Designer fears career in tatters after fraud conviction

Rotorua fashion designer Kharl Wirepa has spoken out for the first time about his welfare fraud conviction, telling Three's The Hui about lying to Work and Income so he could succeed in his studies.

"I know what I did wasn't the right thing. I've used that education to really reshape not just my community but also I've used that education to change the entire image of our fashion industry, in particular for indigenous people."

Wirepa was convicted of 14 counts of benefit fraud for the almost $12,000 worth of extra allowances he claimed while he was a student studying fashion design at Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua.

It's been a turbulent few weeks for the 25-year-old, whose career was at an all-time high one minute, and then almost destroyed the next.

"One week I'm having champagne at New Zealand Fashion Week with all the top designers in the country and lights, camera action, and then the next minute we're in front of the camera in the court," Wirepa says.

During his two-year course, Wirepa misled Work and Income about where he was living.

"Everyone in the class and every student around New Zealand has financial problems. It's the struggles that people have to go to, to get an education."

Wirepa says he topped up his student allowance by around 80 dollars a week, making out to Work and Income that he was flatting. Instead, Wirepa was living at home with his mum and dad in Rotorua.

Welfare beneficiary advocate Alastair Russell says Wirepa's situation is one many students face, struggling with the increasing cost of living.

"That's absolutely common, the student allowances, just like every other benefit is inadequate to live on. There is an ongoing incentive for people to not be completely honest with Work and Income to survive."

Wirepa believes it was a former friend and fellow design student who told Inland Revenue about misleading WINZ.

Wirepa was determined to excel in his course and he says getting the extra allowance was a necessary evil for him to realise his dreams.

During his study, Wirepa went to the top of his class, winning the Supreme Award title at the Miromoda Indigenous Māori Fashion Awards in 2014.         

His prize was getting to showcase his glitzy garments at his very own show at New Zealand Fashion Week that same year. Wirepa was just 22.

"That's very unheard of for a fashion student to go to such great heights so early in their first year of studying," Wirepa says.

Wirepa achieved something most designers can only dream of - profiled in the September issue of British Vogue, a magazine regarded by many as the last word in fashion.

"I can't believe it, it's still sinking in. For him at a young age, I'm over the moon for him, he's got such a talent," says Wirepa's dad Rod Wirepa.

His dresses also appear in the British Vogue's October and upcoming November titles too, not a bad achievement for a kid born and raised in Manurewa, south Auckland.

"For me I never expected it so early on in my career. I'm more honoured and honoured to be in it rather than excited, but for me it's not just about me being in Vogue but it's about me being the first Māori to be in Vogue. It's an exciting thing for our people and it's a historical moment," says Wirepa.

But now, not only does Wirepa have a criminal record, but his conviction might mean he can't travel overseas, leaving his invitation to show at Paris Fashion Week in 2018, up in the air.

"I think it's made it a lot harder for him to be the potential success that he could be. This is a guy who probably has the potential to be the next Karen Walker and because he has been on a benefit and probably because he's brown, Māori as well, he's in this situation," Alastair says.

Wirepa's father Rod Wirepa knows his son has the ability to rebuild his business so he can pay back Work and Income but he knows it's not going to be easy.

"To be honest he's got no money, he lost his job over what happened. The judge was right in a lot of ways, if she could have sent him to jail, she would have," Rod says.

It's well known that while those evading tax do so for large amounts of money, the Ministry of Social Development are more aggressive at pursuing beneficiaries like Wirepa, for much lower dollar values.

Penalties for those convicted of benefit fraud are also more harshly punished than for white collar offenders.

"The Government's system for example around tax evasion is a clear double standard with what they do with people on benefits. White people get away with crimes, brown people do time and have these things on record for life," says Mr Russell.

The Hui