Nash Karaitiana's designs. Image: Supplied

Meet Unco designer Nash Karaitiana: the man bringing bootleg to Fashion Week

Award-winning designer Nash Karaitiana just had his first show at NZFW. Alice Webb-Liddall caught up with him about his unique brand Unco, and his journey to Fashion Week.

The Miromoda show at New Zealand Fashion Week is a must-see each year. Avante garde shares a catwalk with baggy streetwear, simple designs walking alongside wearable artworks as over 10 designers show their collections in a half-hour catwalk show.

For most of the designers, the models provide the perfect blank canvas to show off their creations, colours, patterns, and beautiful silhouettes, but one collection sticks out at the 2019 Miromoda show. Nash Karaitiana’s models all strut down the catwalk, striking a hands above head, hip-popped pose at the end of the runway. And that’s how the Napier-based designer wants his fashion to be seen.

“It’s like $2 shop bootleg wrestling tees,” says Karaitiana (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāti Ruru) of his designs, “it’s ironic. What’s that word? Gimmicky. I love a gimmick.”

The 23-year-old won the annual Miromoda Supreme Award for his fashion line under brand name Unco. It’s a somewhat ironic take on fashion: zip-off cargo pant-shorts with removable dome pockets, denim bomber jackets made from old jeans and loud tees with retro lettering and acid-trip fluoro imagery.

The Miromoda competition was held in June, with 12 Māori designers showcasing their work from avante-garde to streetwear to elegant evening wear. Karaitiana entered after seeing his uncle’s work showcased the year before, but says he never thought he would take out the competition.

“It was pretty surprising. There were heaps of people with really well-designed clothes and I just rocked in with tee shirts and hoodies.”

He’s unable to name just one source of inspiration for his collection, instead picking up different elements from all over the world.

“I’ve travelled to Japan twice and that influenced my style a lot. The skate culture, because I grew up skating so that stems from America, I guess. I’m really into like Berlin and London. I’ve been watching quite a few people from there, and anime, so much of my design comes from anime.”

Fashion week is a big change from the usual for Karaitiana. Usually his fashion is more of a side-hustle, around his day job as a support worker. His start in fashion was designing shirts for himself and his friends, and the idea of creating for himself is one he still sticks to.

“I started making clothes for myself, and from there I started making bootleg t-shirts for people and after that I started to make my own clothes… my style is ironic, cozy boy. I make it for me but I make the styles so everyone can fit them.

Nash Karaitiana on tour with his wife Jessey and their daughter (image: supplied)

Karaitiana’s bright, garish designs stand out among the simple, delicate lines of many of the other collections in the Miromoda show. His uncle, designer Te Orihau Karaitiana has entered the show for the past two years with his brand, MATU. It’s a much more simple design aesthetic with elegant lines and natural, muted colours, especially when placed beside Karaitiana’s own.

“He dyes his fabric with onion skins and things like that. He did fashion at the polytechnic down in Napier and entered Miromoda last year. I would really like to do a collab with him, I’ll design fabrics and he can do the garments. His silhouettes are so nice and loose.”

And Karaitiana is no stranger to collaboration in his design work. He recently designed a range of t-shirts and shirts for Australasian designer brand Salasai, owned by his aunty, Kirsha Whitcher. 

“She followed me on instagram and saw that I was doing the bootleg tees. I got a couple made for my cousins and after that she hit me up and asked me to do it for the brand. She kind of gave me a little theme and then free rein after that, which was really great for my design confidence.”

His team is relatively small, consisting mainly of himself, wife Jessey Karaitiana, and friend Sean Courtney, the owner of a secondhand and vintage goods business. 

Karaitiana’s parents also own a store in Napier where he stocks his garments. Other than that he’s got an online store, but says most of his sales are made through his instagram page. 

“I kind of just post on instagram and every time I post I get about two orders. Since winning Miromoda I’ve probably had around 20 or 30.”

He also does bespoke orders, catering from wacky concert merch to hoodies in tribute to people’s dead pets, all advertised on his instagram.

As laid-back as he seems, Karaitiana’s garish designs were a very calculated move. He saw the era of 90s comeback fashion nearing its end, noticing it was time for a 2000s revival, and he didn’t waste time waiting for someone else to do it.

“All the questionable fashion choices are coming around.  I saw the 90s was kind of running out and I hopped on it straight away. Everyone’s gonna be rocking the Skechers soon. I reckon skinny jeans again and then the 90s again, after that. Then it’ll go back to the skinny jeans and baggy tee-shirts and then hi-tops.”

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He’s also well aware of the consumer shift towards ethical fashion choices, all his clothing is made from organic cotton, denim and canvas, and is created in Bali.

“Everyone is going more ethical. All my stuff is made out of organic cottons. We have these board shorts that are going to come in and they’re made out of recycled plastic bottles. The buttons on the shirts used to be coconut shells but they kept breaking so now they’re recycled plastic shaped like coconut shells.”

Karaitiana hopes his Fashion Week collection will lead more stockists to his brand. His goal is to be stocked worldwide, anywhere he can travel. For now, living in Napier with Jessey and their daughter, the young designer seems content with his trajectory.

“I know some of my stuff is a bit out there, but the people who buy it are really into it. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing – collabs and designing – in my spare time and see where it takes me.”


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