Fashion always huge part of designer’s life

Dame Trelise Cooper with her pre-autumn 2021 collection on display at Oamaru's Design Federation last week. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH
Dame Trelise Cooper with her pre-autumn 2021 collection on display at Oamaru's Design Federation last week. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

If clothing designer Dame Trelise Cooper could give one piece of advice to her 15-year-old self, she would begin with “take a deep breath”.

“I would tell her it will all turn out OK and keep on thinking the good thoughts. To keep on believing in the dream, and the dream can be as big as you choose,” Dame Trelise told the Oamaru Mail.

Dame Trelise was in town with her two sisters and mother for a brief visit last Friday.

She had been in Christchurch selling her next collection and decided to visit Oamaru stockist Design Federation and its owner, Annabel Berry.

While in town, she spoke at a special women’s lunch hosted by Mrs Berry at her shop, and catered for by Riverstone Kitchen, which was also part of the launch of the Oamaru Shoptober business promotion.

This was her first time in Oamaru, but she was keen to return and spend more time here, she said.

“We are just blown away by this city. It’s just so beautiful. The buildings are incredible.”

Fashion has always been a huge part of the designer’s life. From playing dress-ups as a 4-year-old to deciding what to wear to school.

“My mother was thrilled when, at intermediate, I had to have a uniform, because I would have 15 changes before I went to school. And nothing’s changed – I’m still trying on 15 outfits before I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve loved fashion all my life.”

The Trelise Cooper brand, and its sister labels Cooper, Coop and Curate, were all synonymous with colour – a quality which Dame Trelise believed helped to make its wearer happy.

“I think what I’ve recognised about colour and florals is it’s very attractive and attracting. It makes you feel good, and actually elevates your mood.

“Women who have been traditionally dark or monochrome wearers come back and go, have never had so many compliments’. It is the, kind of, power of colour, I think. I find colour transformative.”

Dame Trelise said the fashion industry had changed dramatically, especially in the past five years, with the arrival of social media.

“It’s a way of talking to my customer in a way that has never been possible before – and engaging with them. I find it just an amazing, incredible, fabulous change.”

Sustainability, diversity and inclusivity are also hot topics in the industry at the moment, and Dame Trelise said these were things about which her company had always been conscious.

It introduced the eco-bag in 2008 as an alternative to single-use plastic bags and, since then, millions have sold throughout New Zealand supermarkets. She also regularly visits the overseas factories where the company’s clothes are made.

“I employ 120 staff – there’s a whole range of diverse human souls that work for me, and I don’t think you can be in business these days, employing staff, without having inclusivity and diversity as part of the mandate of what you do.

“I just really don’t like the shouting from the rooftops that happens on social media about it. I think actions speak louder than words.

“If you don’t tell everybody about it, you’re accused of not doing it. But you can just see. We’ve used models of different sizes, colours, ages from all throughout our history. You can go back and find it all.”

Being made a dame in 2014 was a career highlight for the self-made Kiwi, although she was initially reluctant to accept the offer.

“What I’ve recognised in the years since that, is that it is a great honour, and I’m very privileged, but it comes as a result of a great team behind me.

“What I want people to know is, I left school at 15, I came from the wrong side of the tracks in terms of, I didn’t come with a silver spoon in my mouth, and I didn’t have any particular training, just a passion for fashion.

“I want young women to recognise that what they think about they bring about, and it’s what they believe in. And I am sitting here as living truth to attest that it’s all about your attitude towards life.

“I’m living a bigger dream than I ever anticipated .. I didn’t even have self-belief. I had a lot of self-doubt all the way through, but I did it anyway. So it’s, I guess, about courage. It’s courage to do it, even though you have the fear. And I think that’s what true courage is. It’s acting in spite of being fearful.”

 - Ashley Smyth

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