Fashionista REVOLUTION contains stories of oppression and rebellion. Ripped flags, patches and military-wear signify Tuhoe terrorism alongside corporate pirates and Victorianesque gowns fabricated from bedclothes.
Fashionista REVOLUTION is a collaboration between Suzanne Tamaki who is well known for her involvement in the arts and her previous life as part of the 1990s art collective, The Pacific Sisters, and designer, David Roil and features their own fashion army — ‘upcycled, recycled, hand-stitched, crafted fashion that marches from the streets onto the catwalk.'
David and Suzanne met in the early 2000s and now live next door to one another. Both trained in fashion on the fringes - Suzanne at the Learning Connexion while raising her son on the DPB, and David at Sue Bowerman’s fashion school set up in the 80s to help unemployed people into the creative arts. Since meeting 16 years ago they've collaborated on a number of projects and share similar ideas about their craft.
“My Atelier is now next to [Suzanne’s] studio and we bounce off each other when required, or have our own personal space,” says David.
Last year, David showcased what Suzanne describes as ‘an exquisite collection’ in Rotorua as part of Global Indigenous Runway, while she had just completed a project for the light boxes situated on Wellington’s Courtenay Place and a Pacific Sisters exhibition at Te Papa.
“I realised this was the perfect time to showcase our work as an exhibition, rather than the fast-moving catwalks or portraits that don't show every aspect of the craft involved,” says Suzanne.
Both practitioners have their own stories of rebellion and oppression which are translated through their pieces in the exhibition.
Suzanne says her approach to upcycling derives from ‘necessity’ rather than the wider global trend that speaks to over-consumption and mass production.
“I was a solo mum with three kids and bought most of our clothes second hand. [But] I've always loved op shopping and getting a good score," the artist says.
"I would change up the garments, fix them and have some fun making clothes that were unique.”
Suzanne says there was no shortage of beautiful vintage garments, fabrics and buttons to inspire the next new creation.
In this exhibition she also looks at issues relating to Maoridom and the oppression of Maori culture and identity through colonisation. She drew on British and New Zealand military uniforms for inspiration and has taken the traditional flax-like skirt (piupiu), but used wool to highlight this influence.
Designer David Roil is well known in Wellington for upcycling men’s suits to create architectural forms under the label, Corporate Pirates. He also produces opulent ball gowns and wedding dresses, sometimes recycled from satin and silk duvets.
David is passionate about upcycling and in through his collection you're likely to find millinery, upcycled women’s suits and women’s pants that have been fashioned into skirts, and adjustable garments like his backless jackets. David looks to the worldwide trend of upcycling and sustainability that began in the 90s as a response to the excess of the 80s. This was a time, he says, where designers Maison Martin Margiela (Brussels) and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcon, Japan) were influencing the global fashion scene with their eccentric, groundbreaking designs that spoke of an anti-fashion movement.
“Margiela famously redesigns objects such as old wigs, canvases and silk scarves into couture garments,” says David. But he is quick to add that New Zealand also has its own history of upcycling which took root after the war.
“I’ve had many older generations tell me how they would take down the netting curtains for petticoats and the curtains for skirts if they wanted to go out and needed a new dress,” he says.
This idea gave rise to David’s upcycled evening gowns, which reflect on the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand. While colonial New Zealand women gained the vote in 1893, it was also a first for indigenous women.
To create his gowns he took the theme of women’s work and turned it on its head by upcycling the elements that relate to the oppression of housework such as cleaning the curtains, bed coverings and pillow slips. Menswear also features in the exhibition inspired by the work of designers such as Charles James, Balenciaga, Galliano, Roberto Capucci.
But there’s an even deeper story to David’s work that combines personal experiences and explores New Zealand’s social and cultural history.
“I grew up during the naïve 70s and 80s - a time of racism, rugby and beer. But I’m also one of six kids [of the families involved] in the largest homicide investigation in 1972,” he says.
David went through the social welfare system and growing up he was exposed to a lot of negative attitudes about what it meant to be Maori.
“I recall numerous times where people would say, “Why don’t the bloody Maoris use what we gave them?”
And that’s exactly what he’s done through his work by taking suits, duvet covers, trousers, ties, sheets and whatever he can utilize.
But from a less personal perspective he also sees waste as a 'glitch' in the system.
“Mass production encompasses mass waste, poisoning, land grabs, the death of villages next to fields of GMO products, plastics, mass profiteering and more."
He says people are programmed to buy, programmed to view, programmed through cell phones and the internet.
“I’m from the generation that were told that [technology] would be a tool, [but] now the tool is used to oppress and control. And when you can see through it you have the challenge to rebel against that," he says.
Everything David makes is sewn by hand. There’s not a pattern, sewing machine or even a drawing in sight. And he laughs about owning the one piece of equipment he can’t do without - a steamer.
“Before 1830 there was no such thing as a sewing machine, and today, what we know as ‘fashion’ is made by large groups, families, or ateliers.”
He believes techniques like hand stitching are now long forgotten and these construction skills can only be seen in top ateliers, or taught only in a handful of schools.
David created a piece entitled, ‘The Silk Slipper’ - his largest piece to-date.
Ninety metres of gold thread has been woven into the skirt. There are hand-sewn roses that were made using two needles at the same time, and on the underside of the garment is a structure made from the shoulders of a carnival costume and a huge 60s bay window curtain.
'The Silk Slipper' talks about colonisation and the mass exodus to take land and resources when New Zealand and Australia were settled by the Europeans. With the rise of the machine, French Luddites were also known to have broken into new factories to bust the machines in protest, throwing silk slippers into the moving looms.
David says his various projects have allowed him to speak of inequality and give voice to issues that are sometimes overlooked or need to be more closely addressed. His collaborator, Suzanne agrees, and says the exhibition is about growth.
“This [exhibition] definitely speaks of who we are, [but the work] keeps growing and morphing. At some stage you have to say, that's enough, it's time to try something new and head in another direction [and] start making crowns, or furniture,” she says.