On the eve of Otago Polytechnic School of Fashion’s much anticipated annual COLLECTIONS show, Josie Steenhart caught up with five students in their final stages of bachelor of design (fashion) degrees and asked them to talk early inspiration, fashion student life, Dunedin style and plans for the future.
ST CLAIRE MARSHALL
My first fashion memory is playing dress-up in my family’s costume collection. I was also a huge bookworm when I was younger, and in my search for new reading material came across the Vogue section and was mesmerised.
I moved to Dunedin when I was 15, but I went to boarding school here when I was 13 so I have pretty much spent all of my teenage and adult years living here. I love all of the old architecture, the town green belt and our beaches. The way the city is such a student hub is amazing too for anyone studying.
My style is a mix of everything — I don’t think there’s one exact aesthetic I stick to. Overall, maximalistic, a little weird and a little chaotic.
I think fashion is a fascinating mirror of culture and everyday life — while at the same time a way to explore fantasy and transformation. Great fashion allows you the ability to create a new identity, assert your sense of self or to construct an armour, sometimes all at once.
It’s also a way to explore many different overlapping fields I love at the same time — art, media studies, photography, English — so fashion appeals to the tiny gremlin in my brain who wants to try absolutely everything.
The highlights of my fashion studies have been each time I had a new design idea. Also working at New Zealand Fashion Week.
The challenges: financially funding said ideas while remaining as sustainable as possible. However, I do think it makes you more creative. Also the industry’s size diversity as a whole — making clothes for a size 14-16 (or larger!) is not a revolutionary concept.
My collection, Tear Me to Pieces, explores body dysmorphia, portraying a shift in self-perception — a haunting, eerie sense of displacement. I explored "the other" and the otherworldly — akin to a fantastical phantom limb or growth. As well as me escaping my body by ripping it open, I looked at the notion of growing new pieces, organs, or transforming into different creatures.
I researched a number of different plants and insects that have interesting ways of relating to the idea of consumption and death (i.e. venus fly traps, pitcher plants, ants and Chinese moon moths), which I incorporated into prints, colour and silhouettes throughout.
Next year I plan to save as much money as I can before moving to Auckland and starting to look for a job. Hopefully I can gain some more experience and make some more fashion connections which will help me figure out my own little niche in the industry.
My earliest fashion memory is demanding to wear a little blue fairy dress to my last day of preschool. These days my personal style is about freedom of expression, sexuality and projecting my family’s non-conformist values.
I’m actually a Christchurch local, but I’ve lived here since 2020, starting my study journey through the pandemic. I fell in love with Dunedin’s architecture, restaurants and city life. Let’s face it, Christchurch nightlife isn’t very lively at all, and for some reason it’s awkwardly formal.
I was roped into the fashion world while studying art in high school. I was asked to model for the School of Fashion at Hagley College. Initially modelling in the end of year show for my soon-to-be boyfriend’s (and now fellow classmate’s) year 12 collection. The following year in his final collection, using my art skills I helped him create these gory masks for the runway.
After moving here and completing the 2020 Art Certificate, I had a spare six months and decided to give the Fashion Certificate a go. This led me to this bachelor’s degree and here I am today.
A highlight has been showing my garment on last year’s COLLECTIONS runway. Because of Covid restrictions, I didn’t have the opportunity to show any of my garments before then, and I felt that my skills were finally at a point that they were ready to be showcased.
This has been an extremely trying year for me personally: my cat was hit by a car, I was struggling to explain my identity as a burn survivor to a sewing class I was teaching as a first job, on top of dealing with a nightmare flatting scenario.
The Victor of Burning Circumstance collection revolves around resilience, healing, and transformation, stemming from the idea of wearing someone else’s skin. This collection is named from a quote from my muse, fellow burn survivor Alan Breslau: "I am a victor of circumstances — not a victim".
As an homage to Alan, this collection embraces texture and challenges traditional beauty standards. I have achieved this by using plastics as a tool to create texture on fabric, a nod to Alan’s life as a polymer engineer. Melting plastic into silks to create wrinkles and scab effects as well as using it as a mould to cast silicone.
My ambition was to create a collection that transcends mere aesthetics, serving as a beacon of strength and resilience for individuals facing adversity due to traumatic injury or disfigurement.
After my studies, I want to pioneer a more accepting and transparent fashion world. Starting a brand is the tip of the iceberg. I want to be one of many to create a fashion system that is honest with consumers about supply chains and fibre content. Making unconventional, conceptual pieces with the aim of pushing the boundary of societal norms is my passion.
Both my grandmothers are great knitters/sewers and I have fond childhood memories of knitting scarves by the fire and sewing clothes for my dolls. This led to me falling in love with designing and making garments.
I’ve loved design and art from a young age, which led me to take textiles throughout high school, where we were encouraged to enter the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards. The rewarding feeling of seeing my designs come to life on the runway made me want to pursue a career in fashion and led me to apply to study at OP.
I’ve lived in Dunedin for about 10 years now. I’m originally from the Māniatoto and have recently moved back home. However, I went to high school and completed my studies here in Dunedin.
I love the connected and supportive community that Dunedin has, especially within our local fashion industry. Dunedin definitely has its own signature style that is conveyed through brands such as NOM*d. Lots of darker tones and layers, because the weather is always cold and unpredictable.
My own style is bright, classic and feminine. I love a pop of colour.
