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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 23, 2023

Meet the creative mastermind behind the Farmers Santa Parade costumes

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Ronelle Thompson has been creating glitz, glamour and drama on a shoestring budget for 30 years. Gabi Lardies talks to her ahead of the biggest day of her year.

Hanging from a pink ribbon around Ronelle Thompson’s neck is a little soft toy of Count von Count. His belly has been pierced thousands of times by sewing pins; about 20 are currently stabbed in. Above him a collection of safety pins hangs from the ribbon.

These are essential tools for Thompson, who is currently having the busiest week of her year. She’s waking up before the sun rises, mind racing with things to do, accidentally sending friends to-do lists intended for herself. This Sunday, the 26th of November, it’s the Farmers Santa Parade in Auckland; an event for which she’s been making costumes for the last 30 years. 

Thousands of costumes have been made in that time, and they’re stored year-round in a warehouse in New Lynn. There are hats in the shape of rat heads, with white sequin fabric, big blue plastic eyes and silver pipe-cleaner whiskers; brightly-coloured lycra dresses with circle skirts; and a soft pink sculpture elephant on a wheeled frame, bigger than the both of us combined.

Ronelle Thompson in the West Auckland warehouse packed with Santa Parade costumes, November 2023

Thompson, whose father is from New Zealand and mother is from Tahiti, grew up mostly in Australia, but always visited her grandmother here, and got to love the bush and Auckland’s west coast. When her mother died, she craved the smell of ponga and the big blundering ocean with its massive kelp, so she returned here to heal. With her two daughters in tow, she expected to stay for a year or so. Then she saw a job being advertised to sew costumes for the parade. “It was just half time, $12 an hour and 20 hours a week. And so I thought, ‘I’ll go for it’.” The rest is history, hanging on the racks or carefully folded into storage tubs at the warehouse.

Unlike some of the other staff there, Thompson never trained as a machinist or pattern maker. “I just started sewing because I wanted to have a new bikini every weekend,” she says. That led to making her daughters’ clothes, and then helping with the costumes for their theatre groups, making “mermaids and all sorts of things”. 

Preparing for the parade is a year-round job. At the beginning of each year, Thompson will work with her small team and the float builder to decide what they will make or reuse. This year, she says, “I got carried away thinking that I wanted to do a ‘Taste of New Zealand’ set. So I’ve made my son-in-law a kiwifruit that he’s going to wear that’s like a drum, and then we’ve got some pacific elves and then we’ve done about 35 sheep. We’ve got some Fred Daggs in there and a couple of stilt walkers coming as Pūriri moths.”

“I always want to try and push the parade to be Christmas but to be authentically Kiwi, and not a copy of America or other countries,” she continues. “I want us to look like we’ve got a New Zealand Christmas parade. If it had it my way I’d have Santa in a Hawaiian shirt.”

Costumes from past parades are hung high in the New Lynn warehouse.

Last year Thompson thinks they used every bolt of red tulle in Auckland to make a series of umbrellas into Pōhutukawa flowers. “The poor girls – they were so heavy to hold.”

When she started 30 years ago, Thompson remembers being proudly shown the costumes. “There were some good ones but the majority of them were clowns. There were pink spot clowns, blue spot clowns, green spot clowns, black spot clowns, red spot clowns, fancy clowns, butterfly clowns, lamé clowns, black and white clowns. And I was like, ‘Is there anything else but clowns?’”

Last Sunday, everyone in this week’s parade rehearsed the choreography. It wasn’t a dress rehearsal, but Thompson was there watching, making sure everyone was in the right place at the right time. “I was looking at some of the girls, some I’ve known since they were bubbies, and they were dancing so beautifully. I could feel myself tearing up. Just suddenly it dawns on me: oh my gosh, you’ve turned into this beautiful woman. I had to call my daughter, otherwise I’d be sobbing – how embarrassing!”

Dinosaurs in 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

On parade day, Thompson sometimes feels like the last parade was only yesterday. Some of the team around her have been there just as long or even longer than she has, and are “fantastic”. Performers return year after year, too. On pin boards in the tea room, there are collaged photos from parades past. Thompson points to a young boy riding a unicycle in a polka-dot costume. “We’ve got some great people – I just can’t believe how kind they are, and they love it. This family, we met them when they were really little, and they cycle, fantastic. I can’t rave enough about our people.” She says some who have moved away come back to Auckland every year, just to take part in the parade.

Though a diehard community remains, it’s getting smaller. “We don’t have as much, I think,” Thompson says. “Lives have got so busy. People are worn out. They’re just working like anything and then running kids here and there. To come and give time to the parade is difficult, they can’t commit.” Over the years she has noticed more people flaking out, or unable to volunteer time like they once did. 

Though the warehouse is filled with glitz, tulle, and everything a crafter could ever want, it’s all done on a shoestring budget, which has tightened since the pandemic. “We’re constantly trawling emporiums,” says Thompson. They don’t make costumes in enough numbers to buy in bulk commercial quantities, and they “don’t want to be lumbered with 50 metres of one thing,” she says, unless it’s tulle. A wall of sequinned trims in the sewing room came from the closure of a dance fabric shop, which was owned by a friend. 

Make up in 2018, a year it didn’t rain. (Photo: Supplied)

Each costume is packed into a clear plastic bag which hangs from a coat hanger. They’ll be taken on racks to the Aotea Centre, which will be “chaotic” come Sunday morning. This year, parade performers will be getting dressed in boys’ and girls’ changing rooms, but Thompson and her team are rethinking this arrangement. “We’re at that stage now where I think we’re gonna stop saying girls and boys. We were talking about it yesterday that maybe next year the changing rooms will have something like Pūriri and Cabbage Tree.”

Inside the bags are also the props and a make-up card, with instructions to be followed on the day. The face painters aren’t always experienced, so “you hope for the best”, says Thompson. Last year, it rained, and “all their makeup just got washed down, they all looked like monsters at the end”. She laughs. This year if the forecast is for rain, there will be no makeup. 

On Sunday, Thompson will be in the VIP grandstands by the Grand Millennium Hotel on Mayoral Drive. “I love seeing that sweep of the parade come down,” she says. “Most of the time they’re fantastic, and we’re screaming with joy because we get so proud of them. But it’s so much and it’s so hard to take it all in.” 

Once she wore a GoPro camera on her head. It was only when she watched back the footage that she realised she was constantly moving her gaze around, and it made for dizzying viewing. This year, she’ll be taking plenty of photos on her phone, saving them for reference and sending them to friends and family – plenty of whom will be in the photos. She’s glad that the three-week job of washing and drying all the costumes afterwards has been assigned to someone else.

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