Members Spotlight | Women Made with Special International Guest

As many women are celebrated around the world this Mother’s Day, we take a deeper look at celebrating womanhood and the strengths we use to shape our communities.

Taking us on their journey this month for women made are Liz Mitchell and our special international guest, Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng. Each sharing their separate journeys with stories worthy of being told on its own.

Continue reading to be inspired by these two incredible women.

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!

Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng, Award-winning Multicultural, and International Studies Educator and Author

Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng was invited by Global Women to keynote at an evening event on Leading at the Crossroads and at the annual Hui that was to have been held at Waitangi.  However, the weather gods had other plans and both events had to be cancelled.  Fortunately, Maya was able to address a large gathering of members on a virtual platform on 11 May where she shared beautiful insights into inter-connectedness, openness and trust.

I was privileged to interview Maya.  Listening to this gracious teacher, guide and leader opened my mind to the possibilities for peace through cultural understanding, and so much more.

Maya, you were born in Jakarta, Indonesia and spent your growing years in Hawai’i where you live now. Were these homes the foundation of your peace and justice work today?

“Yes, I would say that both Indonesia and Hawai’i informed my work and my character and the lens by which I live my life in a number of ways.  I went back and forth between Indonesia and Hawai’i throughout my childhood, where I learned a strong sense of community, respect and hospitality with others. Growing up in Indonesia in the 1970s, I was fortunate to experience a civil Islam where most of the people were Muslim but very open and embracing of other religions and cultures. The stories told in the traditional dance, music, shadow puppets, and temple reliefs were all Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous stories. There was open civil dialogue that led to interfaith connection and flexible ways of being in the world.

In Hawai’i, although there is a history of colonialism with the indigenous people, there’s also a strong multi-faceted, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic integration that leads to living in harmony and mutual support.  The aloha spirit is very present.  While it does get tested sometimes, it really is for the most part a steady and enduring source of peace and generosity, so I learned a lot of the high standards of loving interaction and commitment to building a beloved community from Hawai’i where the principle of laulima refers to the spirit of collective endeavour. In Indonesia, this is called gotong royong, “all hands together”.

In both places, I was raised by aunties and uncles who lived in the villages around me and made me feel held, supported and seen. I would say that those places helped me to feel comfortable moving through many different cultures and spaces. I felt at home and could find a feeling of family wherever I went. My mother nourished this when we traveled together as she set up microfinance programmes in South and Southeast Asia. She experienced kinship wherever she went and a capacity and desire to listen to people’s stories and to share in ways that opened hearts and minds. There were lots of hours spent in conversation in a variety of spaces, with stories being told through the night. It was a very magical and loving way to be raised.”

You attended Barnard College (New York) for a couple of years but also have taught at the secondary, undergraduate and graduate levels at schools in NYC and Hawai’i and in public, charter and independent schools. You learned a lot from place-based and culturally responsive education. You head up three peace-related nonprofits. Please tell us about the various kinds of learning that we should consider (e.g. peace education, social-emotional learning, indigenous, innovation, navigational leadership and beyond.)

“In my journey as a student as well as an educator I was able to understand that learning takes place in so many different spaces and under so many different circumstances. We still tend to think of education through the industrial system, for example, students learning through rote memorization as empty vessels to glean information for a specific job.  Yet we don’t need education for information anymore. True education allows us to wrestle with who we are, how to be an upstander in the world;  it connects us to people and to place and helps us to be good stewards of the land.  A true education is one that helps us find ourselves in one another, and live with empathy, openness, to problem solve and stay curious, to be explorers and navigational leaders.

I have been moved to see Aotearoa New Zealand’s many forms of cultural education and to learn not just from the schools but also from the marae, pōwhiri, koreros and the storytelling and discussion that happens on the land and in community; I love how you look at the mauna here and learn its stories and I love the artistry in the architecture and community. There is a role at this moment for New Zealand to really lead in helping diversify the sources of legitimate learning and thinking. You can help the world  shift the way that we understand education.

O’lelo No’eau are Hawaiian sayings. One about learning goes Aʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi – ‘all knowledge is not taught in the same school.’  This wisdom helps us understand that one can learn from many sources – from fishponds and farms to nature and community center. Multiplication of learning spaces is vital at this time, so that we know that our responsibility is to learn how to walk benevolently through the world rather than seeing education as simply facts to be absorbed, regurgitated, and quickly forgotten.

