As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Kiri Nathan is an award-winning fashion designer and founder of the Kiri Nathan fashion brand with a distinctly Māori essence and aesthetic.
The Obamas, Beyonce, and the New Zealand Prime Minister have worn her designs, but it all started with making a korowai (Māori cloak) for her son’s 21st birthday. Now, leading Māori fashion designer and mentor Kiri Nathan has moved into mentoring and building a fashion designer community in Auckland, and its sister cities Guangzhou and Los Angeles, to build stronger business ties.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Kiri, I will record the conversation, because I am not a fast scribbler and I want to be accurate.
Oh, I should have done my hair! [Laughs.]
No worries. I am recording voice only. [Laughter.]
Good! I just dropped off my kids. We have five tamariki, five children—our eldest is 28 and our youngest is nine. And three moko, three grandchildren. It is always fun with our family around.
You picked up weaving as an adult. What spurred you to go back to communities and learn weaving with elders?
I did a three-year degree in visual arts and majored in fashion when my eldest son was one year old. I wanted to be a fashion designer; I think I was 19 years old when I started that.
There were 32 people who started that course. It was an intense program, and five of us graduated. By the end of it, I did not want to see a sewing machine again. So I went into another career path for 14 years. I met my husband, had a couple more children. When I was carrying the fourth child, we decided that I would stay home and raise the children.
By 9:30 in the morning, I cleaned the house and the kids are sorted. I thought, what do I do with the rest of the day? I started what we call tiptoeing, having a little go again with fashion. I started putting some pieces together and started to study.
So before my baby’s 21st, I wanted to learn how to weave what Māori called a korowai, which is a traditional figured cloak. They are worn these days in special moments, for instance, graduation from university or a 21st birthday.
I wanted to learn how to weave one of these cloaks for him. I went to night classes at Unitech to learn traditional working with natural fibres, flax, harakeke. Then you refine those fibers down to beautiful fine muka state. It is very, very beautiful and time consuming.
It must be a lost kind of art?
It possibly could have been but there is a lot of work being done through the marae. The one facility here teaches traditional Māori, our language, carving, and that has been absolutely instrumental in sharing this beautiful traditional process that we have. On top of those night classes, I went back to wharenui marae. Marae are our traditional meeting houses. I spent two years there learning specifically how to weave.
All the three learnings and processes came together, and that’s basically what organically turned into us starting the label.
Did you end up weaving your son’s cloak?
Yes! I just made it for his 21st birthday!
Women are juggling so many different plates and they are responsible for themselves and their families, for their parents, and communities.
How do you deal with transformation? You have seen a lot of it, even for yourself, through many different phases in your life.
On a personal level transformation, I think, is primarily about self-confidence. People can come into business or different initiatives or social environments with a certain level of self-confidence. Your transformation is part of that growth of personal confidence.
I liken it to instinct or what we call listening to your puku, your stomach, your gut feeling. When I first started out in business, I did not have any confidence because I had not studied business. I thought that everybody else knew a lot more than what I did.
Over the years, experience has taught me that only I know my journey, only I know where I want to go. How I would like to conduct myself or conduct my business. So that, puku, that instinct, is very strong. Now I trust it implicitly.
As far as transformation, growth, and other people, I think it’s the same thing. What I try to do with anyone that I am mentoring or anyone that comes for any kind of advice, we talk about who they are. If they are comfortable enough to step into their power, and what is their why.
Then once we figure all those things out, it is just a matter of supporting them into that safe space and that place of power.
What is your why?
My why is my baby. It is my husband and my babies. That always been the why, the very core of the why. I want to show them that you can create your own world. You can do what is socially acceptable or expected of you while you create any kind of pathway for yourself.
It was really important to me and my husband for our children to see that first hand and see the hard work. They actually see all the nasty and then they come to the fashion and award shows. They just love it, that is the value. I do not think they understand the connection between the Mahi, the work, and then the outcomes, quite yet. But they certainly know work ethic and they know about self-confidence and being. And being is being content and very settled and comfortable in who you are.
Tell me a little bit more because outside of your work, you’ve constructed a way of not just doing business but just being present in your community. Give me some of the ingredients that are needed for cultural, social, or economic impact.
I think authenticity sits at the base of that, so authentically recognizing that there is a need somewhere. For me personally, it was identifying a need in my industry and specifically for Māori fashion designers. There are around about 25 Māori fashion designers in comparison to 818 mainstream fashion designers in New Zealand. We are 3%, we’re tiny.
