When the World of WearableArt™ Awards Show first took to the stage in the South Island of New Zealand, the majority of the competing designers lived a short drive away from its rural setting; the audience numbered just on 200 people and the show made no money. Its founder however was determined to make it a must attend annual event.
Today, the design competition is set within an unforgettable theatrical performance that changes completely from year to year, attracting a crowd of 50,000 people to its waterfront venue in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Fashion and design students, seasoned designers, and imaginative people with an urge to create, design and craft garments to compete for more than $165,000 in prize money and 37 prestigious awards – and the show’s founder is now a Dame, having been knighted two years ago for her services to the arts.
The immensely creative Dame Suzie Moncrieff, who was once a sculptor struggling to make ends meet whilst raising her daughter on her own, never lost her innate gift to create fantastical, theatrical themes for the performance that surrounds the designer garments modelled on the giant stage, every show season. She has fulfilled her dream “to take art off the wall and put it on the human form,” time and time again.
Journalists flock to Wellington from the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and Australia to attend the two-hour extravaganza, which is staged over a three-week season. All of them struggle to describe this unique show, but none can refute what one show-goer said: “The World of WearableArt™ Show is difficult to describe, and impossible to forget.”
There is little or no dialogue to the performance by actors and dancers, yet their performance is intensely expressive, while the music draws in and often excites the audience, moving them to clap, laugh and exclaim, out loud, “Wow!”
The models don’t simply wear the garments and walk the classic catwalk walk. Selected at auditions for their ability to move expressively and with a dancer’s rhythm, they bring the garments to life, injecting personality into each and every creation.
Many designers spend months creating their entry and, as there are around half-a-dozen categories in the competition, some challenge themselves to make more than one garment. The categories include Avant Garde, Creative Excellence, Costume and Film, an open section, a section where garments are designed to be worn by children and a section that focuses on the South Pacific and its cultures.
One Californian-based designer and costumier, Sean Purucker, has entered the WOW® competition every year since 2008 and, every year, his garments have won awards. He now proudly owns eight.
Mary Wing To, based in London, is another designer whose first creation for WOW earned her a top award in 2009.
The talented saddler went on to win the Avant Garde category and the Supreme WOW® Award in 2011.
Her winning garments feature prominently on her personal, self-titled website and her remarkable abilities to work with leather have earned her a position with Chanel.
A number of successful WOW® entrants have gone on to join the creative team at the Academy Award winning WETA Workshop in Wellington – the special effects experts behind blockbusters produced by Peter Jackson, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, Avatar and King Kong.
Every year, Dame Suzie Moncrieff and her sister, Heather Palmer (also competition director) travel to fashion design schools in Asia, the United Kingdom, the USA and Europe, to tell students about WOW® – what it is and why they should enter the competition.
Over the years many of those students rose to the challenge and their creations duly arrived in New Zealand. They came from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Donghua University’s fashion and design school in Shanghai, China, the London School of Fashion, The Hong Kong Design Institute in Hong Kong and the Shih Chien University, Taipei – to name just a few.With more than 300 garments gathered at WOW’s headquarters in Nelson, New Zealand, the first stage of judging takes an entire weekend in early July. The judging panel changes each year but always includes Dame Suzie. During this process, the designers’ names, gender and country of origin remain unknown.
Each and every entry is modelled, with full make-up and accessories and the judges take on the enormous task of selecting the garments that will go on to compete for WOW® awards and be part of the stage performance in late September and into October.
Last year, for the first time, the garments in the competition were a clean 50/50 mix of creations from designers within New Zealand and designers from around the world.
The individual stories of the designers are intriguing, sometimes humorous, impressive and always inspiring. For some, their WOW® success has even launched their careers in the arts, from fashion to film.
One such designer is New Zealander, Claire Prebble, who took home the Supreme WOW Award in 2004 when she was just 18 years old – making her the show’s youngest winner. Her much-celebrated design Eos is ‘all over the Internet’ and is still spoken about with reverence by WOW designers.
Claire used her travel prize to visit Singapore, Dubai, Scotland, England, Italy, Paris, New York, New Jersey, California and Oregon to learn as much as she could about costumes, art and fashion.
While in Dubai she did a two-month internship at the Arushi Fashion House; specialists in haute couture wedding dresses and evening gowns for women of the Middle East, including several of the region’s royal families.
During that time she learned the intricacies of textile design for couture weddings and found inspiration in working with the crystals, beads, sequins and semi-precious stones.
Sir Richard Taylor of WETA Workshop then offered Claire a job – she became the costume maker behind the hugely successful 3D blockbuster Avatar, a movie she worked on for three years.
Claire’s work has featured on television and in newspapers, magazines and books around the world. Her interests are in the design and creation of couture clothing and costumes for the film and fashion industries. She still works at WETA – a place she says constantly inspires her and “opens my eyes to even more creative possibilities.”
This Article was written for Modeconnect by Victoria Clark a freelance journalist based in Nelson, New Zealand