Career

Celebrating the newly ordained Vinka Lucas - New Zealand's First Lady of Fashion

The Kiwi style icon receives an order of merit for her work.

By Lynley Ward
Her extravagant gowns have graced the pages of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly since the 1970s, her exquisitely crafted wedding dresses have adorned countless brides and her creativity has inspired a generation of fashion designers.
But for the recently honoured Vinka Lucas, now in her late 80s, it's the joy of seeing women transformed by her creations that has made every stitch worthwhile.
While it's been 10 years since the Auckland designer suffered a debilitating stroke, proud daughter Anita Turner-Williams says her talented mum was moved to tears when told about her New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the fashion industry and design.
"When we read her the Prime Minister's letter she was very happy, weren't you?" asks Anita, (54) gazing admiringly at Vinka as she dabs her eyes."She's just overjoyed. It's been a long time coming. A lot of people were surprised to learn she hadn't got it already, but she's not one to sing her own praises.
"I put a couple of posts on Vinka Design Facebook and our Instagram, and the accolades that came – she was just overwhelmed, weeping and laughing and just so happy to see that people still cared."
Anita says her mother wasn't only a visionary, setting up a one-stop bridal shop in the 1960s with her father David, but she turned heads with her own distinct style too.
"She was so colourful and flamboyant. The way she dressed and presented herself was just so different from most New Zealanders. She had the most amazing clothes and matching handbags, shoes, hats and gloves. I thought all mothers' wardrobes were like that and was absolutely shocked to find out this wasn't normal," laughs Anita.
Vinka (pictured, with daughter Anita in 1989) first opened her one-stop bridal shop, which Anita has now taken over, in the 1960s.
The second-generation designer daughter confesses she would steal into her glamorous mum's wardrobe to play dress-up as a youngster.
"While they were having dinner parties, we were in the closet having fun getting dressed."
She says her Yugoslavian-born mother, who learned her craft at the Academy of Dress & Design in Zagreb, was always intuitive with design.
"She would just cut straight into expensive beadings and laces with no fear where most people would be second guessing. She was quite extraordinary to watch work."
After establishing the first fashion house in New Zealand, Vinka was routinely called on to dress beauty queens in evening gowns and national costumes for international pageants.
She came to the rescue of 1970s Motown group The Platters, outfitting them in just three days when their suitcases of performance costumes went missing ahead of an eight-week tour here.
There was also at least two royal appointments dressing a Tongan princess in a bespoke wedding gown ahead of her big day, as well as staging a fashion show famously attended by Princess Margaret.
Vinka's own wedding gown featured a staggering 500 metres of hand-pleated tulle and chantilly lace, with the leading bridal designer telling the Weekly that 40 years ago it was "the greatest monster I have ever created".
And while her couturier career spanned an impressive five decades, including business ventures in the Middle East and the US during the 1980s, coming up with fresh ideas was never an issue.
"No, never. Too many," she says, her speech affected by the stroke.
With Anita assuming her mother's mantle at the Queen Street studio in the heart of Auckland's CBD, she tells us getting Vinka's seal of approval is still important.
"When she sees my work she'll smile and go, 'That's very good.' She's not a big gusher, damn it, but she'll definitely rate the work. She's always very kind with my designs," she adds.
"They've all got a bit of her DNA in them anyway. I grew up learning from her."
Vinka showed the Weekly around her elaborate home in 1980.
Anita especially credits Vinka for her use and love of lace and other luxury cloth.
"A lot of designers are scared of lace or not very confident in the way to use it. I think we've always had a connection with the beautiful fabrics," explains Anita.
"If it was just a plain dress, it would be, like, that's boring."
"It needs something,"adds Vinka.
Vinka's exquisite handcrafted gowns and delicate tissue patterns have been preserved at Te Papa and museums throughout Aotearoa, with some even finding their wayinto private collections well off the beaten track.
"My friend did the cycle trail through Otago and there was a farmer who had a museum on his property," tells Anita.
"He had a whole Vinka Lucas collection that he had amassed over the years. These were beautiful evening gowns. It's kind of cool that they live on."
It's almost a decade since the fêted designer last unfurled a bolt of luxury fabric and fearlessly started cutting away with expert precision.
"She was on her way to work when she had the stroke. She'd still be working now if she hadn't had it," tells Anita. "Her eyesight started failing with macular degeneration and that was devastating for her because she couldn't do intricate hand-work. She's had to take a back seat, but she's just chuffed that I'm doing it."
Vinka was fearless and flamboyant with her designs.
Now living in an Auckland retirement village, Vinka's confined to a wheelchair, with her speech limited to a few words at a time.
But in spite of her physical restrictions, Anita says her trendsetting mother remains an ardent devotee to fashion.
"She's not been as vocal or outspoken as she might have been a few years back − for the past 10 years she's sat here quietly with the stroke − and because of that people think she's not the same, but she is inside.
"She will say if something's ridiculous but overall she's enjoying fashion for fashion. She will look over rubbish clothing with real disdain. She'll probably look through more to the cut, overall design and craftsmanship."
And while the iconic bridal house continues to run after nearly 60 years, Vinka's thrilled a third generation is part of the family business, with 23-year-old granddaughter Helena Turner taking a keen interest in modelling gowns.
"Neither of my daughters are in design, but the eldest is our muse and model," says Anita. "But the biggest joy for her [Vinka] is knowing that I've continued the work. She's just so happy that I'm keeping it going.
"It's never been about the money or fame for her; it's about a love of what we do."

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