Kate Sylvester says she loves the understated style of Mercedes. Picture / Supplied.

Kate Sylvester's Prestigious Accolade

Kate Sylvester is this year’s recipient of the Mercedes-Benz Presents accolade

At last year’s Fashion Week, models walking the catwalk for Kate Sylvester wore billowing coats and dresses, starchy shirts and a “wisp of silk in a forest of black wool”, inspired by characters in Donna Tartt’s novels. Although her autumn/winter 2016 collection ­— due to be unveiled in August — is still under wraps, the designer plans to return to her inspirations in the literary, art and film worlds.

“The theme is always incredibly important,” says Kate, in between fittings for the show. “It’s not just about nice fabrics and frocks. It’s all about story-telling.”

It’s a special show too. Kate is this year’s Mercedes-Benz Presents recipient, and her show will launch the August 24-30 event.

“I’m thrilled,” says the designer. Not that she’s letting the sponsorship go to her head.

“I’m very conscious of staying true to what we do and not getting over-excited and crazy on the bells and whistles nonsense. I love the understated style of Mercedes and I don’t see them or us as being flashy. Having said that, there is an idea I’m very excited about, for what we’re going to do with the room.”

This will be the luxury car brand’s second year as an elite Fashion Week sponsor, adding to their 20-year history supporting the industry, with 50 various fashion platforms worldwide. Kate joins an esteemed roster of international recipients including Carolina Herrera, Derek Lam and Badgley Mischka — plus last year’s first local designer, Dame Trelise Cooper.

Sponsoring Kate was a no-brainer, says Mercedes-Benz general manager Ben Griffin, as her “commitment to style and timeless, cutting-edge design perfectly complements our own philosophies”.

Auckland Council contributes funding to NZFW but designers rely heavily on corporate sponsorships, says Kate. Once you’ve factored in the models, set designers, stylists, hair and makeup artists, not to mention the jewellery, shoes, socks and PR, a show at Fashion Week can cost anywhere from $20,000.

Even so, some might argue it’s the newcomers who need the financial support. At last year’s event Kate made a memorable speech during which she acknowledged that funding from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise had given her a massive advantage in the 90s, compared with today’s fledgling designers who don’t get the same level of opportunity.

“I know with absolute certainty that the funding that myself and my peers received — to show both here at this event and overseas — directly aided us in establishing the international markets that are an intrinsic part of our success now,” she said.

She still believes the Government should fund shows, and to help young businesses build up their resources.
“I remember when we were starting out, it was so precarious. Once you get an order you then have to fund its production before you can collect your money.

There’s a terrifying stop-gap. I love the idea of [the Government] funding Fashion Week because in the end we do what we do because we’re creative and it gives us a chance to focus on that without having to think about the business side.”

But she says helping young businesses is totally different to recognising achievement, as Mercedes-Benz are doing.
“It’s a whole other thing sponsoring new brands coming in. That’s about giving people a go. This is a celebration of how great a show can be.”

Given the accolade’s global recognition, it’s fortuitous timing. Kate Sylvester is now “pushing hard” into the US, after years spent focusing on the New Zealand and Australian markets, a necessity while she and partner (and business partner) Wayne Conroy raised three boys.

Orders have come from upmarket online store Forward by Elyse Walker (which stocks the likes of Saint Laurent, Lanvin and Isabel Marant), as well as boutiques in Los Angeles and New York for both Kate Sylvester and the diffusion line, Sylvester.

It’s also the first year in which they’re supporting the locally based global Child Labor Free initiative, with hopes the label’s international supply chains will be accredited in time for Fashion Week.

This will be Sylvester’s second NZFW since taking a four-year break to expand into Australia. “Even for an established brand, doing Fashion Week is a huge cost commitment. That’s why funding from Mercedes-Benz is fantastic for us.”

Despite some uncertainty around next year’s Fashion Week, as Dame Pieter Stewart and daughter Myken Stewart prepare to step down from the event, Kate says she has every intent to return in 2016.

But for now, her sights are firmly on the catwalk — not to mention the upcoming Marr Factory shows (the alternative Ponsonby event starting August 9). “Yes, it all seemed fine and good and then it just exploded,” she laughs. “I’m very busy but it’s fantastic and positive.”

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