Kip Chapman, director of this year’s WOW event, lives in Auckland.
Kip Chapman sounds like a wee kid let loose in a candy store. His excitement crackles down the line as he contemplates directing his first ever World Of Wearableart show this month.
“I can’t believe it! The scale of WOW is mindblowing. Last year, I directed a punk-rock musical about Kate Sheppard, which played each night to around 700 people. It was a big production, but even so, we had to debate whether we could afford to have an aerial artist in that show because it’s so expensive.”
With WOW, an entirely different question presented itself.
“It was more a case of – how many aerial artists do we want? Suddenly, you have to deliver at a massive scale, and there’s the budget to do it. You’re playing each night to nearly 4000 people, on a stage that thrusts out into the audience. Your sets need to be impressive from every angle, and you’re creating a unique, wild world for each garment category.”
Chapman is something of a golden boy of local theatre, with a string of hit shows to his name as both actor and director. Even so, he was “intimidatingly impressed” when he watched a previous year’s WOW show with a view to taking it on himself. The logistical complexity is ridiculous, he says.
“You’re trying to show how art can be enlivened by the human spirit. You’re taking a static thing then adding music and movement and theatre and context, imbuing each garment with a tangible spirit, then amplifying that to 4000 people. But fortunately, WOW has technical teams who’ve been doing this for 29 years now.
“I can say to them, ‘I need this garment right here on the stage at precisely this time.’ And they’ll say, ‘Can’t do it. The model wearing that stainless steel outfit needs to be covered in talcum powder, and it takes 76 seconds to dress them. You need to give us another 8 seconds.’”
Backstage, reckons Chapman, is mental. While everything looks elegantly seamless out the front, there’s a hive of mad action behind the scenes, with every garment change attended by an army of hair, make-up and dressing experts and timed with military precision.
“It’s like a car pit-stop in a Formula 1 race, where every second counts. Of course, anything with that much complexity has a high potential for cock-ups, but that’s live theatre. You have an inflexible deadline and enormous pressure, and you just have to make it work. Like Tina Fey said when she was head writer on Saturday Night Live, ‘The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; the show goes on because it’s eight o’clock.’ It’s the same with WOW. Once that music starts, you’re on.” Darren Wise builds dairy factories for a living. A welder by trade, he pieces together gigantic gleaming constructions of stainless steel pipes, ladders and tanks.
“I’ve spent 27 years in the dairy industry. I built lots of factories, and there’s good money in it, but I also had all these ideas in my head of other things I could make with stainless steel.”
Five years ago, he started “tinkering in the shed”, making sculptural works inspired by his Maori heritage. After a few failures, he started getting good.
“I went into this gallery with something I made and said, ‘I’m trying to learn to be an artist.’ The curator grabbed my collar and pulled me in close and said, ‘Darren, for f…’s sake, you already ARE an artist!’ I started to think about myself differently after that.”
Even so, when he got a call from WOW suggesting he submit an entry, Wise wondered if it was “some weird joke”.
“I didn’t reply for three weeks, but in that time, I had all these amazing ideas of things I could make. But I decided it was just too hard. I was gonna flag it, eh. Then my uncle turned up, and said, ‘You have to do it; it’s an amazing opportunity.’ We had a cup of tea in my little gallery and worked out how it might be possible.”
Wise’s entry made the finals: a stainless steel piece inspired by the story of Maui fishing up in the North Island.
“Mate, I can’t wait to see it running around the stage. I mean, I’m a tradesman, right? A welder. A lot of people I know would look at WOW and think it was just a bunch of weirdos prancing around in silly costumes, you know? But I had a look at some videos from past years, and there were other tradesmen involved – people who worked with wood and fibreglass. I thought, ‘I want to be part of that!’
A family man with two kids, Wise is a recovering alcoholic, now 13 years sober. He has had a few trials
and tribulations to overcome in his life, but WOW has lifted him up into a place he never imagined he could go, he says.
“Some of the top designers from around the world put entries into this thing, and here’s little old me, a tradesman who sits in a dairy factory nine months of the year, being told what to do by grumpy old men.
“That work pays well, but making money is easy; making good art is the hard part. It connects me closer to my Maori culture, too. I have ancestors who guide me, spiritually. I listen to them, and when they push me in a certain direction, I go there. That spirit keeps building inside of me and it comes out in the work, or that’s the way it feels to me, anyway. I hope that people who look at my work in this show will feel that, too.” Fifi Colston’s first entry was way back in 1995, when WOW was still based in Nelson. It sounds distinctly uncomfortable, unless your idea of a good time is a bra woven from twisted willow.
