Style Liaisons: In Conversation With MP Chlöe Swarbrick
The politician on when fashion gets political
Chlöe Swarbrick knows clothes. In 2012, she founded menswear label The Lucid Collective with Alex Bartley Catt, later closing the brand in 2015.
It was a fittingly titled venture for someone who clearly knows what they want — housing security, environmental protection, drug law reform, among many other things — and proved her aptitude for how — and why — things work.
After years spent fashioning change, the Green Party MP for Auckland Central talks sneaker subtlety, unpacking threads of representation and wearing values on your sleeve.
Describe your personal style.
Who are some of your favourite local designers, and why?
Ingrid Starnes. I didn’t really know what I was doing aesthetically — you can’t really wear band T-shirts all the time — when I went into politics and had to start suiting up. Her Ponsonby Rd team (love you forever, Yule) made me feel comfortable in an environment fancier than anything I’d ever really felt I was worthy of, making the suits that are still the staple of my Parliamentary wardrobe.
I’d actually met Nicole, who ended up working for Ingrid, a few years beforehand through our menswear label, where she helped with patterns and things. She went on to run her own label, Oosterom, under which she made my most favourite suit to date.
It sounds like I have a lot of suits, aye. For clarity, I’ve accumulated four over four years, all of which I’ll have forever.
At home and on the streets, it’s largely second-hand finds, if not my guy Jordan [Gibson]’s label, Checks Downtown. I met Jordan years ago too, back when he was with Crane Brothers and getting lift-off with Gubb & Mackie.
Aspirationally, I just wear Kristine Crabb’s silks every day in my head.
What piece of clothing have you inherited that’s particularly special to you?
I’ve actually got a lot of my nana’s clothing that she doesn’t wear much or has convinced herself she’s aged out of, primarily shirts and also some low-cut cowboy boots. Every item is black, which is kind of an aesthetic theme on that side of my family. My nana is a very stylish woman who buys things to last.
What’s one of your earliest fashion memories?
There’s plenty of photos of me as a kid in denim Osh-Kosh overalls and hats. I’m not sure if Mum was intentionally setting me up to be queer — that’s a joke — or it was just very much the 90s thing.
I progressed into quite a "tomboy" — again, the queer thing — in my pre-teens and would only be seen in cargo pants, hoodies and sneakers for several years.
Were you into fashion growing up?
I mean, kind of, but perhaps without realising that’s what it was. I liked that clothing could help to express who you were in the world and that it held meaning. But I regularly felt like I didn’t really fit in with my choices. I was quite a shy kid.
How has your relationship to fashion changed since your teenage years?
I discovered op-shopping as a teenager on Karangahape Rd, so was covered in odd patterns and weird layers for a few years up until my first year or two at university. It was a space of experimenting a whole lot; I really didn’t know who I was, but I liked trying things on for size and became more comfortable in myself to that extent.
I’m now 27 and I wouldn’t say I necessarily know who I am, but I know what I like and what I stand for, so my style is probably more constant.
What considerations do you make when buying clothes?
The first one is always whether I actually need the thing. This is a harder consideration when it comes to mate’s bands T-shirts, which I have a lot of, but that’s my sentimentality at play. The immense choice on something that feels so basic as how you’re gonna cover your body for the day can be overwhelming for me, so I have a bit of a uniform of basics.
The second consideration, informed by the first, is where the clothing comes from and who made it. That’s why I’d prefer to buy things that are made here or at the very least made ethically, that will last a lifetime.
In 2012 you co-founded clothing label The Lucid Collective. When did you know you wanted to design clothes?
I’m not quite sure we even necessarily knew we wanted to design clothes when Alex and I started Lucid. We just knew we wanted to do something cool that could be a platform for our mates to also do cool things. We were both fascinated by menswear and how little attention it got, and how it could be made slower and better.
We knew we wanted to try stuff out and that this could be a way to do it. Boy, we were earnest and, boy, we learnt a lot very quickly. If you want to start a business, fashion — especially fashion that’s intentional and locally made — has got to be one of the hardest.
How did running that business influence your perspective on fashion?
I learnt a huge amount about how garments are put together, about the skills of machinists and technicians and designers and pattern-makers and the respect these people should be given. About the landscape, where photography and social media can make a brand but not necessarily a high-quality garment, let alone one with an ethical supply chain. About how trends come and go.
We learnt that we’ve lost a huge amount of the skill-base and the very literal machines and processes necessary to have a sustainable, home-grown industry here through lack of systemic investment and planning, searching for ever-lower bottom lines and fast-fashion churn.
It echoes much of what I now see in the building products sector that influences the housing crisis, where more than 90 per cent of materials come in from offshore and all the carbon emissions and supply chain quandaries associated to that, partially as a result of selling off huge swathes of our forests over the past few decades.
I’m actually doing some work on both of those things at the moment, pressuring the Government to build a sustainable building supplies strategy and collaborating with the incredible Mindful Fashion to pitch Government Ministers on the need for apprenticeships and internships within the fashion industry.
Quite often people dismiss fashion when it comes to politics, yet so much of what we wear is political. Do you think fashion is political?
