It’s a clear, beautiful morning in Wanaka when the Weekly is due to catch up with Dame Trelise Cooper.
She’s just returned from a quick business trip to France and is about to jet off to China the next week. She’s jet-lagged but excited for the day’s plans – a runway show of her new collection, set against the incredible backdrop of Glendhu Station and Lake Wanaka, to help raise money for Wanaka’s planned hospice.
It’s been a chaotic morning. For starters, there’s no hot water in her apartment, so she’s trying her best to tame her famously curly locks with some remedial tonging and the help of her assistant Judith.
“Sorry, you’re just going to have to cope with frizzy Trelise today! I was going to wash it, but Wanaka cold water is cold,” she says, flinging herself into a chair. “Right, so, what would you like to know?”
It’s tough to know where to start when interviewing New Zealand’s most celebrated fashion designer. For someone with “Dame” in front of her name, she’s surprisingly frank, open and accessible. She’s happy to answer any question while managing her constantly beeping phone, having her make-up applied and drinking a trim flat white, but she dismisses the well-ordered chaos around her as an occupational hazard.
“I’m no different to anyone else,” she shrugs. “I’m just an ordinary New Zealander and I wouldn’t like to be thought of in any other way.” But 2016 does mark a change for Trelise (58) – a new philosophy, a new outlook, a new challenge. “I made a decision recently to conquer fears and do things that I don’t naturally feel comfortable about,” she explains.
“I’m not a naturally adventurous person. Well, I am when it comes to business and that kind of thing, but physically adventurous? No. I’m much more likely to want to sit in an opera or something. But
I went on the Shotover Jet yesterday – me! I wouldn’t have done it before because it scared me. It was amazing – thrilling and exhilarating!”
The style maven has a tendency to “think in headlines”, particularly when she was rocketing down the Shotover – “I always do that. ‘Trelise Cooper in tragic boat accident!’” she laughs, clearly picturing the front page of the paper in her head. But she has decided that this is the year where she’ll make the most of every opportunity and will, quite literally, take the time to stop and smell the roses. “I get to live my dream every day, and I’m fortunate every day to be doing what I’m doing,” she says. “So to not enjoy it for what it is is wasting it, isn’t it? I made a conscious decision to accept every invitation and enjoy every place I am in. So I’ll think, ‘I’m in Paris! Let’s take a stroll through the Palais-Royal gardens along the way to work.’”
It’s a philosophy that has inevitably spilled over to the life of husband Jack, who’s sitting in the corner of the apartment. “It’s his birthday today!” Trelise exclaims. “I had to talk him into coming to Wanaka with me, otherwise I would have missed it. We’ve been together for 38 years.”
She describes Jack as her rock, her soulmate and her best friend. Despite the fact she’s more often on a plane or in a foreign hotel room than she is at home, the couple have come up with a rather romantic way of staying connected, no matter where they are in the world. “We write to each other every day – it’s always two things that we’re thankful for about the other,” she says. “Every day, he’ll send an email, I’ll send an email, and it’s so lovely. Some days, I’ll just say I’m thankful that he takes out the rubbish so I don’t have to do it. Being thankful every day and noticing the small details as well as the big ones is hugely important.”
Maintaining relationships is the biggest challenge in her life, Trelise admits. “I mean, every day is a challenge – it’s a great challenge,” she continues. “The level of pace I work at is challenging, and so is making enough time for those really important relationships. My mother Pam is very important to me, especially since my dad died. I try and spend most weekends when I’m in New Zealand doing something with her. And the family is hugely important. My son Jasper (27) is overseas, but my stepchildren Nadia (40) and Jacob (41) [and his wife Briana] are here, and so is my granddaughter Isabella, who just turned 19.”
It doesn’t help that she’s a little bit of a “controller” when it comes to her work, after all, her entire business carries her name. “Luckily,” she grins, “I don’t have time to micromanage, so I delegate out of necessity. I learnt a new term the other day – ‘happy shiny people’. Those are the people I want around me and working with me. If people are grumpy, it just kills me. Who doesn’t like shiny and happy?” It’s a term she could use to describe herself, certainly. But is there actually a secret to how she’s looking so good? “Jet lag?” she offers, laughing. “I have been lots of different sizes in my life – mostly bigger. But I honestly just think it’s because I’m really happy. “I’m stimulated. I have a purpose in life; I get up with a passion. I get to spend my days with amazing people. Attitude is important.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t have her grumpy days like the rest of us – but she does her best to “get out of the funk”. “I’ll try and change my thinking and look at things in a new way. Sometimes I’ll stay grumpy... but happiness isn’t static. It’s easy to forget – it would be easier for Jack and I not to write every day. It’s a slippery slope to complacent, so being happy is a constant.”
Of course, designing gives her the greatest pleasure – she’s usually coming up with four collections at once. But it’s her charity work that really makes her smile, which brings us nicely back to the purpose of her visit to Wanaka. “I can’t believe there is no hospice down here,” she says, shaking her head. “I know the importance of it, and the beautiful thing that it is for someone at the end of their life. They give people dignity.” Local boutique owner Lucy Lucas of Escape Clothing is the reason that Trelise became involved in the fundraiser, after she cornered the designer in an Auckland car park and asked her to help put on a fashion show. Lucy knows first-hand how important hospice can be – two years ago, her mum was dying of cancer. The closest hospice facilities were more than an hour away at Dunstan Hospital in Clyde, and the closest tertiary hospital was three hours away in Dunedin, which meant a lot of driving and sleeping in cramped hospital rooms – all with a one-month-old baby.
“Having a hospice closer would have made that horrible time in our life easier,” Lucy says. “So I’m really happy Trelise is here – everyone was amazed that she came! The whole community has come together; it makes you proud to be from Central Otago.” “I’ve never seen community quite like it,” affirms Trelise. “My part is the smallest part, and it’s amazing to be down here. Just look at it – it’s just beautiful. And it reminds you not to take anything for granted.
“I’m lucky to lead a fortunate life – so I plan on living it.”