The connections I’ve made through my honours research with designers, journalists, models and plus-size women across the country have been a highlight of my studies. How supportive and encouraging this community has been towards my research has been amazing. It has sparked some great and important conversations about inclusivity within the fashion industry and how despite what some may say we still have a long way to go.
Finishing my undergrad during the Covid lockdowns was definitely challenging. It limited our options for sourcing fabrics/trims for our collections and limited our access to specialty machinery.
My honours research explores creating more positive experiences with sizing for plus-size women. My research inspired the development of a small capsule collection titled Central Skies, named after the blue hues that flood the sky and landscapes of Central Otago, and which make up the colour palette of the collection.
Central Skies is a combination of both staples and statement pieces, designed to be released annually in different tonal colour palettes, to give plus-size women the opportunity to slowly build their own capsule wardrobes with pieces that fit well, last and convey their personal style.
All garments within the collection have been created with fluidity in fit, allowing for fluctuation within sizing and fit for different body shapes. When designing for plus-size, fit is important in ensuring positive experiences with sizing.
In the future I would love to work with New Zealand womenswear designers to help them extend their size ranges, or work for a plus-size womenswear label. The end goal is to one day have my own plus-size womenswear label.
MAMIA VAN DONGEN
I’ve lived in Dunedin for four years now. It was truly a cultural shock for me, since I came from Rarotonga and the weather here was the opposite of Rarotonga weather. It’s cold down here!
What I love about Dunedin is the people I’ve met during my time here. I made some lifelong friends.
My style is a mix of everything, depending on my mood on the day and also how the weather is. I love to wear clothing that is oversized but not too oversized — just the right amount of spaces and gaps between me and the clothing, because I love layering and oversized clothing makes things easier.
My earliest fashion memory was dressing up all my little cousins and picking out outfits for my family to wear. Sunday was my favourite time, because my opa (granddad) would let me pick out his suits to wear to church.
I was always curious about the history of fashion, how styles are created. I’ve always taken fashion as a way to communicate with others without having to say anything.
Later I realised my growing passion for this field and the ways I could leverage my creative flair. I’m thankful that I made the right decision to study at an institution that focused more on the curriculum and instilling in-depth knowledge of the subject rather than just focusing on the glamorous part. The growing dream is to one day have my own brand and see people wearing my designs.
One of the biggest highlights of studying fashion at Otago Polytech has been the diversity and inclusiveness. I felt so welcomed here and able to express my cultural ways and methods. They allowed me to show them my Cook Island methods and it was really a great feeling having classmates and lecturers show interest in my work and want to know more about my cultural background with fashion.
A challenge I faced was not having a community here that I could go to for help with cultural-related information or help on woodcarving, other than my uncle and my cousin.
There are also limited fabric choices in Dunedin. And [another challenge was] balancing studying with time to myself.
This collection was based and inspired by known and unknown graffiti and tattoo artists on the streets, in my local Dunedin community and where I came from. It also set the concept of having my own designer signature that can be shown through printing on to garments.
All five of my garments tell my story from the beginning, from moving away to taking the first step in pursuing my dream to complete my degree.
My plan for the future is to get more work experience in the industry and work for brands to see how things work in owning a fashion business, then from there I will then aim to achieve my dream of launching my brand.
My earliest fashion memory is taking outfit changes to primary school and when my dad would pick me up and ask why I was in a different outfit, I’d just say, "I found it". To this day I still have outfit changes throughout my day.
My personal style is a self-expression through a mix of colour and playful blends of silhouettes. My styles change from day to day but are grounded in functionality and comfort. My wardrobe needs to respond to the different demands of my dynamic lifestyle.
My family first shifted to Dunedin in my preschool years and stayed through my primary schooling. We shifted here for my mother’s work and she was transferred away in 2009. I finished my schooling while we were living in Christchurch. Once I finished school, our family relocated here and I came to study at the polytech.
What I really love about Dunedin is the sense of community that is stronger here than any of the other places I’ve lived or visited around the country.
Due to how small Dunedin is, I think there’s so much space for people to try new things [with fashion] and test the waters with their style. It’s not always easy, sometimes it’s cold.
I studied fashion in high school and enjoyed it as a creative outlet. Learning all the different aspects threw me further into it. The idea that no day is the same was something that appealed to me.
[In studying fashion here] I’ve loved the freedom to pursue whatever I set my mind to. Bringing ideas from my imagination to life is great, and seeing them on a runway or in a shoot is even better.
For me, a huge challenge was balancing my lifestyle as a full-time student, working part-time and playing competitive sport. You get out what you put into this degree! Finding time or making compromises was a hard lesson to learn but my team-mates (the Dunedin Thunder women’s ice hockey team) and workmates were so understanding and helpful!
I created Find Your Chill to challenge narrow views on women, especially female athletes. This project shows that sports and fashion can work together, not against each other. Using my experiences and research, I made a sport-inspired streetwear collection playing with prints and fabrics to make the clothes blend in this space, offering different styles and silhouettes to fit various needs.
Since my education has become a large focus recently, I now want to focus on my competitive sport and travel as that was something I wanted to do until Covid came along. I would love to work overseas in costume design or on sets.
• A film of the Collections show will also be shown on Dunedin TV from 8pm on December 9, and will be available via the ODT website, Dunedin TV YouTube and Otago Polytechnic YouTube channels.