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Kiri Nathan on This is Kiwi (Image: Supplied)
Kiri Nathan on This is Kiwi (Image: Supplied)

PartnersJuly 31, 2023

This is Kiwi: Kiri Nathan is breaking barriers in the fashion industry

Kiri Nathan on This is Kiwi (Image: Supplied)
Kiri Nathan on This is Kiwi (Image: Supplied)

A Kiwibank series in collaboration with The Spinoff Podcast Network, This is Kiwi celebrates extraordinary achievements by ordinary New Zealanders. In the final episode, host Jane Yee speaks to Māori fashion designer and entrepreneur Kiri Nathan.

Kiri Nathan is a multitalented and internationally acclaimed fashion designer whose work is deeply rooted in te ao Māori with a focus on natural fibres and texture. In 2020, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori and the fashion industry, and her work extends far beyond our shores. 

You may have seen her designs on the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Mariah Carey just to name a few. Later this year she will become the first Māori designer to open New Zealand Fashion Week, and she recently worked as one of the designers of the new Kiwibank Wardrobe – designed to better reflect modern, progressive and inclusive Aotearoa. 

Alongside Nathan’s trailblazing spirit is a passion for sharing her wisdom and experience to empower emerging Māori designers. This kaupapa has been a key focus of Nathan’s for a number of years and most recently saw her establishing Te Ahuru Mōwai, a creative safe haven for young Indigenous designers in Glen Innes and Tāmaki Makaurau.

Nathan joined Jane Yee on the This is Kiwi podcast. Read an excerpt from the full interview below.

Jane Yee: I want to start by looking back at little Kiri – tell me a little bit about what you were like as a wee thing.

Kiri Nathan: I was always active. I loved creativity, from a very, very young age and was encouraged by my grandmother to do all manner of things. She’d always buy me those little crafty kits, and she taught me how to sew. Mum sewed as well. So all of that creative energy was around. I was a happy little kid. 

We lived in New Zealand and in Scotland from when I was born until I was about eight or nine because dad raced professional speedway. So we would go for six months of the year for the season in Scotland, and I’d always go back to the same school over there and the same friends, and then come back to New Zealand. At about 10 or 11 we settled back in New Zealand, in Glen Innes. I think that the transition was challenging and mum and dad separated. There was a breakdown in the whānau unit, and so things kind of went in a different direction and I really found that my friend group and creativity was the thing that gave me release.

How significant of a place is Glen Innes to you? 

It was the place that shaped my childhood. Although we lived in Scotland, most of my formative years were spent in GI, Panmure, on Mount Wellington, Point England.

We were this weird little spot completely surrounded by affluence and we were a low socioeconomic area, working class. With that came a lot of social challenges. I find even today that unless you’ve lived there, it’s very hard to understand it, and understand the psyche and mindset that comes from growing up in a place like that. 

I’m really curious to know what some of the barriers you’ve faced have been as a Māori woman. And not just the obvious ones, because I feel like in all industries there can be little barriers that you’re not really aware of, unless you’re experiencing it.

Hand on heart, I feel like I’ve been underestimated my entire life. I’m sure that there’s a million other people out there that have felt the same way as they’ve grown up. And I always felt like I had to work extra hard for things, or to be given opportunities that other people seem to have been given. 

Back in the day, if you entered a competition you had to pay to enter the competition, you had to pay for all of your materials and so forth to make the piece, and then you had to pay for your ticket to go to the show.

The Kiwibank wardrobe that Kiri Nathan helped to design (Image: Kiwibank)

Often we were asked to be the “entertainment” for big corporate events, where everyone would be seated and have a three course dinner and drinks and there’d be speakers or a show. There were no payments made to any of the designers – this is Māori and Pasifika designers primarily – we would put on an event all at our own cost and then we would be ushered out the back door. 

The people that were sitting at those tables, were probably CEOs of huge businesses, or had been successful entrepreneurs. And in its simplest form, someone could have just said, “I can give you an hour of my time to talk to you about how you might be able to take this to the next level”. But that just never happened… [now] there’s just a really strong sense of responsibility to make the space better.

How much of that comes from mātauranga Māori and your worldview?

I think that some of the viewpoint comes from growing up in GI, we all looked after each other and we all came up together. I think that there’s a certain mindset and psyche that comes from that. It is very Māori to want to bring more people with you that I just don’t see the point in creating a hugely successful business just for yourself. Unfortunately, that’s how probably 99% of fashion businesses are structured. They do everything for the success of that business, and their purpose and their values and so forth. And as Māori or an indigenous person, or a person that cares, I just don’t see the point in that. I just think it would be a waste of time giving 30 or 40 years of my life to something if it was just for me.

You’ve mentioned before that you hope that with everything you’ve learned, you might be able to make the path easier for others, so I just want to invite you to look back at a time perhaps before you started the business. What would you say to yourself about what lies ahead?

Even when I was a young person I always had this belief that there was something big in my future, or in my next step forward, or whatever. And I didn’t know what that was but I knew it was going to be around creativity, and I knew I was a hard worker, I just didn’t know how to pull it all together for a very, very long time. 

If I was to give myself any advice back then it would have been to not underestimate myself. It would have been to start earlier. Retrospect is a wonderful thing. But I also am very conscious of the fact that every single step taken in that journey was necessary, every hardship was necessary, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now. 

I’m grateful for all of the failures and all of the challenges because those are actually – they shouldn’t be, but those are the biggest drivers. They’re the biggest learning points. They’re very, very valuable.

This interview has been shortened. To hear the full kōrero, listen to This is Kiwi, wherever you get your podcasts.

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