Dame Pieter Stewart, head of New Zealand Fashion Week. Picture / Jason Dorday.

Does NZ Fashion Week Have a Future?

Exclusive: Dame Pieter Stewart reveals she is stepping down as the head of NZ Fashion Week

Dame Pieter Stewart can’t imagine not heading New Zealand Fashion Week, the annual event she founded 17 years ago. But, after this year’s NZFW, from August 24-30, she plans to take more of a “back seat” role, leaving her team, headed by PA Jacqueline Taylor, to run things.

Stewart says she’ll continue to own the business (unless a willing party comes forward), while shifting her focus to other pursuits: developing a New Zealand Fashion Council, plus governance and charity work. She also wants to spend more time with her three grandchildren, aged 8, 2 and 1, and to potter in her garden.

Daughter Myken Stewart is also in the process of handing over her sponsorship role after 13 years in the job.

“I’ve been thinking about it for ages,” says Dame Pieter, dressed all in black at Fashion Week’s new offices on Newton Rd. “I kept saying, ‘Next year I’m not going to work so hard. I’m going to do other things’. You can get a bit stale, and I think you’re more interesting when you do more than one thing. Seventeen years of one thing is a long time.”

Much has happened in those years. The explosion of e-commerce. The global financial crisis. And who could forget Pamela Anderson strutting down the runway in 2009? Yet, when Stewart first launched NZFW in 2000, having run the Corbans (later Wella) Fashion Collections, it had a decidedly exclusive air about it. The VIP event offered designers invaluable exposure and the opportunity to rub shoulders with international buyers and agents who had the power to connect them with global customers.

For the makeup artists, stylists, models and production teams, it was a high-pressure training ground. For those invited to the runway shows and parties, it was a chance to see and be seen at the most glamorous trade show in the country.

Today, the industry is no longer in its infancy, and several Kiwi designers have well-established contactsin other markets. Both Karen Walker and Lonely have moved on from the local event, with Walker choosing to show regularly at New York Fashion Week.

Other local labels, such as I Love Ugly, have bypassed it altogether, forging a formidable global customer database through social media. Where once the focus was to get designers picked up by multi-brand retailers overseas, now the front row seats are more likely to go to buyers from online stores, the calibre of which, Stewart says, is higher than ever.

READ: Dame Pieter Stewart's Memorable Fashion Week Moments

That shift has altered the culture at Fashion Week, drawing increasing numbers of bloggers, and fewer international buyers who, now the shows are streamed online, don’t have to travel as much as they used to.

Though it’s still the country’s premiere fashion event, it’s not the only show in town. Retailers and designers are increasingly putting on their own, smaller scale, in-season fashion shows to which the public are invited, much like Fashion Week’s own Fashion Weekend event.

Location-wise, the event feels slicker, perhaps a little less rock’n’roll. As Auckland continues to gentrify, it’s harder to find off-site spaces that haven’t had the rawness renovated out of them. Now the event, the majority of which is held at the Viaduct Events Centre, is more of a branding exercise.

“Designers still need to make sure they’re out there in the marketplace,” says Stewart. “Not just overseas but in New Zealand, which is where a lot of them are selling. I think that’s more important now than when we first started. Forward season shows get a lot of publicity. In-season is already in the shops so it’s not quite so exciting for media.”

She agrees that fashion is promoted everywhere these days but says the net-working and business opportunities the event provides are still invaluable.

At last year’s NZFW, a significant deal was brokered gaining 10 top Kiwi designers — including Nom*d, Juliette Hogan, Hailwood and Stolen Girlfriends Club — an opportunity to break into the lucrative Southeast Asian market. The labels secured an editorial and sales platform on sheshops.com, a partnership between e-commerce store Inverted Edge and SPH Magazines, which publishes Singapore editions of (among others) Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.
“It’s a real coup, a good way to test the Asian market, which is huge,” says Stewart.

The move into online is part of the reason Stewart says she’s stepping down. It’s the up-and-coming designers, many of whom are digitally savvy, who will drive the future success of the event, she says.

“Digitally, I’m reasonably au fait — although we bring in specialists in social media. But the future is in that area and I don’t really want to have to learn it all. Young people are so much better at it and have so many better ideas.”

Stewart’s focus will be developing a fashion council, a project she started two years ago but hasn’t had time to devote to. The idea is similar to councils in Australia and Britain — to foster new talent, share information and resources and provide more support for young businesses. The first step will be to get a handle on what the industry is worth.

“At the moment, everybody’s doing their own thing,” says Stewart. “The most cohesive thing is Fashion Week and that’s just an event. It needs something stronger. It’s a global market so everyone is on the same playing field now. New Zealand and Australian designers have to have an edge to make sure they’re selling well internationally.

“Designers don’t just have to have good design. They’ve also got to be commercial and have profile. I know designers at the moment who have both of those things, but they’re not selling much. So it’s about establishing that commercial support as well.

“I haven’t got all the answers but I have a strong feeling it needs to happen.”

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