BY JOANNA LI
Last month saw New Zealand Fashion Week, attracting crowds to Auckland to watch models strut the stage. Among the designers with work on show, critically acclaimed New Zealand designer Kiri Nathan’s first solo show particularly stood out. Nathan’s designs – which most notably feature contemporary korowai and pounamu – have been gifted to celebrities including Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato and Ed Sheeran, and she was also among one of the 20 Wahine Toa members who exclusively met former US President Barack Obama during his visit to New Zealand.
In an interview with Radio NZ, she spoke about the struggles her company originally had as a Maori ascetic ethos company. “Someone will want to take pounamu into their store but not the rest of the label or someone will want to take the clothes, but not the pounamu or weaving,” Nathan said.
It’s not a surprising statement: in any business, consumer demand motivates the products that are created. If there’s nobody willing to buy your works, then it seems only natural that you’ll alter your product so that people will buy it. For some, that seems like a perfectly reasonable demand. Change the content so that it’s more appealing, cut some corners in production so that you can lower the price. Allow your customers to mix and match so that they can pick out the parts they want and leave the parts they don’t. In a capitalist society, it’s common that artists have to compromise their works in order to put food on the table.
Nathan saw it as otherwise. “For us, we’re just not as strong if we’re not together,” she said. “We’re not willing to conform to try fit into other people’s ideas of what we should be.” The most important things to them are cultural integrity and cultural intelligence.
Of course, this maintains a fine balance between the two: it’s all very well to take a moral stand and refuse to commodify your art in the name of making more money. However, we must remember that such moral stands are only available to those who are already somewhat affluent: those who can afford to take a gamble on creating a work of art that might never sell.
Kiri Nathan’s story highlights that divide. Her works resonate with many, particularly in the Maori fashion space, and she has gained international acclaim. But she has been working in this industry for a decade, and while I don’t doubt that there were some really hard times in the last ten years, other artists don’t have that much time.
Many passionate young artists face this dilemma. Is it better to conform, and ensure that you’ll have a roof over your head tomorrow? Or is it more important to stay true to what your art truly means? Nathan’s story may be an inspiration for some as long-term goals, however, the weekly rent, bills, and groceries might demand more short-term solutions.
Tearaway is all about giving young people a platform to express themselves, from all points of view; we encourage diversity of opinions, provided they are expressed with respect for those who differ. The opinions expressed may or may not be those of the Tearaway editorial team and Management.
JOANNA LI is a queer woman of colour and first generation Chinese New Zealander studying Law at Victoria University of Wellington. Loves her friends and tearing down the white heterosexist capitalist patriarchy. Her musings can be found here.
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