The iD Dunedin International Emerging Designer Awards is a
global competition that attracts top fashion identities to
its judging panel. This year, Australia's highly regarded
Associate Prof Karen Webster is one of the judges. She talks
to Jude Hathaway.
When Associate Prof Karen Webster, one of the most respected
fashion figures in Australia, joins the other luminaries on
this year's judging panel of the iD Dunedin International
Emerging Designer awards next month, she will do so with a
clear picture of what she is looking for in a winner.
''Innovation,'' she says, ''is absolutely vital. So is a
point of difference. If a young designer looks as though he
or she has mimicked or taken an international designer as a
direct reference, I say that we do not need to do that - that
we are better than that and we can have our own
She will also be looking for a level of manufacturing
Other more nebulous aspects of a design can come into play
and this is when Prof Webster, who is deputy head of fashion
and textiles at RMIT University, Melbourne calls on intuition
built up in more than 30 years at the forefront of the
''Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about a
young designer's work that stands out, but you see something
that is significant, that is right for the moment, is
beautifully thought through and that you know will contribute
and make a difference to the future of fashion. It's
something about the design that blows you away.''
Since the Dunedin event began in 2005, Webster's chances of
attending have been thwarted by her long-time commitment to
the Melbourne Fashion Festival as a board member and,
latterly, as the director.
''Until this year, the dates of the two events have clashed,
but this time the iD awards are a little earlier and the
festival a little later. I'm celebrating!''At this time of
the year, she points out, there is a lot happening globally,
including the major fashion shows in Europe, and it is good
that the southern hemisphere events remain on the fashion
world's radar and continue to attract wide interest.
The RMIT University's School of Fashion and Textiles has been
closely engaged with the emerging designers event since it
began as a small transtasman competition in 2005. Each year
it has grown, garnering further international attention,
illustrated by the fact that this year, 31 finalists
representing nine fashion schools from five countries have
been selected from 100 entries.
''What I love about it is that even for a small city such as
Dunedin, the awards have such a global impact,'' Webster
''There are not many global awards events that attract the
calibre of entries that the iD Dunedin event does. Just look
at the array of finalists. They are from top-tier institutes
from around the world. That Dunedin is now positioned as a
premium award is fantastic.''
Webster recognises the contribution Dr Margo Barton, of Otago
Polytechnic, has made to shaping and nurturing the successful
''You need someone with that degree of passion, vision and
professionalism running something like this.''
The international clout of the competition has direct
spin-offs, such as the ability of the organising committee,
of which Barton is a member, to secure the services of highly
regarded fashion representatives such as Webster. She will
judge alongside UK celebrity milliner Stephen Jones, who has
created headwear for a ream of international fashion
designers through the years. They will be joined by
high-profile Australian fashion writer and commentator Glynis
Traill-Nash, who was most recently fashion editor of the
Sunday Telegraph and has been a front-rower at fashion shows
and events from New York, Paris, Milan and Berlin to
Webster's long career in the industry has included being a
designer, an academic, a public speaker and a consultant. Her
knowledge and experience across many aspects of the industry,
including consumer analysis, design directions and cultural
trends, makes her a highly sought-after public speaker and
In 2010, she was appointed as the first female board director
of Australia's premier fashion industry body, the Textile and
Fashion Industry Association (TFIA), and chairwoman of the
Australian Fashion Council. She has also served as a member
of numerous government committees and advisory boards.
After her formal training at RMIT University, she was
employed as a designer in Melbourne and Sydney before moving
for a three-year stint in London, where she worked with
large-scale commercial design teams creating lines for then
fledgling retail enterprises such as Top Shop, H&M and
Miss Selfridge while they were building their profile. She
also provided fashion forecasts for Australian companies.
Three decades later, she finds fashion as exciting as ever.
''Fashion is about change. It is also sensitive to what is
happening culturally, acting like a social barometer,
reflecting the way society moves and the way that we behave,
and I don't personally think that one era is a healthier era
than any other.''
She is seeing a return to the unique, to creativity, to the
appreciation of vibrant design. She cites some of the big
fashion groups that are reassessing how they present their
clothing and looking to garments that are more distinctive
and well designed.
''This is a global phenomenon. We've moved away from the days
when designers sat and drew designs while pattern-makers and
seamstresses stood by ready to grab them and realise the
''We now have creativity happening in every corner of the
earth. We can live and work anywhere and be a creative force.
''That's one reason why the Dunedin event is so successful.
Designers can be anywhere in the world and creativity will
Webster also believes that the opportunities for young
designers are greater than ever.
''Our former students are more in demand in top fashion
houses in New York, London and Paris than ever before. Today,
a student can create a digital portfolio and present it
online, putting them in the running for a job anywhere in the
''The shift has been phenomenal and we need to leverage off
that on our side of the world and take advantage of it,'' she
said. She points to the fact that Australians and New
Zealanders have the benefit of their ability to look
outwards, absorbing global trends, then adapt these trends
into something uniquely theirs.
So what about the impact of chain stores and mass-produced,
''It's simple. We just don't even try to compete. People on
the street will suddenly tire of all the cheap crap and
demand something better, something different that they will
love for years,'' she says.
''This is our point of difference - our niche.''
• The iD Dunedin Emerging Design Awards event will be held in
the Lion Foundation Arena at the Edgar Centre, Portsmouth Dr
on Thursday, March 14. Tickets are available from
TicketDirect venues (including the Regent Theatre, Dunedin),
0800 4 TICKET or online at www.ticketdirect.co.nz. A
booking fee applies.
• Prof Karen Webster will give a public lecture on ''slow
fashion'' on Tuesday, March 12, at midday in the Dunedin
Public Art Gallery - gold coin donation - door sales only.