Leading Kiwi fashion designer couldn’t read and write until she was 12

NZ fashion designer Adrienne Winkelmann reveals why she left school at 15 with no formal qualifications.

I always wanted a different life,” Adrienne tells me in her direct, no-nonsense way. “I was never afraid of being slightly eccentric; I definitely didn’t want to be ‘normal’.”

Adrienne Winkelmann has always stood out from the crowd. These days she is couturier to well-heeled executives and women about town – her elegant clothes, always superbly cut and crafted from luxurious fabrics, have earned her a reputation for excellence amongst her largely wealthy clientele.

When I was anchoring the news for TVNZ, our stylists would inevitably turn to Adrienne to provide my jackets. She did the best shoulders in town, they said, and that’s what you needed for the merciless close-up on television, the shot that ruthlessly exposes every imperfection. Adrienne is a perfectionist.

A learning difficulty meant she was unable to read or write until she was 12. It’s difficult to define her condition, but she says she has never let it hold her back.

“The challenge of overcoming it made me find my own way.”

Adrienne was born 59 years ago in Auckland to Douglas and Kathleen Winkelmann, the second of four children. Her older brother, Greg, is a psychologist, her younger brother, Brent, a lawyer, and her baby sister, Helen, is now a judge in the Court of Appeal.

Douglas studied journalism at university but ended up fighting in the New Zealand forces in Korea. He joined up, Adrienne thinks, because he had a finely honed sense of adventure. Soon after returning from the war he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and it wasn’t long before he was confined to a wheelchair. His wife and young family had to get by on a war pension.

“We were poor,” Adrienne remembers, “but we didn’t feel poor. Mum was amazing – she nursed Dad on her own.”

The children learnt quickly to be responsible and self-sufficient.

“Greg, being the eldest, helped Mum with Dad; at over six foot he was a big man to lift and deal with physically. Helen was the organiser. I did the shopping, and Brent made us laugh,” she grins. “We all used to joke that Helen was adopted because she was ‘Miss Perfect’ and the rest of us were tearaways.”

They are a close family. Adrienne says there was a lot of sadness in the house while she was growing up, because of her father’s illness, but despite that it was a lively place to be. Her parents were both intelligent, opinionated people, interested in politics and the environment. They often had opposing views, which led to some feisty conversations.

Holidays were few and far between, but Adrienne would spend a lot of time with her mother’s parents on a farm in Northland. They were halcyon, carefree days for a little girl whose dad was dying by degrees in front of her eyes.

She loved the farm and to this day hankers after the rural lifestyle.

“It gives me a warm feeling,” she explains.

One of her pipe dreams is to own a block of land. Her grandparents died when Adrienne was nine. She missed them terribly. Douglas would die the year she turned 21.

School, for Adrienne, was difficult.

“On my first day at school I thought, ‘This is someone’s idea of a sick joke.’” This feeling, she admits, went on until she was 15, when she finally left and went to work in a retail fashion store.

She’d been dreaming of a career in fashion. It began with her school uniform. “I have this magic in me. I can see different ways of putting things together.”

In the 1970s the fashion was for midi and maxi skirts. “I would find old uniforms in the second-hand shop and put them together, cutting them in under the bust and flaring out to create that trapeze shape. I’d wear my cardi inside out so you could see the seam and I wore Charlie Browns [shoes] with the T-bar cut out.”

She would head into town on Friday night and prowl around the Auckland boutiques. She singles out Hullabaloo, Fotheringay, Cases Altered and Tigermoth as fuelling her passion.

Around this time she was also creating outfits for her younger sister Helen, who, she says, has a great sense of humour and was a willing model for her avant garde designs.

“I reckon there wouldn’t be too many Appeal Court judges to have rocked a pair of black vinyl hot pants,” she grins wickedly.

Adrienne with mannequins dressed in some of her designs. The clothes are all made in New Zealand.

Adrienne’s mother, Kathleen, was the second eldest of 10 children. She was an accomplished seamstress and would make her sisters dresses to wear dancing.

Those discarded dresses from the 1960s would be recut for her daughters. “I remember all those colourful floral fabrics,” says Adrienne. “My mother was like a Vogue model – I was in awe of how beautiful she was, and is,” she adds.

