Top fashion designer Kiri Nathan is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the 2019 Maōri businesswoman of the year, and her distinctly indigenous designs have been worn by everyone from Dame Jacinda Adern to Michelle Obama and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
She's well and truly proved her place in the industry, but was recently left speechless when asked to open this year's New Zealand Fashion Week – making her the first Māori designer ever to do so.
"It took me a second... 'Did you just say open Fashion Week?' I cracked up laughing," recalls Kiri, 50, of her first reaction.
After the initial shock wore off, and she talked it over with husband and business partner Jason Te Ahurea Nathan, 52, Kiri was honoured to accept.
The plan is to tell the story on the runway of Māori fashion from the past through to the present and into the future. Kiri explains, "There's this connotation that comes with Māori fashion and currently it's not a good one, but we're working towards people connecting to intelligent and elegant offerings. New Zealand Fashion Week is an opportunity to present Māori excellence and to create pathways for others.
"It's a reference point for those thinking about studying fashion – emerging or established Māori fashion designers who often feel marginalised or isolated.
"I first showed at Fashion Week in 2009. I was heavily pregnant, the sponsored heels were too big and I couldn't risk baby, so I walked the runway barefoot. It was rare to see Māori in that environment back then, so that walk was probably a first and last at Fashion Week."
While it wasn't a celebratory space for her in the past, Kiri is quick to pay homage to the creator Dame Pieter Stewart for her contribution to the industry, before sharing how excited she is for the future of the event under new management.
"One of the first things the new owners did was reach out to mana whenua [local Māori] and ask for advice," she tells. "That, for me, was a tohu [sign]."
Reflecting on how far Māori fashion has come, Kiri recalls her own journey. For almost 20 years after leaving fashion school, she juggled motherhood with work as a flight attendant, entering design competitions on the side.
It was just after giving birth to her fourth child in 2008 that she won the Style Pasifika supreme award with a design inspired by her grandmother and decided it was time to pursue her own label.
"In the first year, we had three children under three-and-a-half, two teenagers and no clue about business. There were moments when we questioned if we were being responsible parents scraping by to follow the dream. It was hard but it was also what I always felt I was meant to be doing."
And Kiri knows those early days taught their tamariki – Astley, 31, Ahmardia, 31, Awatere, 17, Te Āria, 15, and Kaiawa, 13 – valuable lessons.
"What they've taken from it is seeing Māmā and Pāpā work really hard. Our parents were hard-workers and we knew from a very young age that if we wanted to do something or get somewhere, we had to work hard for it."
For the first 11 years, Jason continued working in the corporate world, before coming into the business full-time in 2021, when Kiri took a year to study te reo Māori.
"I couldn't juggle it all. Either the business was going to fall over or I would have to leave my studies. Jason knew I couldn't give up my reo again, so he left the job that had been our security blanket, took over the accounts and care of the kids. That was the first time in their lives I didn't have to think about breakfast, school emails, drop-off and pick-ups. It was life-changing for all of us."
Now the pair are also celebrating the one-year anniversary of opening their new multi-use showroom and workshop Te Āhuru Mōwai. Based in Glen Innes where Kiri grew up, it's also home to Kāhui Collective, an initiative Kiri founded in 2017 to support and mentor Māori fashion designers.
"When we got the keys, Jase and I sat on fold-out chairs in this huge building and planned. For months, friends and whānau came for massive working bees. We built everything inside ourselves and it's just beautiful. We feel so lucky to work there daily."
That was Matariki (Māori new year) 2022 and this year, as they release a specific Matariki collection, Kiri reveals her dream to create the first commercial Māori fashion industry.
"It's still an incredibly fragile space – there are only approximately 35 Māori fashion designers in the world, so the best way you can support our growth is by purchasing our products," she says.
"We want to create fashion that connects and tells stories of our origins and ancestors, contemporary offerings of beautifully crafted kākahu Māori [clothing] in a modern context."
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