The most pivotal moments in WOW history, according to founder Suzie Moncrieff

by Sarah Catherall / 27 September, 2018
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Dame Suzie Moncrieff. Photo/Getty Images

The World of WearableArt show is celebrating 30 years, rising from humble Nelson beginnings to becoming Wellington’s biggest annual creative event. Founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff tells Sarah Catherall about the pivotal moments in its history.

Since 1987, the World of WearableArt (WOW) show has invited designers to enter imaginative and increasingly high-tech garments in a competition that doubles as highly choreographed theatre. It has become New Zealand’s answer to Cirque du Soleil, attracting 60,000 punters annually and offering $170,000 in prizes. As Dame Suzie Moncrieff and her team prepare for a 30th season, she looks back at the turning points in the event’s development.

The shift from rural Nelson to the city’s Trafalgar Centre

That was the moment when I knew we had something special. In 1987, I had started an annual design competition to publicise the William Higgins Gallery. When it went from the historic cottage to town in 1990, we had a queue of people half a kilometre down the road waiting to get in. I was running around checking that we had enough change for the tickets. In those early days, I had no idea what was going to work.

In the first year at the Trafalgar Centre, we had a full house of 2000 one night; there was a huge cross section of people watching it. We had 72 garments, including one called Bacon Bitties – a staggering garment that had a flowing veil made of frost cloth and a breastplate made of bacon slices encased in resin. It was very much Nelson arts-and-crafts people who entered. We also had the first big set made especially for that show – a volcanic theme, with lights and a big dance troupe.

Mortgaging her cottage to keep WOW going

I didn’t do the show in 1989 because I was going through a divorce. After that, I was a single mother on the DPB, raising my daughter, Emma. In those early days, we had no money and could only just cover our costs with the tickets. My father always told me, “Never owe anyone any money,’’ but there was one year where I had to borrow to keep the show going. The only way I could do that was to remortgage our little cottage. Fortunately, I could pay it back. In 1992, I couldn’t find enough sponsorship to run the Wearable Arts Awards – as they were called then – so we had another year off.

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Opening the WOW museum in Nelson

As we got more and more entries, we were looking for somewhere to store and showcase them. Until then, we were storing garments everywhere from disused psychiatric hospitals to apple sheds. [Nelson seafood magnate] Peter Talley and his wife Judy were so generous in funding a museum to house our collection. We opened the national WOW museum in Nelson in 2001 and the garments are shown near Peter’s classic car collection. We have visitors from around the world.

The shift from Nelson to Wellington

In 2005, we made the decision to shift to Wellington; I don’t think WOW would be here today if we had not made that step. We had to grow the event and it wasn’t sustainable to keep it in Nelson. The last show in Nelson, in 2004, drew just 500 people a night, and in Wellington, we could seat 3500 a night. It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. A lot of Nelsonians were disappointed and upset, but it was a bit like letting a child grow up and spread its wings.

Inviting overseas competitors

In the early years, designers from Australia, Thailand and India entered WOW. About a decade ago, we decided to develop stronger relationships with international universities and design schools. I went to Donghua University in Shanghai and to Hong Kong Design Institute and we connected with other design schools in Asia. It was a dream of mine for WOW to welcome the world to New Zealand. This year, we have designers from 44 countries. There’s nothing else like this, offering designers an opportunity to create wearable art for a global competition. Of the 141 finalists this year, we have entries from high-street designers to boat builders.

Touring the show offshore

WOW is a showcase for New Zealand, showing that we are a colourful country, not just a place with millions of sheep. Touring it also spreads the word to overseas designers who can enter garments the following year. We’ve toured the exhibition to Australia and to US museums in Hawaii, Seattle and Salem. We’ve managed to show WOW to more than 600,000 people, including those who visit the Nelson museum. This year, we’ll take it to St Petersburg, Russia. We took garments to Dubai some years ago, where people were queuing up wondering, “What is this phenomenon?’’ One wealthy Dubai resident asked me if it was for sale, and could he buy it?

Connecting with Cirque du Soleil

I’ve been a huge admirer of Cirque du Soleil for years. I told the WOW board that I wanted to go to Montreal and knock on the door, and I did that. It was such a coup to get the one-month residency – a rare thing – that began in 2015 for one winning designer. My job as a judge is the hardest thing. In the early years there was one clear winner, and now there are several who could win the supreme award. We’ve reached the standard now that I have always aspired to.

The World of WearableArt Awards show is at TSB Arena, Wellington, from September 27 to October 14.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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