Kiri Nathan is the first Māori designer to open New Zealand Fashion Week. (Photo: Jason Dorday/Stuff)

For the first time at a New Zealand Fashion Week, it will be a Māori designer, Kiri Nathan, opening the celebrations. Siena Yates caught up with Kiri ahead of her big moment. Here they are reflecting on what it takes to operate in a Pākehā field while keeping identity and values intact.


You know you’re in a Māori whare when an invitation to lunch sounds a tiny bit like a threat.

All I did was ask about a restaurant around the corner. “You’re not going anywhere,” I was told. Next minute, I’m ferrying dishes from the kitchen before sitting down with the whānau for karakia.

“Help yourself. Don’t be shy.”

There’s raucous laughter and thigh-slapping at one end of the table, whakawhanaungatanga at the other. Kai being passed through the centre of it all. The neighbour even pops in for a feed. We eat until we can’t eat any more.

The manaakitanga around the table makes this place feel like home, somewhere I’ve been welcome my whole life. Except it’s not, it’s a workplace. The workplace of one of the country’s top fashion designers no less.

Even approaching Te Āhuru Mōwai, the boutique store and creative workshop of designer Kiri Nathan, isn’t what I expected. First off, it’s not in the Auckland Viaduct, or Newmarket, as you’d predict for a high-end fashion brand.

Instead, it’s in the east Auckland suburb of Glen Innes, across the road from the train tracks and a door or two down from the parking lot which services the local Maccas, the post office and a pawn shop. The workshop itself has steel roller-doors and stylishly blacked-out windows and doors. Kiri Nathan’s name and logo dominate the facade of the building. It’s unmissable.

I ring the bell and I’m welcomed with an awhi and a “Kia ora, e hoa”, and then led past a mauri stone and through a huge archway that resembles the front of a wharenui. I’m told there’s even a tekoteko being purpose-carved for it.

In the main space, there are cutting tables, mannequins and sewing machines. There’s also a coffee and bar area on the left, with two signs. One in the style of the TV show Cheers which reads: “Chuurs — Where everyone knows your ingoa.” The other is a neon-lit tino rangatiratanga flag.

Kiri is flat out at work at her computer, but she stops and gets up to greet me with a kiss on the cheek. She just has to finish this email, she says, and then she’ll show me around.

In the meantime, I should help myself to anything, have a nap on the couch if I want. As if everyone around me isn’t flat tack measuring, cutting and sewing. Kiri’s husband and business partner, Jason — the master carver behind the Kiri Nathan brand’s famous pounamu designs — comes and goes, running last-minute fabric swatches clear across Auckland and back.

Kiri Nathan at work in Te Āhuru Mōwai. (Photo supplied)

Kiri, Jason, and the team are in full swing preparing to be the first Māori label ever to open New Zealand Fashion Week. For most people, that means creating one collection. They’ve created six. Most people shoot 30 garments for their lookbook. They’ve shot 130. Plus, there are at least three other large-scale and hush-hush projects on the go in the background, and all this after they just launched their Matariki collection.

The fact that, despite that hustle, Kiri drops everything to prepare fresh, homemade kai with her teammates, and that everyone stops to sit and eat as a whānau, tells me everything I need to know about Kiri Nathan, the person, the brand, and the workplace.

This is what it looks like when a kaupapa is rooted firmly in te ao Māori, and it’s how Kiri has insisted on working from the start — even when it seemed like the world was telling her it was wrong.

“You know in that TV programme Stranger Things where they go into that other world and everything’s upside-down, feels wrong and is just a bit yuck?” asks Kiri. “That’s how it felt when we first came into the fashion industry.”

She grew up in a tight-knit community in Glen Innes with a solid group of friends she still calls her best friends to this day. Many of them helped build the Āhuru Mōwai space from the ground up. One, Czarina Wilson, used to live over Kiri’s back fence and now owns and runs the Celebrate Aotearoa gift store next door, and regularly pops in for whānau lunches.

Although Kiri didn’t have a strong connection to te ao Māori then, she says growing up in that kind of environment showed her the meaning of whānau, the importance of good, healthy relationships, and to trust what felt right in her puku.

She was introduced to the world of fashion by designer and tutor Kim Fraser who mentored her straight out of high school, and who tutored her again later when Kiri did her three-year diploma in visual arts at the Manukau Institute of Technology, majoring in fashion.

Coming from a community like that, when Kiri arrived in the fashion world, she simply couldn’t wrap her head around how she saw people being treated. She couldn’t fathom why only certain people would get opportunities while others had to “kiss some arsehole’s arse”, as she puts it, just to get a look in. And still others barely even got the opportunity to do the arse-kissing.

“It was awful and, really, it was just mean,” says Kiri. “I took a step back and was like: ‘I know what I have to do. If everything’s upside down, I’ll just flip it on its head.’ And so we went out into the world doing what we felt was natural and tika for us . . . which just happened to be the opposite of everything that was happening in the industry at the time.”

