sudden, there was nothing; there was no longer any platform for the industry, so in 1999 I began working on an alternative. Through discussion with key players, we decided to start a fashion week in New Zealand. It came off the back of the New Zealand Four group show - Karen Walker, Nom*D, Zambesi and World - at London Fashion Week. They said 'we think we should have our own fashion week' and so we decided to give it a go."

In its early years, Dame Pieter travelled extensively to promote the event to potential buyers and media overseas. "A lot of them didn't even know where New Zealand was! It was very hard, but that has changed hugely now. There's Lord of the Rings and the All Blacks - everyone knows about them - and we have designers like Karen Walker, who are now recognised in every market."

After more than a decade at the helm of this highly successful fashion event, one might imagine Dame Pieter would be content to look back with satisfaction at what has been achieved. But, difficult economic times don't allow for too much complacency. New Zealand Fashion Week has been without a principal naming sponsor for three years and so the quest to find a company that is "the right fit" continues. "Everything is leaner and meaner and I'd say the event itself has become more compact over the years," Dame Pieter says.

In her view, strategic action needs to be taken to fully realise the industry's global potential.

"What we really need is a council that involves both central and local government and industry representatives, similar to the British Fashion Council. We've gone a long way this year towards starting up such a council, but it's not close as yet and I don't think it'll be me that does it.

"What's happened is that Fashion Week has become the hub of the fashion industry, so half of what we deal with in the office is nothing to do with the event at all. I don't think it should be our responsibility to be saying which markets are working overseas and which are not. There needs to be a better strategy and more people involved to make the most of what we can do as a country.

"Fashion is never going to be a large export earner, but, in terms of profile, I think it's really important for New Zealand. Our creative industries can be the tip of the export iceberg."

Locally, Dame Pieter hopes the Christchurch Central Development Unit blueprint will help reinvigorate the city's fashion scene. "The plan for the new city is brave and fantastic. It's going to give everybody a good focus and I hope it means we'll get a good fashion precinct like there was before. It will encourage new designers to get involved and I look forward to that."

She admires some of the city's long-standing designers, such as Barbara Lee, as well as newer labels, such as MisteR. "But I do wonder if there needs to be more integrated support within Christchurch and Canterbury. The problem is Christchurch has a lot to think about right now, though. What comes first?"

On a personal level, Dame Pieter is celebrating the recent arrival of a grandchild to her youngest daughter, Anneke, a photographer and artist.

Dame Pieter is clearly pleased to be sharing the business of New Zealand Fashion Week with her three daughters. The eldest, Myken, is the event's brand manager. Kristen, who has her own make-up school in Christchurch, is involved with the cosmetic side of Fashion Week, working on several collections. Anneke has also worked as a backstage photographer during Fashion Week. Dame Pieter's son, Soren, usually attends and lends a hand with fitting out the venue.

"They've all been a part of it and it's nice at the time of Fashion Week to have them all there ... Kristen also produced her first show in Christchurch this year, [Re:Start Autumn Fashion Show]. This sort of thing has become second nature for them, because they have grown up with it and it is part of their lives," Dame Pieter says.

Her own entry into fashion came when she was a teenager in Christchurch. Worried about her "slouching", Dame Pieter's mother sent her to deportment lessons. With good posture and poise added to natural beauty, modelling offers followed.

However, Dame Pieter initially resisted a modelling career, enrolling in medical studies instead. As it transpired, she did not see her studies through, but medicine's loss turned out to be fashion's big gain.

At the age of 22, she married Peter Stewart, the son of the late Sir Robertson Stewart, who founded PDL Industries. Dame Pieter was a busy mother at home for the first 12 years of her married life, but she continued modelling, often involving long commutes from the Stewarts' deer farm at Hororata to Christchurch.

"I was probably only doing modelling three or four times a year - it was hardly major - and I also started co-ordinating fashion shows in that time; these were small-scale, such as lunchtime shows at DIC."

She also began doing tutoring work for modelling and fashion maven Paula Ryan one night a week as, "when you're a mother in the country, that sort of thing suits well". Then, one day, Paula rang to ask if Dame Pieter wanted to buy her modelling agency. "I thought about it and discussed it with my husband when he came home for lunch and decided to do it." In 1979, she bought the agency, which she ran as Pieter's Model Agency and School.

After selling the agency in the mid-1980s, Dame Pieter became associate editor of Fashion Quarterly (1985-87). "Working for the magazine was the biggest learning curve for me. I'd never done anything like that before, but it was a fantastic experience." She also set up her own public relations company in the late 1980s.

In retrospect, Dame Pieter's career path from young model to founder of New Zealand Fashion Week appears to have unfolded in seamless steps, but says there was never any plan - just serendipity.

For such a high-profile fashion leader, Dame Pieter is surprisingly modest about her personal style. She was once quoted as saying she relied entirely on three black suits. The business of creating a platform for the New Zealand fashion industry has long been her priority, not what to wear. "I'm definitely not a clothes horse," she proclaims, while acknowledging there are some advantages to working closely with designers producing beautiful garments.

Does she believe there is a unique New Zealand look? "Personally, I don't think so. Years ago, everyone was saying New Zealand was like the new Belgium. It isn't. [The 'New Zealand Four' were once compared by British media to the so-called 'Antwerp Six' - six innovative Belgian designers of the 1980s.] Our designers are quite individual; some of our labels are sombre, while, at the other end, we've got designers like Trelise [Cooper] who love colour, and there are a lot in between.

"They're very versatile and that's just as well, because they're competing against a big world. There's a lot of product out there for buyers to choose from and whether we can compete or not has a lot to do with the price our product can be landed at. That's a problem, not just for fashion, when the New Zealand dollar is high.

"It is a really bad economy worldwide right now, but, having been to both Europe and Australia recently, I think New Zealand is still better off ... Retail is very depressed in Australia."

The challenge for New Zealand fashion designers is how to weather the global recession. Dame Pieter looks to the online market for salvation. "The big international online stores are where our designers will get the most growth right at the moment."

New Zealand Fashion Week's own presence is increasingly valuable in this respect, with much of the media coverage now taking the form of blogs, rather than published magazine articles.

Of course, as Dame Pieter observes, to successfully break into the export market at any time, designers must be able to reliably produce a premium cut and finish, and deliver on time.

Dame Pieter's Queen's Birthday honour also recognises services to the community. Her work raising funds for Child Cancer helped establish accommodation in Christchurch for affected families.

This former St Margaret's College pupil spent a decade as chairwoman of the St Margaret's College Board Trust and, for six years, served on the Independent Schools' national body. "I stopped a few years ago, as I couldn't maintain that and be in Christchurch enough for all the board meetings and run Fashion Week as it was growing, as well ... but I'd like to do more of those things again when I find someone to give me more time away from Fashion Week, which is so all-absorbing."

Dame Pieter finds it difficult to objectively assess just how much of a difference New Zealand Fashion Week has made. It has certainly helped to grow an exciting and vibrant industry, creating not just opportunities for designers, but also hair stylists, make-up artists, fashion promoters and other specialists. It has helped to foster top indigenous Maori fashion designers (through the Miromoda Awards Showcase). It has given young designers something to which to aspire.

Above all, it continues to put New Zealand fashion firmly on the world stage.

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