“I made it with friends and it got into the Bizarre Bras section,” says the Wellington artist. “That bra wouldn’t make it into the show now, because the standards are so much higher, but it set me on my way.”
The following year, Colston entered a solo piece in the Man Unleashed section.
“It was called The Secret Garden. By day, this guy was a grim-faced businessman in a grey suit, with glasses. But by night, he threw open the suit to reveal a sort of Robert Mapplethorpe interior, with gilded everything and flowers galore, and his face-mask flipped up to show this joyous boy that lurked within that bleak grey exterior. I did a plaster cast of my husband’s chest to build the interior, so it was oddly personal as well…”
WOW itself has become oddly personal for Colston, who is now what you might call a lifer. This year’s show will feature her 24th successful finalist entry since 1995, and she has previously won seven awards.
“Like a lot of long-term Wowsers, it’s part of my annual calendar now. It can be heartbreaking if you spend months on something and it doesn’t make it into the show, but it’s an essential part of my life. My mother was saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you do it!’ But then I thought about people who run marathons. Why do they do it? Because they love it, because they’re challenged by it, and because there’s great satisfaction in making it to the finish line, even if you don’t win the race. WOW is a creative marathon for me, and I learn something every time I take part: a new technique, how to use new materials, how to tell a new story, or whatever.”
This year’s story, she warns, is a tad gruesome. “I didn’t show it to the grannies, just in case they thought I’d lost my mind. It’s in the Science Fiction section, and imagines a time when organ-harvesting cyborgs rule the world, and they’re struggling to see the point of us humans.
“It’s pretty macabre, made out of thermo-plastics and fabric and casts I took off a real human skeleton I borrowed off a friend. There’s also a couple of hundred 1980s shoulder pads in there that I covered in velvet, and a lot of foam hacked from inside a friend’s old couch.”
Between events, Colston’s association with WOW has led on to a lot of other work.
“I’ve written children’s books about costuming, I get prop commissions, I teach wearable art workshops with schools.
“It’s a huge part of my creative life and I’d be lost without it. If I didn’t do it, I’d miss the Wearable Art community here in Wellington, I’d miss making my entry, and I’d miss the thrill of seeing it up there on stage. You know, my son told me recently he can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing WOW. And he’s 26!” With a crack and a heave and a rumble, her world fell apart.
“When the Canterbury earthquake ripped through, we lost everything,” says Natasha English.
“I was in a building that collapsed, and that changes your thinking profoundly. You look at things very differently after that.”
English realised that despite the devastation, the most important things in her life remained intact.
“I’d lost my home and my business, but my family was OK and I wasn’t going to any funerals. When you’ve escaped death, you realise the importance of making time for things that feed your spirit. WOW is one of those things for me.”
English and her sister Tatyanna Meharry started making WOW entries together.
“She’s a potter and a ceramics tutor, and I studied architectural design and ran my own store selling handmade furniture. We’re from a big, close family where everybody is quite straight up with one another, so we work quite well together in creative environments.”
Theirs was a particularly practical upbringing, she says. “If you can’t make it, you can’t have it: that was our family motto. We made handbags, shoes, clothing – you name it. I learned to do wallpapering and lay flooring when I was about 12, and we both loved fashion and learned to sew at a very young age.”
This year’s piece is the sisters’ fourth joint entry. They won the Supreme Award in 2013 for a piece about Te Tiriti O Waitangi called The Exchange, covered in hand-made ceramic coins and feathers.
And last year’s entry, Baroque Star, involved hundreds of hours making bespoke velvet using a flocking gun and endless glue. It won them an internship together at Weta Workshop in Wellington.
The pair have previously made garments using billboard sheets and auto trim, glitter and pottery, nylon tags and metal. This year’s piece was painstakingly constructed from 60,000 empty pill capsules.
“With WOW, they want you to push the boundaries with your materials and techniques. It can take thousands of hours and be extremely laborious, but that’s OK. It’s not something Tatyanna and I do for
money, or to lift our public profile. We do it to spend some time together as sisters. We take it on and we get in each other’s faces, and we almost hate each other by the end of it and don’t see each other for months on end. Then it’s show time and we forgive each other. We see this wild thing we made up on stage and it’s all love between us again.”