Interview: Claire Regnault, museum curator of Vogue NZ exhibition
New Zealand is known for its edgy fashion exports such as Kate Sylvester and Zambesi, but a retrospective exhibition reveals a lesser known secret: the land of the long white cloud once had its own Vogue.
It shared Sheila Scotter as its editor with Vogue Australia, and only lasted in print from 1957 to 1968, but from the sounds of the exhibition at New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa in Wellington, it still had time to make a splash. Claire Regnault, senior history curator at the museum and NZ fashion history writer, delved into the archives and created an exhibition celebrating a very different Kiwi fashion industry to what we know now.
What was the magazine like?
Gorgeous. Aspirational. No doubt much like the early Vogue Australia, with which it shared [editor] Sheila Scotter and many ‘lifts’. Vogue New Zealand provided readers with a mix of international and local content.
What role do you think it played in the New Zealand fashion scene at the time?
While it was established by British Vogue as a trade link, it imbued the local industry, which was burgeoning at the time,with confidence and pride.
Importantly, as well as producing a magazine that profiled locally produced fashions, Vogue New Zealand acted as a conduit of information between the international fashion scene and manufacturers and designers in New Zealand. The editors not only saw their role as providing an engaging magazine for readers, but also to foster and support the local industry. As part of the international and extremely well-connected ‘Vogue family’, the Vogue editors around the world were provided with up-to-the-minute information on fashion trends that they could supply to local manufacturers - this was a service that they had never had before.
When looking through, did you have any favourite issues and if so, what made them stand out?
I love them all! What I love about the early issues, is that New Zealand garments were flown to London to be photographed in quintessential English settings.
The editorial commentary, however, provided helpful suggestions to the New Zealand reader as to where they could wear the garments at home. For example, leisurewear garments modelled alongside the Cutty Sark in Greenwich could be worn, readers were cheerfully advised, in New Zealand while ’watching rugby or on the Fairway at Middlemore or Titirangi, or at Heretaunga and the Hutt Golf Club… or for après-ski at Chateau Tongariro or The Hermitage, Mt Cook’.
The world has changed a lot since Vogue New Zealand was in print; what struck you most about the way the ways in which fashion and society were portrayed?
Garments were very much photographed in such a way that viewers could ‘read’ the garment. Models in general look much more mature and sophisticated than many of today’s - well heeled, well groomed, well mannered. They were most definiately ‘ladies’. There was an emphasis on etiquette. Vogue New Zealand observed, rather than took part in youth culture. England was still the mother country.
How did you translate what you saw in the magazines to the exhibition?
The exhibition is very much drawn from the pages of the magazine, from its content to layout and colour palette. All of the ‘labels’ included in the exhibition featured in Vogue New Zealand, in either editorial or advertising. The exhibition is in a gallery which comprises six large ’shop-window’ like cases. As such, I asked the designer to treat each case like a cross between a window display and a magazine spread. Our 3D designer, Ben Barraud, has based his design on the grid, which is very dominate in Vogue NZ’s layouts and advertising, particularly with the use of a heavy black line. He has also drawn the colour palette of pastels from Vogue NZ’s pages. The theme of each case is based on an actual Vogue NZ headline. We also included a key piece of text in each case/spread as a magazine style teaser, as I love the language of Vogue - it has the most beautiful rythms - often musical, sets a tone, and is so evocative.
My all time favourite is from ‘The Way to Look in Wool’:
'Soft as a whisper, gentle as a sigh - let the warmth of wool enfold you this winter. Wool is a cherishing glow… a designer’s dream… a status symbol. Wool doesn’t follow fashion - it makes it!’ (Wool Awards promotion, Vogue New Zealand, Autumn, 1965)
It just makes you want to snuggle into some fabulous garment!
Each piece comes from the museum’s collection; how did they come to be there, and how did you select them for the exhibition?
By in large the garments have been donated to Te Papa, although some have been purchased from vintage stores and owners. The selection process was very much guided by the pages of Vogue New Zealand and the series of stories I wanted to tell about Vogue and the industry at the time, such as the importance of the Wool Board and the business of manufacturing under-licence as well as emerging local designer names. The garments naturally began to fall into groups. Where I could I also matched garments to actual page spreads.
How do you think the fashion industry in NZ has changed since then?
While New Zealand’s reputation as a producer of fashion has increased nationally and internationally, the industry itself has shrunk drastically following the removal of import restrictions in the 1980s. It used to be a country full of manufacturers and garment factories, and as an industry, it was a huge employer. Today, New Zealand’s reputation lies on the shoulders of a small number of independant fashion houses, each of whom are celebrated for their individual design aesthetic.