What that looked like wasn’t even necessarily anything controversial — or at least, it shouldn’t have been. For the most part, it was just putting people and values before profit.

Things like focusing on sustainable, ethical sourcing and manufacturing despite the demands of fast fashion. Or painstakingly handcrafting and hand-weaving garments like our tūpuna did, instead of leaving it to a machine. Or even just stopping for a sit-down whānau lunch in the middle of a hectic day, during the company’s busiest time of the year.

Simply doing things in a way no one else was doing them led to a lot of conflict, she says. Probably for no other reason than “change can be really scary for some”, especially in an industry with such a tiny market, which made competition particularly fierce.

“The general reaction was: ‘Who does she think she is?’” Kiri tells me.

She struggled to get stockists or wholesalers. Other designers warned stockists not to work with the brand. And media showed zero interest. It was rough-going, but for Kiri, barging through closed doors was better than checking her values at open ones.

A model showcasing a Kiri Nathan design. (Photo supplied)

People like Kiri are fascinating to me. While some kids might grow up dreaming of being fashion designers and the like, and rubbing shoulders with elites, for most people that’s all it is: a dream.

Unfortunately, that’s especially true for us as Māori. A lot of us learned very quickly that those lofty maunga were not for us. Internalised racism and ongoing colonisation taught us to set our sights a bit lower or, in many cases, a lot lower — like just finishing school. Among Kiri and her peers growing up, most aspired to become teachers or secretaries. “Or, if you were really cool, you could be a legal secretary.”

Whether consciously or not, a lot of us started to think of certain jobs as “white people jobs”. Many were told to get real about their ambitions and just focus on paying the bills. Kiri, however, is someone who ignored that noise and is now a leader in her chosen (and traditionally very Pākehā) field.

And she isn’t alone.

Another wahine making those same power moves is Kura Te Ua, a dancer, kaihaka, choreographer, director and founder of the Māori dance company Hawaiki Tū, who is working with Kiri to choreograph her Fashion Week opening show.

Dancer and choreographer Kura Te Ua is collaborating with Kiri Nathan on her opening Fashion Week show. (Photo supplied)

Kura also grew up in Glen Innes, as well as Ōtāhuhu, and was by her own account, was an incredibly shy and reserved child. She had strong ties to te whānau Wehi and their famed kapa haka rōpū, Te Waka Huia. She would look at photos on the wall of the Waka Huia performers and dream of one day being just like them.

“I knew,” says Kura, “that there was someone else inside of that shy and very introverted person, who was full of passion, full of intense, burning desire to be like the people in those photos, to express myself like that. Happy, proud, and Māori-as.”

She went from school to the performing arts school Pounamu Huia — another whānau Wehi initiative — where she was then encouraged to carry on to Auckland University. That’s where her trajectory took a turn.

Suddenly, she was thrust out of te ao Māori into learning ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. It was a world where she didn’t fit in at all.

“My first dance class was a third-year ballet class. I didn’t even know why I was pointing my foot. I was so awkward. Here I was stepping into a western world where Māori things weren’t acknowledged, which meant that everything I represented was pushed to the side or to the back.

“In those spaces, there are mirrors in all the studios — everything is reflected back at you. I just took one look and knew I was that one who didn’t look the same. I was the only Māori. I rocked up in my trackpants while everyone else had leotards and tights. Everything about me was just so different. I was constantly having to remind myself that there was another place for me, and that being Māori and not fitting in there was my superpower.”

With that in mind, she pushed through. Not just to prove that she could, but because what she’d also seen in that mirror was the need for a new space — one where she and people like her could hone their craft in an environment that reflected and celebrated who they were as Māori. And she was determined to be the one to create it.

That place became Hawaiki Tū, a Māori performing arts company with a focus on a hybrid form of storytelling known as haka theatre. Its priorities? Identity, authenticity, and reciprocity. To that end, Kura’s mahi also encompasses Autaia, an in-schools mentoring programme, and the Hawaiku Tū haka theatre training academy.

Choreographer and dancer Kura Te Ua mentors young people through her in-schools programme Autaia. (Photo supplied)

So, when Kiri approached Kura to collaborate for the Fashion Week show, Kura didn’t hesitate. “I just thought this was the least I could do after all the amazing mahi she’s doing for our people as well. It’s great to be able to serve those kinds of kaupapa,” she says.

I came to talk to Kiri and Kura in response to kōrero I’d heard about Māori like them. How it’s the “flash Māori” who get to do “flash Pākehā jobs” while other regular Māori are just focusing on getting by.

And yeah, what they do is pretty flash. But that flashness came out of decades of hard mahi that people seem to lose sight of on the other side, when it’s all international tours, royal visits and hanging out with Beyonce.