I think everything is political. The water we drink, clothes we wear, earth our food comes from, rooves over our head… The cost, quality and accessibility of all of those things is informed by political decision-making. So yes, fashion is inherently political.
The wages of people in the sector, waste produced, plastics input, emissions laden, stories told and not told, cultures represented or neglected or appropriated. It’s about culture, which is by a design thinking definition, a shared set of values.
What garment of yours would you consider your greatest ‘soft protest’, something that communicates your views?
I don’t think I could pin that much weight to a garment per se, but I’ve been thinking a lot about sneakers lately, particularly in the context of the recent back-and-forth with Rawiri Waititi and the Speaker of the House about "business attire" and Air Jordans.
When I was elected in 2017 I was terrified about being kicked out of the house for wearing sneakers, so when I did so, I did so subtly. I admire that Rawiri just existed in the space as he is and represented who he represents, without that same tentativeness.
The dialogue, subsequently, particularly from my mate and Wellington Councillor Tamatha Paul, has been profound — we’re talking unpacking threads of representation, gatekeeping, "professionalism", colonialism, capitalism, exploitation, supply chains and why on earth it matters what the heck anyone’s wearing when they’re there to do a job.
Where do you think the fashion industry is most implicated in climate change?
I mean, fashion accounts for 8-10 per cent of global carbon emissions. It’s polluted waters and landscapes of countries and cities and towns of communities many of us will never see or understand.
It’s plastics that will not degrade in our oceans and landfills for millennia. It’s exploited populations of people for low-paid work to produce garments for those half the world away, in turn, charged exorbitant rates many, many multiples of what the people who made it will earn in a year.
We know that ‘luxury’ brands burn excess product to manipulate scarcity. It’s so cooked. But it’s the consequence of lack of regulation, particularly internationally coordinated regulation. It’s the consequence of political decision-making and neglect. It’s not inevitable.
So while I’m all for people making better choices about the clothing they purchase, I’ll be the first to chastise anyone who goes all out on someone else for ‘making the bad choice’.
Why is the bad choice even legal if we know it’s the bad choice? Why are individual consumers left to pick up the bill and responsibility for large corporations who’re privatising profit and socialising cost? When do we consider that all of this stuff is interconnected — that the process of globalised exploitation of cheap labour to produce cheap goods has become so embedded to the point we systematically produce and even incentivise harmful default choices?
Operating outside of those systemic defaults require time, energy, education and money. That’s the intersection of social and environmental justice. Change the system, don’t just have a pop at individuals who are doing their best to survive it. Organise.
What sustainability initiatives in regards to fashion are you most excited about, and why?
Grassroots organisation to change the way it’s all done. That’s proof of concept we can scale up for system-level change. That’s why I’m stoked to be working with Mindful Fashion on getting a few initiatives off the ground to get domestic production sustainable.
I’m also a huge fan of kaupapa from repairers like Sew Love, which Sarah [Lancaster] ran a pop-up of in St Kev’s a long while ago. When we have the know-how and the community to repair, reuse and actively recycle our garments within the neighbourhood instead of throwing them away, we’ve shifted both culture and the system.
The nostalgia of the Green Party sweatshirt proved to be popular during your election campaign over a year ago now. Why do you think this was such an important part of creating awareness and identity for the Green Party?
Fashion is a form of expression and, as we’ve discussed, it’s culturally important in that it reflects values. Whether those values are conservative and buttoned-up, or comfortable and sentimental, like an oversized green sweater.
The Party ended up doing a run — ringing down every production house in the country to do it as ethically and sustainably as humanly possible — after I’d nagged them for a while, after a bunch of people had nagged me for a while.
It was modelled off of the OG sweater I’d managed to literally get off the back of party stalwart Danna Glendining during a fundraiser at our 2020 AGM. Everyone, go watch Tony Sutorius’ 1999 film, Campaign, on the first MMP election as it played out in Wellington Central for a glimpse into the staunch, awe-inspiring human that is Danna.
We’re pretty low-key in Aotearoa when it comes to expression of political party allegiance, so having something like a very explicit party jersey pop off was pretty unexpected. People were willing to wear their heart and their values on their sleeve with that sweatshirt. It’s a pretty fascinating and unique piece of merch. I love it.
You have shown your support for the New Zealand Fashion Museum in the past. From your perspective, why are our clothing histories an important part of our cultural and societal conversations?
Doris de Pont is a national treasure. Getting the Fashion Museum up and running was and is immensely hard work. It stands as an ever-evolving and growing cache of who we are and were through what we wore and presented ourselves.
Through those artefacts, you get a story of how we saw our place in the world, where we pushed the boundaries and the characters and pioneers that led the march.
Our clothing histories are a critical part of our history, in general, because they are a part of history in general. As with all things, the most important piece of that puzzle is whose history: who’s included and who’s neglected, how do those things interact and what does that say about power, resources, resistance and creativity?
Fashion is much like music in that way, and of course, those two art forms are inextricably linked.
What do you hope for the future of fashion?
Inclusion, intention and some good old rabble-rousing.
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