Designer Liz Mitchell, 61, recalls a helter-skelter year of personal and professional challenges and triumphs
When the year began, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have surgery. It was devastating. I was in my 40s and I’d done charities like Look Good Feel Better, so I was aware of cancer, but never imagined it would be something I’d experience.
It was also the time the America’s Cup was on in Auckland. We had a business in the T&G Building in Wellesley St and there were incredible things happening.
Cathy Cunningham, who was doing PR, said, “Cartier are doing a fashion show on Kawau Island, and the superyachts are all sailing over there,” and she invited me to take part. We had a wonderful show with evening couture and Cartier jewellery.
And that week was also my first week of chemotherapy. You couldn’t have had a more extreme contrast — Champagne on one side and something so challenging and fundamentally devastating on the other.
At that time, we did a lot more bridal work, and you can spend a year working with somebody on that project. I said to my cancer specialist: “I can’t go to have surgery because I have all those brides to look after.” She said: “You have to think differently.”
Lots of things helped. My family, my partner, my staff and all my friends — you get so much support when something like this happens.
I decided I’d do a show for New Zealand Fashion Week. That gave me something to work towards and put energy into. Sometimes, when you face a lot of adversity it’s important creatively to do something special.
The show was called The Kiss of the Dragon. It was so beautiful and theatrical. I had Geeling Ng, Susan Wood, Jennifer Ward-Lealand. We got a great response to that.
And then I was recovering, and we were going to America to visit a friend in New York. We stopped off in Los Angeles and another friend, who was involved with the New Zealand Consulate, said “There’s going to be an amazing party — would you like to come?”
So we went. Keisha Castle-Hughes and her mum, Desrae, were also at the party. They told me how much they loved my clothes and used to go past my window in Parnell and look at what we were doing. It was one of those serendipitous things that our paths crossed.
I knew she’d been nominated for an Academy Award for Whale Rider and I said, “If you need something to wear to the Oscars, come and see me when you get back.”
So she did. It was a really short amount of time — just a few weeks and she was going to be away again. I did a little wardrobe design idea for her, and she loved all the things, so she wore lots of my clothes at the different functions she went to for the Academy Awards.
I didn’t go. We had a great party at my home and watched it. It was amazing seeing her on the red carpet in the dress we made.
My hair had grown back by then, and I looked like a poodle. Cancer is a bell curve — some people survive, some people die. But the experience encouraged me to be true to myself and my love of women’s design.
Sometimes, when you face a lot of adversity it’s important creatively to do something special.