Fashion designer Kharl WiRepa (Photo: David Rowe)

Internationally admired fashion designer Kharl WiRepa walks the line between two very different worlds. In one world, he supports those in his community who’ve fallen on hard times — and in the other, he sips champagne with Aotearoa’s wealthiest “one percent”.

He tells Siena Yates how fashion is the unexpected thread that connects those worlds.

 

Among the antique furniture pieces and statement chandeliers in Kharl WiRepa’s offices in Rotorua, the focal points are the portraits on the walls.

Fittingly, for a space he refers to as The Kingdom, a portrait of Princess Diana commands the most attention with its sheer size. She is, Kharl says, “a very big influence”. A fair bit smaller, yet somehow just as commanding, is a portrait of Princess Te Puea. “Because I can’t have Princess Di without having our own princess represented too.”

Then there’s the gallery room, the walls of which are lined with the portraits of every Miss Rotorua since Kharl took over the beauty pageant in 2017.

As I’m given the grand tour, it’s clear that he takes great pride in telling visitors about each woman — he knows their stories, of course, which he rattles off without pausing.

Kharl tells me that the women who’ve won the Miss Rotorua title have had more than beauty on their side — what gave them the winning edge were things like confidence, intelligence, resilience. One of them had come from a gang background, another from a caravan park. There was one who’d been admitted to the bar as a lawyer at 26, and another who’d gone on to win more pageant titles internationally. One woman had even been in prison — the pageant was part of her rehabilitation programme.

“She was worried we wouldn’t accept her because of her past,” Kharl recalls. “But I told her: ‘We’re in te ao Māori, we don’t do vetting, and prison isn’t a concept from our culture, so you’re welcome in our whānau.’

“We take women from all backgrounds. Women who are pregnant, plus-sized, covered in tattoos, whatever. Because we do things in the Arawa way, not the American way.

“And since she came and shared her story, we’ve had a lot of women come to us who have been through addiction or incarceration, because they know this is a safe place that will accept them and help them explore their beauty. And that’s important because I believe, for a woman, beauty is part of her natural spirit and energy. It enhances her mana and everything that is wāhine toa and the feminine divine. So, when women are given a space to explore that, they can achieve anything.”

Kharl with some of the past winners of Miss Rotorua. (Photo: David Rowe)

Kharl discovered the power of fashion when he was 15 and still in high school. That’s when he started working at Supré, a women’s clothing store.

Until then, he’d been bullied at school, and suddenly, he was the best-dressed kid at Western Heights High. “The bullies still bullied me, but I was cool, so they still had to invite me to all their parties. Because they knew that if I wasn’t at your party, you were out.”

He tells this story with a tongue-in-cheek kind of pride. But he’s more serious when he says that this was when he first saw the power that fashion could have — for the people around him, and for himself.

“I realised that fashion was a way to feel confident. Not just because you can hide behind it, but because it can really make you feel beautiful,” he says.

Kharl had always been interested in art, particularly painting and sculpture, but after working at Supré, that creative streak turned firmly towards fashion. He began by entering local fashion competitions and, later, went on to hone his skills at Waiariki Polytech’s fashion school.

His debut in the world of fashion came in 2014, when he won the supreme award in the Miromoda Māori Fashion Design Competition. He was only 22. The Miromoda showcase was his first runway show at New Zealand Fashion Week, where he’s been a regular ever since. In 2017, he became the first Māori designer to have his work featured in the coveted September issue of British Vogue, which named him among their Top 22 Designers of the Future. Since then, his collections have shown in the Paris, London, Sydney and Japan fashion weeks.

Kharl showing his designs at New Zealand Fashion Week. (Photo: David Rowe)

“I know that New Zealanders think that us fashion people are quite superficial, but really, fashion is the most powerful art. It’s the only art that lives and moves. And fashion is the biggest artistic industry in the world because everyone wears fashion and is impacted by it.”

He then appraises me lightly, and I’m suddenly aware of how underdressed I am to be speaking to an internationally lauded designer. “Even that plain black T-shirt you’re wearing, those earrings, your glasses, your tā moko. All of that is fashion, and your life is being impacted by whatever sort of designer or artist created it.

“Even historically, as Māori and Pacific Island people, we have always been into fashion. From our piupiu to our weaving to our greenstone carving. That’s all fashion.”