Although over the last 100 years, there have always been extremely talented, incredibly visionary designers; there has never been support system. I identified this huge gap, not only in the market but also in the way the business culture was structured.
The business culture was structured within a very colonized model. For indigenous fashion designers, it was very hard to fit in that space.
The need to create our own space became quite apparent. In order to do that, the first thing you need to do is to bring your community of indigenous designers together, in a very safe, supportive, and genuine way. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the community that we have created is a family.
We genuinely want to see the success of our fellow designers. That is not something that is usual in a mainstream fashion culture. It was very, very important to us that we created a different business model and a different cultural model—one that felt like us. In doing that, all of these wonderful things have happened.
What you are doing from a core belief is what we also need in mainstream fashion. The current model and process is negatively affecting people and planet. What are some of the steps you would undertake to be more mindful of our planet and the people?
First of all, it is really important that fashion designers sit back and take a look at themselves.
The priority needs to be on how we create ethical and sustainable fashion models, because the fast fashion model is literally destroying our planet.
It is destroying our planet and people on so many different levels. What is really beautiful about any indigenous culture around the world is how they process the world—it is always in a way that cares for our Earth.
It is always in a way that reciprocates back to nature and has a responsibility to nature. Those are just fundamental black and white, yes’s and no’s.
What we really need is for everyone to take responsibility for their actions and how they are conducting themselves. It is a massive, massive task. We are talking about billion-dollar companies; if they changed the structure of their businesses even slightly, it would impact so positively on this world.
That might not impact their bottom line in the way that they want. But again, what is the point in having all the money if we do not have a planet to live on?
It benefits them in the long run as well, right?
Yes. It benefits the world. People are so siloed in their thinking. Especially in the fashion industry; It is a very siloed industry. I do not want to say that every single relationship is disingenuous, but it seems priorities are all upside down.
There is a big task at hand…
There is a task at hand. We are this tiny little country. We as modern fashion designers have this micro, tiny, little community. However, if you want to make change, you have to start in your own space.
What we are trying to do is create something that has never been here before. There is no reference and so forth. We are making this up as we go. And our checkpoint is to check our puku.
Feel that we are being authentic and genuine. And we are taking our responsibilities, not just for ourselves and for the industry, but for our country. Then we are creating an example.
You must have had many people who have impacted you, right? Could you name a few who have influenced the way you are as a fashion designer or as an entrepreneur?
The why I am as a fashion designer would be my grandmother. She was a beautiful seamstress. I would just sit there for hours and watch her on her old Singer sewing machine. That relationship was very, very special, and that time was very, very special. From a very early age, I was watching construction, pattern drafting—a creative craft sensibility. It was a very genuine and special time spent with someone that you love.
Anything she said to you that stayed with you?
Yeah, the word persistence. [Laughs.] Persistence and perseverance. She said talent will get you so far. At the end of the day, perseverance is the thing that will see you succeed. The only time that you lose is when you give up.
The only time that you fail is when you give up. And so yes, she raised five children and 18 grandchildren with grace and elegance. She was certainly a role model.
You recently won an award.
I won the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award. It was absolutely lovely. It is a beautiful community, a farmer community. Sir Peter Blake’s wife and daughter were there. They have have built a board, people, and organizations that have that same kind of spirit.
With all these accolades, what is next for you? How do you structure your next steps for your brand and for you?
I have been a bit naughty. I have not been really working on my own brand for about a year now. I have been focusing on KAHUI collective, which is the community. Just this past weekend, I won the MWDI Māori Business Woman of the Year. That is really cool, because it means that it gives us a little bit more weight when we go into certain conversations around getting support.
We are talking about very small micro businesses here, so the capital is few and far between. Everyone is out there, they are on their hustle, working and bringing money in. We really need to get some oxygen into the small businesses. We need to let them breath, to be creative, and to step into their own leadership spaces.
We are taking the model we hare created out to the wider community. We have formed the first Māori fashion coalition with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, a wing of the government with an export focus on China and the United States. This the first time this has happened in New Zealand history; it is a huge responsibility for us.
Is that the collaboration you were working on, with a sister city Los Angeles, in the United States, and Guangzhou, in China?