Kathleen is now 85 and lives close to her daughter in Auckland. Kathleen would become Adrienne’s staunchest ally, and greatest mentor.

It was Kathleen who helped Adrienne start her business 35 years ago. “I have her to thank for my creativity and perseverance.”

At 19, Adrienne applied to what was then the Auckland Technical Institute’s Design Course and despite having no formal qualifications, breezed in on the strength of her portfolio. “It was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Surrounded by likeminded people, she flourished, and the young girl with the learning disability also managed to pass her Institute of Management diploma, a qualification that gave her great insight, she says, into running a business. Late last year came one of her proudest moments – when AUT awarded her an honorary doctorate.

One of her tutors on the design course all those years ago was a retired tailor. “He’d studied the French designers and he taught me how to cut.” It is undoubtedly the cut that distinguishes Adrienne’s designs.

Her clothes are all made in New Zealand. They are modern and easy to wear. “People wear the clothes – the clothes don’t wear them,” she explains.

“I am proud and honoured to dress the people I have – we’ve evolved together.”

Many of Adrienne’s clients have been with her since the beginning and are now among her closest confidantes, including Auckland charity fundraising supremo, Dame Rosie Horton.

“Rosie’s like my surrogate mum,” Adrienne says, with genuine affection. It was Rosie who, with Adrienne’s sister Helen, persuaded Adrienne she should have a routine mammogram 16 years ago. Adrienne’s not good with dates but she remembers that one because it’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“They nagged me to go. I’d always been busy and had meant to go but never got around to it. “I remember being frightened, but I just followed the lead of Steve [Adrienne’s husband] and Helen,” who were both relentlessly positive.

So positive, in fact, that Adrienne said ruefully to her mother, “No one seems very upset about this, Mum.” Her mother laughed and set her straight, telling her they were just putting on a brave face.

Steve Cockrane is Adrienne’s husband of 28 years. He is a world champion water-skier and they first met when he was coaching Adrienne, who is also a competitive skier. Steve now runs the business side of Adrienne Winkelmann Limited for much of the year and in the summer months heads a luxury cruising charter company.

“Steve is gregarious, funny, loving and supportive,” Adrienne tells me. He is a calm and steady presence in the often dog-eat-dog world of fashion, a grounding influence.

Steve was her rock as she battled her way to cancer recovery. She was back at work just 10 days after her surgery, while she was still going through gruelling chemo and radiotherapy.

“I needed life to be back to normal; besides, if I flake off, then…” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but without Adrienne, there is no Adrienne Winkelmann. She is happy to talk about her cancer. “I’ve tried to be open about it. It’s good to talk about it. It’s good for your soul and your health.”

Her customers were some of her greatest supporters during her illness. “Rosie [Horton] was in every second day making sure I was all right. And [businesswoman] Dianne Lendich rang me and said, ‘I know what’ll make you feel better. I need a whole new wardrobe!’ You see, she knew what I needed,” Adrienne smiles.

She was profoundly aware, too, of her responsibility to her staff. “I read a piece about an Italian shoe designer a while back,” she tells me, “and when he was asked what inspires him, he said, ‘Paying my staff.’” It’s a pragmatic view and one Adrienne shares.

When I ask about her inspiration, she replies, “Top of my mind is what will sell. What will sell, and fear of failure,” she laughs. But at the back of her mind sit those icons of haute couture, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Dior and Schiaparelli.

Her beloved dad once told her, “You have to spend a lot of time at work, so make sure you have a job you love.” His daughter is in love with fashion. She has an extensive library of fashion books and has collected every Vogue magazine since the 1960s. Knowing the history of fashion is important, she tells me.

She also has a mind-boggling array of fabrics she’s collected over the years. “It’s my art gallery.”

Adrienne is generous with her knowledge and expertise and enjoys mentoring aspiring young designers. She tells them, “You have to be prepared to work hard. You don’t get anywhere without hard work. You can’t be successful unless you are driven and a little bit obsessive.”

Adrienne and Steve have just finished renovating their house. It sits right on the water at Auckland’s Hobson Bay – just perfect for a waterskiing couple. They can usually be found there, skiing early in the morning, three or four times a week. As for the future, Adrienne wants to return to competitive waterskiing while she still can.

She also admits she would like to step down a bit at work. “But that frightens me, because I love it so much,” she says with a grin.

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