Doris de Pont Is Celebrating New Zealand's Fashion History Through Storytelling

It's been a decade since former designer Doris de Pont launched the New Zealand Fashion Museum, and began shining a new light on our unique fashion history


Doris de Pont at Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi. Photo / Babiche Martens

“For me, clothes have meaning,” says Doris de Pont, founder/director of the New Zealand Fashion Museum. “You can track a whole lot of things in fashion, you can track social history.”

Doris’ passion for unravelling the back stories of what we wear has spotlighted a significant portion of our past and its influence on the present. Through staging exhibitions, writing books and compiling online resources, she has looked beyond preserving musty garments towards contemporary style to track themes of identity and belonging.

LISTEN: Viva Talks Podcast: Dan Ahwa and Doris de Pont On Aotearoa Style

If you’ve ever wondered why New Zealanders like wearing black and favour loose dresses, then Doris has the answers.

It’s 10 years since the former designer took on her passion project of creating the museum. “It’s a fantastic milestone for us,” says Doris. “It’s done what I’d envisaged, which is make fashion much more a part of the everyday conversation and elevated in people’s awareness as a lens to look at the world.”

This year an anniversary exhibition in August will mark the decade of achievement of what is a charitable trust, run from her front room in Grey Lynn. Safeguarding the museum’s future by attracting more sponsorship is part of the plan. “My husband is the main sponsor,” says Doris only half-jokingly.

Garments on display at the exhibition of Gus Fisher's El-Jay garments, June 2010. Photo / Babiche Martens

Her unpaid work has been recognised with a Queen’s Honour (an Order of Merit, in 2013) and last week she was made a Companion of the Auckland War Memorial Museum for her major contribution. Further endorsement comes from the willingness of the museum and other institutions to collaborate with this energetic visionary.

It was never Doris’ intention to duplicate the work of museums and art galleries but rather to help get more of their precious collections out of the basement and on public view, be that in physical or digital form. The purpose: storytelling using clothing. “People can relate to it, even if they’re not into fashion.”

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A great example is At the Beach: 100 Years of Summer Fashion in New Zealand, an exhibition she organised in 2015, drawn from the collections of the Maritime Museum and shown there before touring other centres. It showed what people wore and how this changed with the times and technology, from Great-granny’s heavy cotton to today’s skimpy nylon.

The Fashion Museum’s very first exhibition tracked El-Jay, the Auckland business licensed to reproduce European labels, including Christian Dior. It was a story of another time, of occasion dressing and 50 years when local manufacturing thrived, yet looked overseas for inspiration. Now most of our clothing is made offshore, yet that designed locally has a stronger sense of its place of origin.

Model wears items from Moana Currents: Dressing Aotearoa Now exhibition. Photos / Mara Sommer

The latest exhibition, Moana Currents: Dressing Aotearoa Now — jointly curated with Viva fashion director Dan Ahwa — recently opened at the Christchurch Art Gallery after a season at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi. It tracks the merging of Western influences on the wider Pacific and Pasifika influences here in New Zealand, from modest Sunday best to casual streetwear.

The “now” is what drives Doris, although as an influential designer from the 1980s until 2008, she was ahead of her time in collaborating with artists in creating original prints on her fabrics. Designs under her DNA and self-named label feature in museum permanent collections and she showed at fashion weeks here and in Australia. When the global financial crisis bit, Doris made “a heart-breaking decision but a wise one,” to shut up shop on her own terms.

Times were (and remain) tough for independent labels in the face of cheap imports.

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Early retirement was never a plan, so Doris enrolled at Auckland University for post-graduate museum and heritage studies. This, combined with her fashion credibility and connections, propelled the museum’s founding, with financial backing from supporters in the textile industry and creative communities.

A primarily online model was chosen, to be cost-efficient and an easily accessible record. Institutions allowed access to collection items and shared archival information. In return they got wider public attention via smartly curated pop-up shows and the Fashion Museum’s online platform. Individuals have also loaned the museum garments.

Doris doesn’t retain a large personal design archive; her representative collection was further culled last year to make more room inside her colourful family bungalow. Now in her mid-60s, these days she sews mainly for her grandchildren.

Doris de Pont's collection at NZ Fashion Week, 2006. Photos / Wayne Drought

She still delights in handling textiles, putting this down to her Dutch heritage, with tailors in the family since the 1840s. When we talk she is wearing a fitted suit, a Savemart find but it could as easily have been one of her own treasured pieces, Jimmy D, or an emerging New Zealand designer.

READ: Why Fashion Designer Kiri Nathan Is A National Treasure

Keeping an eye on the next generation hones her sense of future fashion directions. At Whitecliffe College’s graduate show she approvingly noted the use of reworked old materials and dyed new fabrics. “If they’re good things, they have that longevity and that’s what I’m seeing now in the things that people like Wynn Hamlyn are making. Maggie Hewitt [Maggie Marilyn] tells a story in her garments about who has made them. She knows who is making her clothes, so they have meaning.”

This increased attention to the origins and personal stories of new clothing heartens Doris. “That engagement with the making of the process — through that you are giving garments value.”

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