She’s fashion royalty in New Zealand for good reason – Kate Sylvester effortlessly dresses Kiwi wahine with grace and style, no matter their size or shape or occupation. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a loyal customer, but you don’t have to be the PM to appreciate the beauty that is a KS floral frock. But the woman behind the garments has some grave concerns for the future of Aotearoa’s fashion and manufacturing industries – she talks to Capsule about Mindful Fashion, her favourite looks and why every woman should own a power suit.
Capsule: I have to start by saying that we as a collective adore your clothing – [Features Director] Emma’s parting words for me before we started this interview were “tell her I want to be buried in a Kate Sylvester floral midi”, which you can take whatever way you like!
Kate: [Laughs] Oh, that’s sweet!
C: First things first, how are you going in these crazy Covid times? Have you had to do – dare we say it – any pivoting?
K: I think the world reset has been important. It’s been valuable for us to stop and reassess what we do. We’ve made slight changes to our delivery schedule, we potentially could do even bigger changes, we’re pushing things out to make them more seasonal, and we’ve taken time to take stock and shrunk the size of our collections, to get them to their core. That’s been really positive for us. It’s great, actually – and I’m happy that it can be a positive!
C: Let’s talk about your collections – do you have a secret fro when it comes to dressing Kiwi women? We’re an interesting lot with wildly different body types, but your enduring popularity comes from so many walks of life?
K: I think it comes out of the team. We’re a team of women creating the clothes we want to wear – and we literally cover every shape in the spectrum, and as a team we spend a lot of time trying things on! I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about – we’re constantly talking about what we want in our wardrobes, and that’s what we create.
C: Kiwis are also are a very pragmatic lot, wouldn’t you say, perhaps not as trend-driven as others – does this tend to come through in your clothing?
K: I do think that word – pragmatic – is a great word. It’s about covering off every different shape, and making sure that you’ve got the pieces that they will want to wear, and that’s really, really important to me. The collection is always a mix – there will always be a couple of pieces that are a little crazy – you know, big explosions of a dress – in fact there’s a dress at the moment that I probably wouldn’t wear myself, but I LOVE the idea of it and I think for fashion, you want those pieces in the world. But, the last thing I would ever want to do is create a collection of pieces that no one would want to wear, or is comfortable to wear them. It’s about getting that balance.
C: Are there any classics or favourites that you cover off every year, then?
K: Oh yeah, there are always the favourites and the go-tos that we include – we have a dress, the Sibilla dress, that is a real absolute classic, and they evolve. My favourite dress is in the new collection coming out. It’s the Maeve Dress, it’s a bias cut dress – we first did it last winter and I just absolutely loved it, so now it’s in a new print. There’s a roster of evolving shapes, as you said, we’re catering to a broad range of shapes and no one dress is ever going to suit everyone.
C: Do you have a favourite piece of of clothing to design?
K: Ironically, because we’ve been talking about the dresses so much, my other great passion is tailoring. I think that in terms of actual design, it’s the detail that goes into the tailoring, the coating, the suits, that is something that I adore.
C: Isn’t the power suit having a comeback right now? I don’t know if that’s an on-trend thing to say, but I bloody love a good power suit.
K: You should see me today! I have my new suit on and I am feeling confident. I absolutely agree, there are days where I put on a suit and I feel like I can do anything! It’s interesting, there’s a there’s one of our jackets that [Prime Minister] Jacinda [Ardern] has, and it seems like when she has to deal with something particularly serious she puts that on. You can see it with her, and I do it myself, it’s a huge boost. Once you find the shape that words for you, it’s amazing what a good power suit can do. The psychology of it is fascinating.
C: That’s so true. Shoulder pads of steel, you can do anything, right?
K: Ha, absolutely!
C: You’re also a co-founder of Mindful Fashion, NZ’s only clothing and textiles collective, aimed at helping the industry through tough times – how did it all come about?
K: It was myself and Emily from Ruby and it was mostly sustainability that we were trying to improve, and improve the practices in our seperate businesses. We thought, perhaps we could do more if we worked together on issues like traceability and offshore audits and as we grew, we realised t there was a real need for an industry body. The fashion industry has absolutely no organisation that represents it.
C: You set this up before this little thing called Covid-19 came around – but has it taken on a newer meaning now?
K: Absolutely yes. Having an industry body is so valuable when we were going through this – for example, when the government was outlining the requirements for reopening [after the last level three] they originally stipulated no changing rooms. If we weren’t allowed to have them, we may as well not have opened, you can’t sell frocks if you can’t try them on! We lobbied successfully for that, we put the guidelines in as to how stores could utilise the changing rooms safely, and we see that as a real victory as a collective industry voice.
K: As we progressed, we realised especially post-Covid, in this weird world that we live in, it’s hugely important to consumers and to the industry itself to support locally made and local manufactured. That local manufacturing base is very fragile, it’s very small – it’s like an endangered species, is the way I look at it!
C: What do you reckon the industry needs?
K: Initially we’re looking at three short-term projects – Mindful Fashion requires urgent funding and government support to develop a meaningful garment manufacturing apprenticeship programme, to fulfil much needed industry skill shortages and create jobs within our clothing industry. It’s just crazy and appalling that there are none. There were programmes in the past , but through 70s and 80s, when there was a huge rush to take everything offshore, the industry structure collapsed. We also want to create education programmes and collaborations with garment manufacturers, and develop the Mindful Fashion Website.
C: There are still plenty of people who want to become fashion designers though, right? Ones that have gone through universities and tech?
K: The schools are still very important, if you want to do design you want to do a proper degree. But there are a lot of areas, like working as a machinist, or a cutter, or on a knitting machine, that are ideal for learning on the job. That’s where we want to help.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and/or length