Coming up in the world of fashion, Kiri ran into brick walls at every turn, was told she wasn’t good enough, or her work was “too Māori” to sell. Kura was told point-blank that she’d never make it, and it was always made painfully obvious to both of them that they didn’t belong.

But still, they didn’t change their approach. They did the mahi, and then they did the extra mahi that comes with being Māori in their fields. It would’ve been far easier to stick to the status quo but, as Kiri says: “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

Having Māori in these previously unattainable, Pākehā spaces shows the rest of us something more than just “you can do it” and “don’t mind the haters”. Wāhine like Kiri and Kura hit the Pākehā measures of success, but then also prove that you can have those things while staying true to your Māori values.

That’s evident in their mentoring programmes, Kiri’s Kāhui Collective and Kura’s Autaia.

They’re programmes created to help other Māori aspiring to follow their dreams. They mentor them, introduce them to networks, and provide safe spaces to practise, learn and work. Most importantly, they build communities so no one else has to struggle alone.

So, while these wāhine may have the appearance of just “flash Māori doing flash things”, by simply doing their mahi in a Māori way that sits right in the puku, they’re also decolonising, and more importantly, indigenising their industries.

Model in a Kiri Nathan design. (Photo supplied)

Eruera Prendergast-Tarena is someone who knows the critical difference between those two words. He develops Māori strategies for business and education through Ngāi Tahu’s Social Innovation Lab. He explains that decolonising is about moving away from what doesn’t work for us, while indigenising is about moving more purposefully towards where we want to be.

“Eventually, we reach this point where we either have to transform that Pākehā space, or we have to create a new Indigenous space. Most Māori try to change things from within and get very disenfranchised and disenchanted because of the struggle,” he says.

“But creating a new space is also really difficult because it requires imagination. We have to take a really bold, intellectual leap, where we have to create our own spaces with our own values, ideas, strategies and structures, which most of us haven’t yet experienced.”

As I continue my kōrero with Kiri, it’s clear that what she’s built has come from that approach: rejecting what she didn’t want, and asking herself what she did want. It was never about profit, business growth and accolades, but cultural identity, overall hauora, and a bright future for the coming generations.

Her ethos is based on the principles of forging relationships, building community, sharing knowledge and opportunities, and then making sure the company feeds back into the Māori economy, and to te ao Māori.

“There’s a lot more to think about when you come from that place,” she says. “It’s not just running a business to make lots and lots of money. There’s so much more involved from our perspective. And because we’re so staunch about who we are, and what is and isn’t okay, it’s really black and white to us.”

In the past, Kiri’s been offered what seemed like “the dream” countless times. Someone even offered to invest millions in the brand and open bespoke boutiques in major cities around the world. The catch was that Kiri would have to mass-produce clothing and weaving (with aspects of Māori culture) in China, and do things in a way that simply didn’t sit right with her.

Model in a Kiri Nathan design. (Photo supplied)

“I could see that we would have lost our cultural integrity and mana motuhake through the process — and as soon as you give that up, you’re vulnerable. And not just you, not just your business, but your whānau and te ao Māori are in a vulnerable position because you’ve literally sold out.”

Her responsibility to te ao Māori is one Kiri takes seriously. It leads everything she does, whether it’s ensuring her mahi is environmentally friendly, or ensuring Māori stories and kaupapa remain ours or are helping the next generation.

“I feel like lots of people just take from te ao Māori and I’m not sure that they’re always thinking of how they can reciprocate for that huge privilege,” she says.

The Kāhui Collective is a key part of that reciprocity. It’s a way to provide mentorship, advice and opportunities to Māori coming up in the fashion industry — basically all the things Kiri wishes she had on the way up.

“The New Zealand fashion industry framework has been in place for 40-plus years, and it’s not built with Māori or cultural integrity in mind. Business was built to make money regardless of how that affected people and the planet. So, we built our own framework. My ultimate dream would be to build the first commercial, Māori fashion industry, an industry that upholds te ao Māori.”

Another part of upholding te ao Māori is evident in Kiri’s approach to Fashion Week.

When she realised it would be a Māori “first” to open the week, she thought: “It’s 2023, and this thing has been running for 22 years. How could we possibly be the first after all this time?”

Before settlers arrived, Māori handcrafted and wove materials from te taiao into clothing. Post-contact, they merged western fashion with kākahu Māori. But from the early 1900s, things changed. The Native Schools Act required a school uniform, going to church required church clothes, the Tohunga Suppression Act endangered traditional art forms.

“Many social and environmental things affected us and the way we made and wore clothing, because underneath all of that, was this connotation of ‘being less than’. You needed to embrace a Pākehā way of life, a Pākehā way of dressing, if you wanted to succeed in the world. We lost so much through those years of colonisation, and we live in a world that’s a result of that time. That is the world that I live in, in this industry right now,” explains Kiri.