That is the Agreement between L.A., Guangzhou, and Auckland. We were lucky enough to go on one of those delegations in 2017. That was the first time that I took a group of Māori designers to China.
It was part of the beginning of forming that community. It has all been a very organic process. It has been one of those things where you are like: I have identified a need, what can I do, how do I make this space better?
We do not have any fabric manufacturers in New Zealand, even our Merino [wool] is sent to China to be milled and then sent back. One of the big challenges New Zealand designers, the smaller ones that is, face is sourcing from the same fabric pools as everybody else.
You are losing that point of difference. Also it is dictates what types of fabric you can use. One of the main things is being able to go to the largest fabric manufacturers in the world and source. Everything you could possibly think of is in Guangzhou.
I tried to do that while the designers were here in New Zealand, and I tried to hook them up with agents. But you need to go there, you need to get into the markets, you need to understand what it is to trade within those markets.
How you conduct yourself, being respectful of their culture and their business culture. I do not know if a lot of people really think about that when they go in there. You know, China, they are the people of the land. They have been turning for 8,000 years, so however they do it, that is all good. You learn how they do it and be respectful of it.
That 2017 trip with the tripartite delegation was definitely the start of that thing.
What are some of the objectives for this new collaboration with the government?
We are collaborating with the government, because they have identified us as a group with potential.
China is looking at all these different types of industries and ways that businesses are sort of structured. They are very interested in money, for one. The other thing is that the fashion culture in China is changing, so those really capable buyers, a few years back, would want brands like Gucci and Chanel.
But now, the market has changed its mindset to things that are limited edition of very bespoke—products that have a very genuine story. NTTA are working with us on that. Then we have a mentorship program where we are working with and that is to ensure that the mentorship of at least ten designers. That is sustainability within the people, because there is no point in having all these opportunities if we can not retain our designers.
This must be a tremendous feat to be in, given fashion design is already a limited market. Then you have high intensity, handmade goods.
We have a lot of handwork, handweaving and hand carving of our indigenous stone. For the other labels, they do not actually do any of the carving or weaving. They are a manufacturer. It is very competitive. I think that is one of the huge factors in the way that the mainstream industry has built its culture based on this tiny little market design.
Whereas we are all online shopping now and the world is open to us. In order to create this community where no one is getting scared about someone stealing their customers, we just opened up the customer base.
The other designers are not so much exporting. I think some of them might be through the online stores, exporting to Australia at the moment, but therein lies one of the needs or the challenges that needs to be fulfilled. That is to gather this community together so that there is a loud voice and the story is very clear as you take it out to the world.
Everyone has the jewel, unique brands, and so forth. When you collaborate and you come together as a group, you take this powerful group of talent in aesthetics and storytelling, and you take it into a space of people who have never even experienced.
Most people in the world do not even know who Māori are, right? It is to share this, our beautiful culture.
What some of the things you are trying to work on for the Māori community and culture?
I think for the Māori community it is very similar to all the indigenous communities around the world. The wonderful thing, and probably the only wonderful thing about Trump being appointed, is that it has forced people into having these conversations.
People have been a lot more vocal about how they feel, and what they feel is right, and what they feel is wrong. Those conversations are rampant in the States, but they have also trickled down into the world.
We are suddenly seeing down here a lot more inclusivity with all types of minority groups. We are being invited into spaces.
Have you really noticed because of Trump being elected a change in the conversation, and a change in being more inclusive?
Yes, absolutely. I am in that type of world. People are a lot more courageous about having conversations now, which is great. But also I think the business culture and social culture in New Zealand has shifted. It is really not acceptable anymore not to have at least an indigenous person, or a woman, or someone from a minority group, as one of your speakers. And that is a great thing.
It is historic. You get to have a voice in spaces that you did not have a voice previously. At the moment, I find in a lot of ways it can be quite tokenistic. But you know what, we will take that. You can shift the thinking slightly, just by speaking from your place.
There is another thing that has happened over here. We have had some incredible advocates for our indigenous language, Māori. It has just exploded. It is still a very, very fragile language and we still are at risk of losing it.
However, whenever I go to any social event now, I am finding that everyone will get up and say a few words in Māori, they will at least attempt it. It is almost like it is expected now. Whenever you greet someone, you tell people where you are from, and you tell them what your mountain is. That is really special.
Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8, 2019.
impactmania’s Women of Impact program received a U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.
For more information: [email protected].