Liz Mitchell, MNZM, Bespoke New Zealand Fashion Designer
The charming, unassuming and very talented Liz Mitchell is humble about the fact that she is a leading international fashion designer with her brand “Liz Mitchell” featuring on international catwalks and in the closets of high-profile people around the world. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa houses Liz’s design archive and her work is profiled as one of New Zealand’s top contemporary fashion designers in Angela Lassig’s book New Zealand Fashion Design.
I asked Liz where her interest in fashion began.
“My mother Aileen was a beautiful, stylish dressmaker who kept a collection of 1950s fashion magazines. As a child, I loved looking through designs by Dior, Lanvin, Balenciaga and others. At age seven, I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer! I didn’t recognise at the time how much inspiration for my design aesthetic I was gathering. Twiggy, the 60’s design icon, was a favourite of mine and I created characters, story boards and full wardrobes around her and her style.
Although I was always encouraged by my parents to be creative when I became a student at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, where I was in the top academic stream, art was not part of the syllabus. My father wanted me to be a doctor, arguing that this would be a more lucrative profession. However, my passion for art triumphed and I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre design from Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. The experience I gained from that training in spatial and costume design was enriched by an internship in Theatre Corporate, which gave me practical design opportunities.
My pathway from theatre design to costume design led to an exciting period at Television New Zealand. Janice Finn’s dramatic soap ‘Gloss’ was my opportunity to work alongside the NZ Fashion Industry and create an historic production, with so many of the actors subsequently becoming leaders in our cultural landscape. Gloss was the first national production to recognise the work of costume designers in the media.
Following Gloss, I started my fashion business by designing wedding dresses for some of the TV celebrities that I had worked with and my entries in the Benson and Hedges New Zealand Fashion Awards won awards in 1990 and 1992. Fashion design was becoming my passion and my new business direction.”
The fashion world has largely been dominated by men. What is the career path like for women and does the designing differ?
“The wonderful thing about New Zealand is that we have a plethora of female designers – Karen Walker, Liz Finley, Jane Daniels, Trelise Cooper, Kiri Nathan, and Juliet Hogan, to name a few. The international fashion industry, however, has been dominated by male designers and male-led publishing empires. Today’s fashion industry offers a view of women consumed by a celebrity culture, Instagram ‘likes’, beauty apps that transform young women into avatars, and contributes to anxiety and unhappiness.
We cannot underestimate the power of the global platforms Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok, which have control of our images for ever and they are using our posts to gather marketing data.”
Who have been your mentors throughout your career?
“My partner, Ian, has been with me throughout my journey and been a rock for me. I can also count the Farmers Trading Company (FTC) as a supporter. Farmers approached me in 2006 to ask me to design a diffusion range of clothes for women. I felt that if I could use my experience of custom tailoring to create a range of clothing designed to fit New Zealand women at an affordable price point, this would be a good business development for my brand. I embarked on a capsule collection of 200 units per style that were produced offshore, with new ranges delivered monthly. When I saw the first delivery, I was thrilled with our designs and waited to see the sales response. Farmers were delighted to tell me that 90% of the garments had sold. Mitchell by Liz Mitchell evolved over the seven years of working with FTC.
I am a breast cancer survivor and know the importance of comfortable materials next to my skin. FTC supported my design idea of a simple range of everyday essentials – lingerie and non-wired bras that fitted New Zealand women’s bodies. Many women have since come back to me and asked if they can have more of my excellent fitting lingerie.
While we’re on the subject of mentors, I did rely on a person in the earlier days of my business who turned out to be a rogue. I certainly learned from that experience and how easy it is to miss warning signs. However, I’m very resilient and don’t give in, so I decided to become a smaller entity, which helped me to crystallise my business and move forward.”
King Charles III is a supporter of wool, as are you. Please tell us about your relationship with this New Zealand fibre.
“King Charles III recently posted a message about wool being his fabric of choice. The King has been pivotal in helping to raise an international awareness of wool and why it’s good for us, the environment, and the planet. The handmade anointing screen used in King Charles’ coronation ceremony includes a very special nod to Aotearoa. The screen is made from New Zealand and Australian wool that has been hand embroidered by specialised craftspeople in the Royal School of Needlework.
90% of ‘strong’ wool comes from our Romney sheep. While Merino wool is fantastic, it provides only 10% of the clip. In the early 2000s, New Zealand fashion designers were given wool to play with, but these innovations did not lead to business initiatives to take our wool to new markets. Wool has always been my fabric of choice, because of its magical properties – wool breathes, is a natural product, drapes and moulds to the body, has a warm colour saturation, is insulating, compostable, antimicrobial, and regenerative.
