Nation’s PM wrapped up in Carlson

Tanya Carlson’s piece in an Otago Museum exhibition has done national service, writes Tom McKinlay.

The dress was worn by Jacinda Ardern.

So, everything that follows is mere footnote.

Jacinda Ardern doesn’t own the dress, which of course has never been a prerequisite for wearing anything.

It was made available to her, the implication being that it might be made available to others.

The maker of the dress, Tanya Carlson, implies as much. She regularly lends pieces to people doing photo shoots or making videos, she says.

She was pretty chuffed to see it on the PM though.

This garment designed by Tanya Carlson was worn by Jacinda Ardern and can be seen in the Otago...
This garment designed by Tanya Carlson was worn by Jacinda Ardern and can be seen in the Otago Museum exhibition "Fashion FWD: Disruption Through Design". Photo: Supplied

Her friend, the singer Julia Deans, texted Tanya to let her know it was happening, in real time.

The occasion was a music awards ceremony in Auckland in 2019. One magazine covering the event described the dress as elegant. Another news source wrote "her evening dress was a classic choice for the red carpet".

Both descriptions confirm just how pressed and time-short journalists are these days.

Photos of the occasion appear to show a day of fine settled weather — not the sort of conditions Carlson had in mind when designing the dress at all.

Indeed, she calls the piece "moody and broody", when asked.

She’s right, but context is critical.

The piece, or more properly, pieces, stand in the Otago Museum exhibition "Fashion FWD: Disruption Through Design", in the section dedicated to the godmothers of Dunedin fashion.

It floats, the black mannequin on which it rests recedes into the background. Tightly tailored and loosely whimsical, its manly grey flannel embraces the female form, winking at gender.

The effect is not altogether of this world. That may in part be why it looked so good on Jacinda Ardern, she of pale skin and raven hair.

It was designed pro bono publico for the 2016 iD Dunedin Fashion Week poster with a view to capturing the landscape.

"Everyone is always talking about Dunedin designers, that we all refer to notions around isolation, moodiness, a sense of darkness — that comes with living in Dunedin, whether it is music or art or fashion."

This was to be captured in the garments, the dress and the bodice, cut on the bias, the fly-away pleated train and augmented sleeves. (Jacinda just wore the dress bit.)

Photos for iD were to be taken at Cargill’s Castle on the exposed southeast lip of the city.

"With the wind-blown macrocarpas," Carlson says, the original idea still sharp in her mind.

Carlson was thinking Gothic and Wuthering Heights and "Heathcliff, it’s me I’m Cathy, I’ve come home ..."

Might Jacinda Ardern have been the perfect model? Brow furrowed as she considered climate change and the diminishing labour share of the economy.

"The winds always blow up there so I designed it to have this fan tail — piwakawaka, you know," says Carlson. "We would be up there and the train would fly out the back, even though it is pleated wool. And the sleeves would do the same."

On the day, though: "Blue sky forever and not one breath of wind. Dunedin threw up a jewel of a day. But the image was still beautiful."

The piece still captured what Carlson feels about the southern landscape — built as well as natural.

"It pays homage to some of our Victorian detail as well."

Carlson, now Auckland-based, was back in Dunedin to judge the iD International Emerging Designer Awards.

It was, as ever about the X-factor, she says.

"Like any talent, you can see it, there’s something about it ..."

Beyond that, central to the work of all young designers now is sustainability — a smaller, lighter footprint. Preserving the planet.

They are all on board. It is a priority for all of them, Carlson says.

"We have to figure out how many clothes we need," she says.

When asked, she says some people suggest 30.

"I think around 30 is probably doable."

It would be interesting to know how many Jacinda Ardern has. She wouldn’t need to count Carlson’s piece, because she gave that back.

The exhibition

"Fashion FWD>>Disruption Through Design" runs at Otago Museum until October 17.

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