And that’s the story she’s chosen to tell for the opening show. Her pūrakau, or story, for the show incorporates this history, and it challenges all New Zealanders to find a collective way forward by asking: “How do we reclaim what was lost, evolve Māori fashion in a way that uplifts tea o Māori, in this ever-changing world?”

Kura Te Ua at Haiwaiki Tū (Photo supplied)

Kura Te Ua has also turned down some major offers, to stick with her beliefs. Soon after she left university, she landed a huge role on a motion picture. She turned it down to focus on the Super 12 kapa haka competition.

“The choreographer pretty much shamed me in front of everyone. She was like: ‘Here’s this big movie, you’re the lead character and dancer because we can see something in you, and you want to go and do your kapa haka?’ She told me: ‘This is the beginning of your dance career and it’s the end of it.’ I just thought: ‘And that, right there, is why I’m leaving’.

“A couple of other choreographers did the same thing when I couldn’t commit to their kaupapa, because it didn’t align. They’d come back and say: ‘You’ll never make it.’ And I’ll never forget those people. They helped me to realise even more why kapa haka and te ao Māori was my lane, and why I should stay in it.”

Listening to that intuition — what Kura calls “the little voice inside you”, and what Kiri describes as “that feeling in your puku” — is what led both women to the secure places they occupy now.

Kura acknowledges that’s often easier said than done. For many of us as Māori, then small voice gets drowned out by outside noise, a lack of self-belief, and intergenerational conditioning that tells us we’re not worthy. Those influences get louder in spaces where people tell you you’re not supposed to be — but she says that’s even more reason to shout over them.

“The arts — dance, haka, theatre, fashion — they’re all forms of expression. They’re paths towards a higher level of conscious wellness. So, I encourage people to listen to those little sparks because we all have one, and I promise you there’s a place for it.

“The things that we’re creating, and the aspirations that we have, they’re massive, but I just feel like, if we’re not dreaming that big, then it just stays the same. And so, my encouragement would be for people to just noho, just sit, and keep imagining.”

I asked Eruera Prendergast-Tarena how we might know if we’re truly indigenising when the lines between Pākehā mahi and Maōri mahi seem so stark. He answers with a reminder of how our tūpuna always welcomed new ideas and technology to advance our expression of who we are.

“Sir Tipene O’Regan said: ‘As Indigenous peoples, we don’t adopt global knowledge to become more like them. We adopt global knowledge to become more like us,’ he says.

“So, is fashion a Pākehā thing? Is dance? Not if we’re doing it. And not if we’re doing it in our way. What are these creative forms if not an expression of a living, dynamic culture? Those ideas and barriers come from old, racist, Pākehā ideas that Māori were the noble savage captured at a point in time. That thinking denies our ability to grow, to evolve, and to express our culture in new ways.”

Kura Te Ua saw how much she stuck out in western dance classes. Rather than changing herself, she changed everything she saw around her instead.

Kiri Nathan walked into the upside-down world of fashion and knew immediately that, rather than turn back, she’d just have to flip everything the right way up.

To have people like them leading their industries in a Māori way shows not just what success looks like in those fields, but what Māori contributions to future solutions can look like in general.

It encompasses environmental sustainability, manaakitanga and tiakitanga. It holds the door open for the next generation, and ensures that when they step through that door, they encounter conditions that help them thrive.

Some of the famous face who’ve worn Kiri Nathan designs. (Photo supplied)

When I leave Kiri’s workshop, I’m more sure than ever that this is the kind of long-term thinking and planning we need. Whether it’s in governance and law, or fashion and dance, nothing we do to further those kinds of causes is trivial.

As Eruera says: “We’ve got so much potential and talent that we can’t just lock it up in one area. There’s no one space where you can find purpose with your culture and identity. We have to advance Māori aspirations across multiple fronts.

“Then we can build shared practices across those different spaces so that we can all support, learn from and be inspired by each other and do all of our mahi better. Eventually, that converts to an ability to do whatever the hell we want in any area without having to ask — and that’s a pretty great position to be in.”

I came to Te Āhuru Mōwai to see what difference a Māori approach made to a high-end fashion company, and what difference a fashion company could make to te ao Māori.

The answer, I think, will be most evident to our rangatahi Māori. They can grow up in Glen Innes or Ōtāhuhu, follow their passion to a purpose-built space like Te Āhuru Mōwai and feel like they’ve come home, rather than wander into the upside-down.

I think about the talent heading towards Hawaiki Tū, and the fact that more of these spaces exist in other industries, and that people like Eruera are actively working to create new ones in unexpected places.

With that in mind, I think about what the future of our people might look, and honestly, it looks pretty flash.


Siena Yates is an E-Tangata writer. This piece was made possible with the help of the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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