We may have 24 million sheep, but our local manufacturing capability has been steadily shrinking over the last twenty years and today much of the wool clip is sold as a commodity. Now, all we have is one commercial-scale weaving processing plant in Mt Wellington, Auckland, and just two large wool scouring plants in New Zealand. The Hawkes Bay plant has recently suffered severe damage from extensive flooding. We need to restore smaller-scale manufacturing to build resilience back into the wool industry and develop new enterprises creating beautiful contemporary wool products that are locally produced. This would help to reduce our carbon footprint and the impact of global warming.
The Campaign for Wool NZ is determined to help grow our strong wool industry. It is essential for us to introduce younger people to the value of wool versus synthetic fabrics, which are toxic to produce, and they are extremely harmful pollutants of our environment. We need to educate everyone against continuous consumerism. My creation of “slow” fashion that uses high-quality natural materials is investing in environmental sustainability.
I have recently been exploring felting with NZ strong undyed wool. I love using wool to create homewares from rugs, cat caves, cushions and feature walls panels. This has reinspired my artistic creativity and is breathing life into a new pathway. Having wool on the fashion catwalk and showcasing wool in interior spaces is invigorating my business.”
Where does Aotearoa New Zealand sit in the world of fashion with regard to consumerism?
“New Zealand has amazing designers. The challenge for the fashion industry is to find a more sustainable manufacturing supply chain and understand the whole fabric journey. I have started down that road, by finding out about how textiles are created, from the farmer growing the sheep, shearing the sheep’s fleece, and all the necessary processes of washing, carding, spinning, dyeing, weaving, knitting, crocheting and felting. I have become hooked on the process. Farmers deserve far more recognition and commercial value, and we have a country full of magical sheep as a resource!
Mostly, we need to stop over-consuming! How many handbags does a person need?? Moreover, we must be responsible with our manufacturing and ensure that everyone gets paid fairly. I have learned that people hold onto my clothes because they have developed a personal relationship with me and my team.”
Do you highlight Aotearoa New Zealand’s Māori designs and motifs on the runway?
“The vision of our country is becoming an important fashion thread in our storytelling – it’s part of our uniqueness. I know that my work stands in high regard internationally. For example, the former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy wore a beautiful jacquard bespoke dress when she met the future King Charles III and Queen Camilla, in 2019. My clothes empower the wearer, without overwhelming the person. Clothes should not be worn as armour; they should support our individuality.
As a designer from Aotearoa, I am respectful of our Tangata Whenua’s strong design heritage. It is an important part of what makes New Zealand unique. Young Māori designers are showcasing their talents and drawing from their rich taonga.
My love for New Zealand and its landscape provides me with so much inspiration. My New Zealand Fashion (NZFW) week show in 2007, ‘Undercurrent’, was inspired by the night shoreline and the ocean’s breaking waves.
My partner, Ian, is of Tongan heritage. I have a love of Pasifika patterning and this was part of my creative inspiration for the NZFW 2006 collection ‘Night Flowers of the Pacific’. We created tapa patterns on silk organza with Swarovski crystal motifs.
I was a judge for many years for the ‘Style Pasifika’ Fashion Competition. This was a tremendous platform for emerging designers that showcased New Zealand’s Pasifika fashion design and its unique craftmanship.”
King Charles III and Queen Camilla with former Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy and her husband, David Gascoigne, in 2019. Dame Patsy is wearing a bespoke gown by Liz Mitchell.
Who are some of your high-profile clients?
“My clients are leaders in many different spheres. I have had the privilege of dressing three of New Zealand’s Governors General, some of our Prime Ministers, members of Royalty, judges, lawyers, top corporate and business professionals, famous people in our New Zealand film and theatre industry, actors, designers, scientists, and architects. My bespoke designs have been worn on the international stage and in the film industry’s Red Carpet events. My clients are a cross-section of New Zealanders and international people.
My passion as a designer is to understand my clients’ needs and create clothes for the significant moments in their lives. Bespoke tailoring is my strength. I have a wonderful team of skilled artisans, beautiful fabrics and experience to bring our clients’ dreams to reality.”
Why did you join Global Women?
“Global Women is the leading organisation for women in business and government in New Zealand. Several of my clients are members and one of them nominated me. Over the last three years, COVID-19 has severely impacted many of the networking opportunities and the chance to connect with the Global Women community.
I am hoping to be able to devote more time to the aspirations of this organization, by contributing my fashion leadership and sustainability perspective. In the face of all the distrust that exists in this world, women are empathic listeners that are so needed in leadership.”
Liz Mitchell, we thank you for putting our country and its natural materials in the global spotlight!