Fashion is in Kharl’s more immediate whakapapa too. He makes mention of his famously stylish “cousins down the coast” — the likes of Rāwiri Waititi, Maisey Rika and Taika Waititi. But most influential was his great-grandmother, the famous landscape painter Mary Gundry WiRepa.

Her influence is strong in the way Kharl approaches his work. It’s why, for example, he won’t use Māori designs and motifs like the koru in his work. His view, informed by that of his great-grandmother, is that it’s a matter of tikanga.

“Whatever I do is Māori design because I’m Māori and I’m a designer. I don’t need to slap a koru on the front of my gowns for that to be the case. That’s not to shame other designers who do that, but, personally, I won’t put something on the body when it belongs to a wharenui or a waka, or when it was created by somebody else with a different wairua and vision for a whole other purpose.

“The only time I’ll do it is when it’s for a kaupapa Māori where the designs are fitting for the time and place they’re being worn. Like last year when we created all the kākahu for Te Whānau-ā-Apanui to wear at Te Matatini. That was an opportunity to create beautiful, traditionally crafted kākahu Māori in its fullest form.”

Te Whānau-ā-Apanui performing at New Zealand Fashion Week 2023 (Photo: David Rowe)

Kharl is also “very staunch” about ensuring that all his pieces are handcrafted — “no machinery, no trickery”. That, he says, is the very definition of haute couture, and thus, haute couture runs in our blood.

And he’s proud of the fact that all his manufacturing is done here in New Zealand, even though it’s much more time-consuming and expensive than outsourcing overseas, as many others do. When I ask him why he does this, his off-the-cuff response is to put it down to his French heritage — “In France, everything is made there” — before admitting how superficial that sounds.

Really, he says, it’s down to two things.

“One is that the money needs to come back to our people. That’s simple. The other is that, yeah, I could manufacture in China and mass produce and chase the money. But there are old kuia in those factories, and there’s nothing less Māori than having a kuia paid $4 a day to make your kākahu. I can’t be profiteering off that. I could never have my name, my legacy, or my mana attached to that.”

He’s the first to admit that his profit margins are lower than they could be, and lower than other brands that manufacture overseas. But he doesn’t really care.

“What people need to realise is that the whole bloody earth doesn’t revolve around money, and if you make your whole life and your business all about money, you become entrapped in that desire and you miss out on what matters.”

What matters, Kharl says, is giving back to the people close to him, and to his community. That ethos is inspired by two things, the first of which is his upbringing.

He grew up in Rotorua, with his parents Rod and Maria WiRepa, who raised him in the Mormon faith and always encouraged the spirit of giving and helping others. So, despite describing himself as a “spoilt only child”, one of his biggest life mottos is based on a Bible verse. “Because I’ve been given much, I too must give.”

The other big inspiration for Kharl is, of course, the princess whose portrait hangs on the wall next to his kitchen.

That Kharl idolises Princess Diana is perhaps not so surprising, seeing his family have some history with the British royal family. His ancestors (great-grandma Mary’s whānau) were the exclusive shoemakers for Queen Victoria and held the royal warrant right up until the early 1950s before Queen Elizabeth was on the throne.

But, as he tells me, Princess Diana became an icon for him less for her royal status, than her beauty and fashion sense — and most of all for her humanitarian and charity work.

She’s one of the main influences behind Kharl’s work with the Miss Rotorua Foundation, of which he is the director, and the reason he opened the Miss Rotorua Community Centre — his “kingdom” on Rotorua’s Pukuatua Street. From there, the foundation not only runs the Miss Rotorua pageant, but also provides a range of social and community services, and vocational development courses.

Kharl WiRepa (Photo supplied)

When I went to meet Kharl, I expected to find a fashion designer who also does the odd bit of charity work. Instead, I found a social services provider who also happens to make dresses.

Kharl is showing at both the Paris and London fashion weeks later this year, and he’s putting on a fashion show in Rarotonga soon. But all of this is mentioned with surprising nonchalance and a dismissive wave of his hand. Why? Because fashion, he says, is just the front of the Kharl WiRepa brand.

He compares it to how Chanel has couture fashion lines, but its core is really its perfume, because that’s what makes the money. Same with the likes of Valentina and Alexander McQueen, who have shoes and accessories at their core. But, for Kharl WiRepa Fashion, it goes the other way: the fashion supports the brand’s true core, which is social services.

The brand creates luxury, bespoke, handcrafted evening gowns for a very exclusive group of women — a market I was frankly a bit surprised to learn exists, at least in numbers great enough to keep Kharl stitching together about 100 gowns each year (and that’s a recently dialled-back rate of production).

