How designer Bobby Luke combines his whakapapa with fashion

As a child Bobby Luke wanted to be an architect, but found himself drawn designing garments instead of houses.

"I used to work in retail as a teenager and I used to hate it and it's kind of different now, because I'm actually selling my own clothes," says Luke.

His career designing clothes started when he worked as an intern for Trelise Cooper while he was still at high school.

 "I would work on the weekends, work in summer and I was so determined," he says.

Luke's talent was first recognised at the Miromoda group show at New Zealand Fashion Week when he was 22 years old. 

His over-sized garments have a nostalgic quality - an acknowledgment of the past.

 "People say to me 'so you're a Māori designer but you make clothes that are kind of like Victorian', and then I'm like when colonialism happened in New Zealand we also wore their clothes as well, but we wore it our own way," Luke explains.

His Campbell Luke label are clothes that are made with a conscience. Luke uses natural fibres like cotton and linen for his creations, chosen for their similarity to harakeke. 

 "I regard them as taonga, even when I'm selling things, they're your taonga, look after them as if they're your taonga.  Don't throw it away in the next 6 months, it should be yours until you die," he says.

In 2014 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fashion, but for his postgraduate degree Luke chose a change of tack and decided to draw inspiration from the rich fabric of his whakapapa and identity.

 His research led him back home to Hāwera, south Taranaki, where he was raised by his mum, Alison Luke at Taiporohenui Pā.  His mum plays a central role in his work.

"I was cloaked in my mother's korowai," Bobby says. "Mum would huihop all the time, she was always at a hui, tangi, cousins-cousin.  She would always go to anything to do with our whanau, and because I was the baby I'd always follow her around," he says.

 Alison Luke whangaied him from his biological parents when he was baby.  

 "I was grateful to have Bobby when he was born. I am very grateful and I'm still grateful," Alison says.

She made sure Bobby's parents Diane and Robert Campbell remained a part of his life. 

"I do acknowledge her for always letting me have a connection with my whanau, with my biological family. I always have since I was a baby.  

"We never had a problem, and I've always loved them just as much as I love her too," says Bobby.

 "He was one of those kids that weren't allowed to go out in the mud and all the others are out playing," adds Alison.

Bobby Luke.
Bobby Luke. Photo credit: The Hui

 Time spent at the marae with his mum is just as educational for Bobby now as it was when he was a kid.

"I think that level of wānanga between each other through conversation is a form of storytelling. I find that interesting, and I've always found that interesting growing up, because I was always quiet, and I still am quiet.  

"I sit back and observe and listen," he says.

The significance of his turangawaewae is not lost on Bobby. 

Taranaki was where the Pai Mārire faith was founded by the prophet Tītokowaru - who peacefully protested against colonisation. 

And it's that history that Bobby drew upon for his PhD in Art and Design.

"That's when I started working with installation, moving image and photography as a way of communicating those kinds of cultural values, and coming into my doctorate I can finally use the cloth, and it's taken me a doctorate to put the two together," Bobby explains.

Combining his whakapapa into his fashion has become Bobby's unique style. His label is named in honour of both sets of his parents.

Bobby is now showcasing his Ngati Ruanui roots on the catwalk -  paying tribute to the wāhine of Taiporohenui pā, especially his mum.

"When I think of my mum and I think of how she operates on the marae I think of a pinny.  I think of an apron, so ways of manipulating that kind of shape into something contemporary is where I've put my direction in. 

"The concept of the panakoti is a huge thing in Te Ao Māori - you use it when you're in the front, you use when you're in the back. You always have a skirt on, big voluptuous skirts.  

"It has always been an aesthetic I've been drawn to," says Bobby.

His show, called 'Whiri Papa', translates as the binding of three threads, representing the past, present and future - a kaupapa that touched his Mum's heart.

"It just took me back to the days, it was like going back to Parihaka and seeing different things in the days, how they dressed.  But he did it himself," says Alison.

 Alison isn't just Bobby's biggest fan, her guidance has ensured his success and humility.

"Fame and fortune, means nothing.  It's good to have but that doesn't mean anything. 

"Keep your feet on the ground, that's what I say.  Don't be better than anybody else because you're not, you're the same as everyone," she adds.

The Hui