The whakapapa of threads: Kiri Nathan's historic fashion week opener

As the first Māori designer to open New Zealand Fashion Week in its 20-year history, Kiri Nathan is out to ignite the reclamation of te aō Māori through fashion. 

Kiri Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Hauā, Ngāti Maru) is a high fashion designer known for weaving traditional fabrics like harakeke with contemporary designs, and also using contemporary fabrics with traditional designs.

Her designs have featured on Hollywood's red carpet, with Chelsea Winstanley wearing a custom Kiri Nathan gown at the 2020 Oscars, and her kākahu have draped the shoulders of former Prime Minister Dame Jacinda Ardern and former US President Barack Obama. 

Now her designs will be front and centre on the country's biggest fashion platform. 

"This particular runway is our iteration of the way that fashion formed for Māori," Nathan said. 

"I feel when you do a runway show, and especially one that holds the responsibility of being the first Māori to open that, you need to make some handcrafted, bespoke and meaningful pieces." 

She wants to challenge ideas of what Māori fashion is, "the usual connotation [being] something less than, a print on a T-shirt".

"We talk about all of our other layers of reclamation within te ao Māori, and [fashion] is one that hasn't really been broached yet," Nathan said. 

Her showcase of the journey of Māori fashion through time covers the pivotal post-colonial era, when the way we dressed changed with Pākehā arrival in Aotearoa. 

"We started to have westernised kākahu as a base and then we would wear korowai and other pieces over the top.

"And at some point around the 1900s, all of our kākahu Maori were reserved for the marae and special occasions. And we've never come back from that."

Kiri Nathan.
Kiri Nathan. Photo credit: The Hui

She's involving fashion students and keen weavers to help with her NZFW showcase. 

Solita Turner (Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Rarawa) is one of 10 lucky wāhine who are learning how to raranga (weave) for the woven section of Nathan's show.

"At the beginning of the year, I didn't know how to weave, and now coming from that to weaving a whole piece for Fashion Week is such an amazing experience," she said. 

Nathan's historic Fashion Week opener isn't just about clothing, her whakaeke (entrance) is a full-scale production. 

Choreographed by Kura Waati of haka theatre group Hawaiki Tū and performed by young wāhine from Auckland Girls' Grammar, the dance, poi and waiata production tells the story of atua wāhine to an original waiata composed and performed by Ria Hall. 

New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria 2023 opens in Auckland on August 29.

Special thanks to Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum for use of historic photographs in this video story.

Made with the help of Te Māngai Pāho and New Zealand On Air