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A new ex­hi­bi­tion cap­tures piv­otal images from New Zealand fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy through the decades. Cu­ra­tor and his­to­rian Doris de Pont talks to Josie Steen­hart about the im­por­tance of shar­ing our his­tory and sto­ries.

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When Doris de Pont closed up shop on the epony­mous cloth­ing la­bel she’d run for more than two decades, it was far from the end of her career in fash­ion.

“I closed my la­bel in 2008. You al­ways re­view what you’re do­ing and how you’re do­ing it and there was a lot of pres­sure to be able to re­duce the cost of pro­duc­tion by tak­ing it off­shore and do­ing less orig­i­nal work, and I re­ally didn’t want to do that,” she says.

“But I re­ally didn’t want to give up fash­ion, so that led to this re­flec­tion on the place of fash­ion in our so­ci­ety.

“I went back to univer­sity and did an hon­ours de­gree in museums and cul­tural her­itage. And that made me very aware that all our museums and in­sti­tu­tions have got these amaz­ing col­lec­tions of clothes that they don’t show. They don’t use them to do the sto­ry­telling about our lives and his­tory.

“And so I re­ally wanted to change that, not by col­lect­ing more, but by show­ing more, by telling sto­ries about that his­tory.”

And so the New Zealand Fash­ion Mu­seum was born. But if you’re en­vis­ag­ing a grand old build­ing or per­haps some­thing con­tem­po­rary and ar­chi­tec­tural, brim­ming with col­lec­tions of gar­ments show­cased on tai­lors’ dum­mies, you’d be mis­taken, as this mu­seum is of the dig­i­tal kind.

“We don’t have a col­lec­tion and we don’t have a build­ing,” says de Pont. “We are sto­ry­tellers, so we col­lect images and his­to­ries and look for strands and threads that are of con­cern in con­tem­po­rary prac­tice.

“We then look at the an­tecedents and try and tell a story to help peo­ple un­der­stand where that sits, where that’s com­ing from, how that re­flects who we are, where we’re go­ing.”

The on­line mu­seum brings to­gether a record of the na­tional col­lec­tion of fash­ion ob­jects held both in pub­lic and pri­vate col­lec­tions. It also pro­vides a dig­i­tal home for the pop-up ex­hi­bi­tions and is a ve­hi­cle for ex­clu­sive ex­hi­bi­tions, such as the cur­rent of­fer­ing, Flash Back, which fea­tures the work of 18 fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phers work­ing in New Zealand be­tween 1930 and 2015.

“We tend to have two phys­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions a year, but like a fash­ion busi­ness you have to re­view what you’re do­ing and how you’re do­ing it,” says de Pont. “So this ex­hi­bi­tion is very dif­fer­ent for us in that it doesn’t have any gar­ments in it or any phys­i­cal pho­tos, it’s all dig­i­tal. The images are pro­jected as an im­mer­sive mag­a­zine as well as dig­i­tal photo al­bums.”

One thing de Pont finds fas­ci­nat­ing about New Zealand’s fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy is the light.

“Light is a real is­sue in New Zealand, we have par­tic­u­larly shrill light, so it’s in­ter­est­ing to see how the pho­tog­ra­phers have worked with it – some have tried to mit­i­gate it and con­trol it, oth­ers have used the light, turned it to their own hand.”

An­other is the “New Zealand iden­tity that you’re read­ing in the pho­to­graph... You can clearly see the changes in where we po­si­tioned our­selves in the world.

“In the early images, the 1930s through to the 50s, we were pro­mot­ing our­selves and our own man­u­fac­tur­ing with sets and light­ing that of­ten chan­nelled the im­agery of Hol­ly­wood – dra­matic light­ing and star­let poses.

“By the time we got to the 1960s we were much more fo­cused on be­ing as fash­ion­able as the fash­ion cap­i­tals of the world, show­ing that we could be as good as them, and we ac­tu­ally achieved this when our pho­tog­ra­phers, gar­ments and mod­els were fi­nally deemed good enough to cre­ate the con­tent for New Zealand Vogue (al­beit un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the Aus­tralia-based ed­i­tor).

“This con­tin­ued, but by the 1980s a new par­al­lel point of view was emerg­ing with mag­a­zines like ChaCha, which cham­pi­oned lo­cally in­flected fash­ion and served it up in images that fea­tured our ur­ban and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

“The mod­els also be­came more di­verse in age, colour and gen­der through the in­clu­sion of non-pro­fes­sional mod­els in the avail­able pool. The images we saw looked like us and en­gen­dered con­fi­dence and pride in our own unique voice. This spilled over into the high-end fash­ion mag­a­zines as well, so that to­day it is all a nat­u­ral part of the mix.

“What I love about fash­ion is that it’s so ex­pres­sive of our­selves, that you can play with it – you can be who you want to be, you can have fun,” says de Pont.

‘‘I love the plea­sure of fash­ion re­ally, and I sup­pose that’s what drives me.”

Flash Back, Fash­ion Pho­tog­ra­phy in New Zealand 1930-2015, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auck­land, un­til Fri­day. To check out the con­tent of The Fash­ion Mu­seum go to nz­fash­ion­mu­seum.org.nz.

Desmond Wil­liams’ photo for Fash­ion Quar­terly, 1986.

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