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Fashion Week

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Fashion from the other side

We spoke with Mary-Ellen Imlach, the Fashion Programme Co-ordinator at the College of Creative Arts, Massey University in Wellington about life at fashion school.  What courses do you offer and how many people attend?

Mary-Ellen:  We've got 3 programmes.  We've got a Bachelor of Design degree that is 4 years, a 2 year diploma in Fashion Design and Technology and a Masters degree. We've probably got about 200 - 220 students and they are all mainly woman.  I'd say  95- 96% are female.  What are the realities of breaking into the fashion industry? 

Mary-Ellen:  We get industry coming to us at the end of the year saying they are looking for graduates and outlining what they're looking for, so we often match up our students with what the company requires.  We've been around for over 30 years so we've got a lot of our students and alumni out there who are working in fashion companies both in New Zealand and overseas.    

Many of the students these days are doing internships with companies once they graduate so they get jobs that way.  We also run an internship paper within our courses so they can get out there and obviously their names too. Who is your most famous student?

Mary-Ellen:  Rebecca Taylor who is based out of London, Kate Sylvester who is based in New Zealand, Deb Sweeney, Alexander Owen who has just made headlines after being asked to show in New York and Andrea Moore who is more Wellington based.  What sets one student apart from the rest?

Mary-Ellen: Its really surprising.  It's having the design education behind them with their own personal qualities and attributes.  The ones that shine are those who are prepared to work hard and push themselves forward.  The technical aspects are important too so those who are pushing the edges of design both conceptually and commercially stand out.  But they also have to have the back up knowledge of how to make their garments too.  The fact they also take part in the fabric testing shows it's a real mixture of creative talent plus education.

I think that coming to an environment like this where you're mixing with peers and like-minded people and working in the whole creative environment propels you forward.  We've got fashion but also industrial and textile design, visual communication, photography and fine arts so they are mixing in a very creative environment. If a student asked you on their first day what 3 qualities they would need for success at the end of their course, what would you say?

Mary-Ellen: Passion, commitment, and hard work but they also need to think outside the square and to really want to push themselves.  Who is your favourite designer overseas and in New Zealand? 

Mary-Ellen:  My favourite designer is Dior.  In terms of New Zealand, I like the work Kate Sylvester is doing and I like Alexander Owen too.  I think Zambesi have a unique New Zealand feel and I love Trelise Cooper as well - maybe that's an age thing!  I think she does some amazing things so I think she's my favourite. I just love her use of colour and her boldness.  What would you constitute her success to? 

Mary- Ellen:  She's worked really hard and I think all the aspects of her business have done well.  We've had students intern with her and they work really hard but she treats her staff really well and looks after them and is supportive of them.  I think that's really important. 

She's got a bigger, much more global vision.  For example, she's doing a Habitat for Humanity at the moment and often worked for charities and puts a lot back into the community, not just for fashion but the community at large.  She uses her position for the greater good. 

She's also a clever businesswoman as well and has the support of her partner and I think you see that in a lot of successful designers, it's a two way street.  Kate Sylvester has her partner Wayne who has been with her from day one - that helps in a business too. What guidance would you give a student who approached you wanting to set up their own label?  Where would you advise them to start in terms of their brand, finances etc. 

Mary-Ellen:  I think all the staff would say here, go and work for somebody else first to gain experience, and to have some downtime too as it does get busy.  Go out and experience the real world first and then start.  Some of them don't, they want to start their business straight away and do their own thing and they're fairly well equipped but they have to think about business plans etc.  A lot of designers fall over as they don't have enough funding.  But most start small with support from friends and family and they build up from there. Making the most from opportunities around and through fashion week is a must. We're talking Air New Zealand Fashion Week here, so it's all about New Zealand.  Do you think Kiwi designers have an edge because we're on the other side of the world? 

Mary-Ellen:  I think we do.  I think the days are gone where we used to look to Europe for direction.  We've now got our own edge and our designers doing well overseas have their own signature.  What do you hope to see at Air New Zealand Fashion Week this year?  What are you excited about? 

Mary-Ellen:  On a personal note, I'm excited about being involved with Miromoda, the Maori fashion design awards that Ata Te Kanawa started this year. They're showing for the first time at Air New Zealand Fashion week so I'm really interested to see the garments on the catwalk.  I think this is another great thing for New Zealand - fashion design from the indigenous side of our country and to see how that develops. 

This year, from what I've heard, designers are taking different approaches to their business and how their doing their businesses so I think there will be some really clever designs.  I think it's quite a changing time at the moment what with sustainability issues coming through so there's going to be some interesting ideas coming through on the catwalk this year.


Photo gallery

NZ Fashion Week 2010 

Get all the latest looks from the catwalk with our New Zealand Fashion Week photogallery.