“There is a ‘one percent’ in New Zealand, for sure. It’s a very separate society, but it does exist and I’m privy to it, because of my clients. So I live at both ends of the great social divide. I’m either here helping the sis who’s been in prison get off probation, or I’m in Auckland having champagne on a yacht. And sometimes that happens all in one day.”

Kharl’s own life has touched both ends of that divide too. He is a man with expensive taste and a love of glamour and luxury — a penchant that he says runs in the family, thanks to their inherited “Frenchness”.

But he also makes no secret of the fact that he’s been involved with drugs and had trouble with the law. In 2017, aged 25, the same month he made it into the pages of British Vogue, he was also convicted of benefit fraud, for claiming more than he was legally entitled to when he was a student at Waiariki.

It was a dramatic contrast in fortunes, which Kharl hasn’t forgotten.

“I’m actually grateful for that,” he says. “Because that life experience has given me the ability to relate to the people who come to us from those backgrounds, to communicate with them from a place of love and compassion, and to help them feel safe and understood.”

The Miss Rotorua Foundation works in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and takes referrals from WINZ, Women’s Refuge and the Rotorua police. Its Taneatua St base houses dedicated classrooms where people can take courses in everything from runway walking to getting a truck-driving licence. There’s also a dance studio where free community dance and exercise classes are held.

When I visit, Kharl and his team are preparing to take a group of women on a field trip to Mt Maunganui, as part of their Mana Wāhine course. There’s a whole group running late, and last-minute instructions are being shouted on the street below. One wahine can no longer make it because she’s breached her parole conditions one too many times.

Kharl introduces me to Paula, one of the 10 women going on the trip, along with her daughter. Paula’s past is peppered with gang associations and incarceration, where beauty and fashion weren’t exactly a priority.

“I usually just wear this,” she says, gesturing to her mainly black outfit of pants, a plain top and a puffer vest. She seems shy at first, and a bit bewildered as to why a journalist would want to hear her story. But she lights up when she talks about the programme.

“I was just walking down the street one day with friends, and Kharl approached us. He was very welcoming, and everything he had to say sounded like it would help me on my journey to change. And it has.

“On the Mana Wāhine course, we learn all kinds of things. One of the biggest things for me is just how to open up again, because it’s been a while for me. But it’s also about getting back out into the workforce and learning how to be in public. And how to be a good person — humble, interested in working, changing my life around.”

Part of that is taking part in beauty pageants, something Paula never expected to do, let alone enjoy. She used to be the kind of woman who avoided dresses, but she’s worn a few since meeting Kharl.

“At first it was strange and a bit uncomfortable, even just to think of myself in that way. But once I got the first dress on, I forgot about all that. I just felt really great, and that’s changed a lot for me.

“I realised I like being tidy and dressing up, and that I just want to feel good like everyone else. I used to only spend two minutes in front of the mirror, but now I can spend three hours, just learning to be comfortable with my body, and seeing myself in a new way. That feeling motivates me every day to change my life.”

Paula (centre) working with the Love Soup charity in Rotorua. (Photo supplied)

It’s things like this that Kharl recounts as his “most beautiful moments in life”. Not showing at Paris Fashion Week, or having his designs in a beautiful magazine spread, but seeing the transformation in women like Paula. One of his proudest moments was sitting down at a restaurant and being served by a woman he’d helped to get back into the workforce. She’d spent 40 years on benefits before she met Kharl.

He gets a thrill, too, out of going into the local Warehouse and seeing the women he helped into employment there. Some of them had never worked in their lives because they became mums before they got a chance to finish school.

“That’s what I love to see,” he says. “When they’re thriving and moving forward. When they’re off the drugs and they’re no longer depressed, and their whole family is thriving. When I see them walking down the street with confidence, no longer living in brokenness, with that wall up between them and the world.”

What Kharl says next is surprising, especially because he says it without hesitation, and with absolute conviction.

“Yes, the fashion and design side of things is important, but I would absolutely cut the fashion brand before I would cut my social services,” he says.

“Because if I’m not giving back to our people, our community, and using my influence to touch the lives of those who need it, then what am I even doing with myself?”

 

Kharl WiRepa is an internationally acclaimed fashion designer, born and raised in Rotorua, where he now runs both his high-end fashion brand and the Miss Rotorua Foundation. He also founded the Ohomairangi Foundation to help develop and support other Māori designers and businesses.

Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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