Wahine Māori designer Jeanine Clarkin has been fashioning her take on Māori clothing since 1994. A new retrospective charts almost three decades of her work.
“It’s so funny seeing people smoking cigarettes inside,” says fashion designer Jeanine Clarkin (Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Raukawa). We’re perched in front of a screen at Te Uru Gallery in the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi.
The grainy VCR footage is part of a retrospective of Clarkin’s work titled Te aho tapu hou: The new sacred thread, curated by Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato. The exhibition brings together film footage, photography and garments to map Clarkin’s early influences, significant milestones and enduring passion for indigenous fashion.
“This was my first show in 1994 in Hamilton, I’d just launched my label that year,” she says over the thumping dance music radiating from the video. On screen, models, some with teased hair and almost all wearing some of Clarkin’s earliest forays into Māori fashion, weave their way between the tables of Metropolis Cafe in Hamilton. Founded in 1991, Metropolis was a pioneer of the city’s cafe culture and became a regular haunt for members of the burgeoning arts scene. Skip forward 28 years, and Metropolis cafe is no more – but Clarkin remains active in her pursuits to make clothing that’s resolutely Māori. To her, it’s a form of activism.
When she started her label Jeanine Clarkin Design in 1994, her intention was to provide young urban Māori with garments they could wear every day – to the supermarket, to protests, to university, to the club – to express who they were. “Just as you are what you eat, you are what you wear,” she says, explaining that for a time her clothing was a near-guaranteed sight at protests. “There was almost a kit to being a Māori activist back then: they’d have my clothing, tā moko by Rangi Skipper and a kite by Takirua Weavers.”
Clarkin grew up in Taupo and later in Paeroa, but spent the first three years of her life in Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital due to a hole in her heart. “I was brought up by the nurses, with my parents visiting me occasionally,” she says. When she returned home to her family, “I had to stay still in case I had a heart attack, and my siblings weren’t allowed to interact with me.” A 30cm scar from the open heart surgery she had as a baby remains today, as does the influence on her disposition, which Clarkin describes as shy and calm. And that’s had a profound impact on her fascination with fashion.
Growing up with four siblings, life at home revolved around her parents’ recycling business, a hectic two-acre yard filled with dead fridges, crates and bottles. Clarkin found sanctuary at her aunt’s bridal salon “filled with taffeta and silk and beautiful things,” she says. “I’d just sit there quietly, hand sew and chat.”
As a 17 year old, Clarkin shifted to Raglan to work with Māori land rights leader Eva Rickard at her Kokiri Centre, where they taught catering, carpentry, carving, and sewing. “So I did sewing, even though I actually already knew how to sew,” she says. “I’d make a mistake on purpose and then I’d sit on the deck and spend half the day unpicking it in the sun and perving at the carvers.” Still, the course eventually led her to fashion school at Wellington Polytech (now Massey University) in 1991.
The early 1990s marked a turning point in New Zealand arts, with the Māori renaissance of the decade before permeating throughout imagery, design, film, music and fashion. Since the 1950s, Māori show bands and later, prominent Māori leaders like Eva Rickard, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and Hana Te Hemara had used fashion and design as a bold expression of resistance and identity. But these instances were few and far between. When Clarkin was starting her own label she noticed how many subcultures and other groups around Auckland wore clothing that defined them, that communicated a sense of identity. “But for Maori, you could only see them if you went to a kapa haka festival. We didn’t have a garment that we could wear downtown,” she says. “It couldn’t really be your piupiu every day.”
Ancestral links brought Clarkin back to Waiheke Island 17 years ago – by then as a solo mum – and she’s lived and worked there ever since. Over the course of her career, Clarkin has developed a visual language for Māori fashion. In a video call from her Waiheke studio, she takes shears to a bolt of monochrome tāniko printed fabric designed by artist Julie Paama-Pengelly.
“I’ve always wanted my tāniko print fabric to be like the Burberry fabric or like a check, just a classic,” she says, holding up a triangle of the cloth. Since the early days, Clarkin has been commissioning Māori artists to design her printed textiles, an element that persists across Clarkin’s body of work. Vibrantly coloured tāniko fabrics line coats, tā moko is embroidered onto denim rave pants, kowhaiwhai are screen printed onto silk aprons and koru rangi patterns by artist Gordon Hatfield adorn the knees of drill cotton pants. “I don’t profess to study all of the intricacies of the language of tā moko and kowhaiwhai,” she says. “So I just entrusted and commissioned artists to draw the appropriate thing.”
In the main room of the exhibition is one of the most striking garments in the retrospective: an asymmetrical bubblegum pink dress made from a repurposed wool blanket. Like many nostalgia-tinged objects of New Zealand’s past, the once-cheap blankets have become increasingly pricey. And while initially the vintage blankets were a cost-effective and sustainable way to access wool, for Clarkin, these pastel blankets are more than just fabric. With echoes of New Zealand’s long relationship with wool – the first wool mills in this country opened in the 1850s – they’re also an expression of social history, conjuring memories of colonisation, trade and, at times, life on the marae.
For Clarkin, unmistakably Māori prints were only part of the equation for a contemporary Māori way of dressing. “I was like, I’ve got my Māori fabric – but what’s a Māori garment?” The answer came in four parts: a rapaki or wrap-around skirt, a maro or loincloth, a cape, and then aprons – “a symbol of manaakitanga and your mana in the kitchen” – all of which Clarkin reshaped into fashionable street wear. “The thing I like to say was, ‘you can wear it from Ponsonby to the pā’,” she laughs.
Tucked at the back of the exhibition are a trio of matching dance sets designed for contemporary Māori dancer Merenia Gray in 2001. They’re a whimsical expression of Clarkin’s ability to transform the traditional into the everyday. The near-identical shorts and camisole sets, in cornflower blue, orange and red tāniko print, are inspired by the knitted pari or bodices worn by kapa haka performers.
These days, Clarkin’s personal style is practical, often featuring a blazer and a vividly coloured scarf. “I’m always on the slightly overdressed side of things,” she says. She says her approach to dressing today can be traced back to her childhood. “When we were growing up, we had home clothes and town clothes,” she says. “Just with our grandparents wanting to be even better than a Pākehā by trying a little bit harder, or just out-doing the do.”
After our visit to Te Uru, I ask Clarkin over video call whether she has any regrets. “Nope,” she replies resolutely into her phone camera while walking around her house. As she wanders through the converted police station which is now her showroom, workroom and home, she flips the camera around to show her walls festooned with trinkets from travels overseas, photographs, artworks – many made by friends made along the way – and a glimpse of the Hauraki Gulf through the back door.
This weekend, alongside other Māori fashion designers, Clarkin contributed to the Global Fashioning Assembly, a global event that aims to decolonise fashion institutions and practices around the globe. Looking forward, she’s chipping away at plans to teach her own fashion course. Then there’s Clarkin’s Instagram, which is like an extension of the busy walls of her home – pictures of home-grown veggies, clips of protests and occupations, snippets of overseas trips, shots of her clothing on the catwalk, and, on her private account, regular joyous dance videos. Why so much dancing? Clarkin has an answer. “I worked out the other day that those dances are an expression of gratitude.”
Te aho tapu hou: The new sacred thread, curated by Maree Mills and toured by Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, is on now at Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi and runs to November 20.