Your doctoral research focused on Multicultural and International Education, the use of narrative to develop increased understanding of identities in classrooms. Please tell us how this teaching changes views and attitudes and if you have seen it demonstrated in the lens of Aotearoa New Zealand?

“Storytelling is an important example of the kind of education that needs to be created. Our stories are compelling and constructive; I’ve seen story-sharing done amazingly well here in New Zealand. At Auckland Girls’ Grammar School the girls shared two waiata, one their teacher Joey had composed. And as I listened to both songs, I felt the power of connection and womanhood. Their stories moved me to tears even though there were words that I didn’t understand because they were told in te reo.  I felt them!

And the Global Women stories – when you feel what the women struggled through, what they accomplished, those stories are very important.  They will help so many who come after; they offer solutions and open us to the myriad mysteries of being human. They help us to care and build strength to move on the pathway forward.  I have been so very grateful for and impressed by all the Global Women I have met! I have been able to connect emotionally with histories that aren’t my own, and in a way that helps me then to cherish the land and to feel such gratitude for the land and people of Aotearoa.”

At the recent Global Women virtual event, Leading at the Crossroads, you wove the need for interconnectedness with climate justice. Please tell us more about this, especially as it pertains to indigenous peoples.

“Indigenous peoples are often the ones who feel the impact of the earth’s climate crises. 80% of our remaining biodiversity is on land that is stewarded and held by indigenous people, even though they are only 5% of our total population. They carry a burden, together with a lot of knowledge,  leading with dignified stewardship and care. Indigenous innovations and solutions are essential for us all to move forward through the climate crisis. There is wisdom here and there is also an important mandate to collaborate and refamilialize ourselves with nature. If we lose this familial connection we’ll always feel ourselves to be separate from the land and one another. We need to nourish the environment and community with the unconditional love of a mother, even if we are not literally mothers. This brings to mind that we also need to support women as 75% of the climate impacts are carried on the shoulders of women and we know that women suffer a great deal from the loss and devastation of storm, fire, and flood. They are on the frontlines and in possession of the greatest understanding of how to move forward and create justice in the face of the climate crisis.”

‘Moving at the speed of trust’ is a powerful statement that you shared at the 11 May event. Please tell us more about its meaning, and how can we apply this to the future growth of physical and cultural wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Global Women is a perfect microcosm and space where all the loving potential of Te Tiriti o Waitangi can play out.  We have an opportunity because so many women are coming from diverse vantage points. I look forward to hearing what will happen when Global Women (eventually) come together for the Hui at Waitangi to learn how to become good Treaty partners. Global Women are doing important work that might also be uncomfortable as there might be fear of being called out or criticised, that fear of conflict or of not knowing enough. Given the divisions everywhere, we must remind ourselves to come from a place of aroha. Love for each other, for Aotearoa New Zealand, and for the sisterhood. I think that there’s a lot that Global Women can teach the country and the rest of the world.  This is an extraordinary opportunity. I’m cheering you on.

Now that you have spent time with members of Global Women, where do you see our organisation positioned to take stronger leadership at the crossroads of indigenous intersectionality?  Are there elements of your teachings about peace and navigational leadership that we as an organisation could apply?

“I have been moved by how many of the Global Women built things imaginatively and bravely with very little resources. Global Women members have so much ingenuity and a lot of courage, and again are such an inspiration to me and to others.

I think that you all should share more of the Global Women stories.  Go out and provide more mentorship and inspiration and lift up other women and girls. I think that Global Women is really needed right now. There are a lot of women and girls who see that things haven’t changed enough for their lives and their futures to be equitable.  There are still so many spaces without equality of rights, health treatment or pay. There is so much to be done!  I’m excited to see what might be possible because the stories of resourcefulness that are available from every single Global Women member”

Please tell us about your continued work with the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance (GOA) and Leaders Asia-Pacific.

The Obama Foundation is a large non-profit that serves to lift up service-driven leadership. There are values-based regional leadership programs in Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States. I work with the Asia Pacific region. We invite leaders between 25-45 who have demonstrated leadership but still have a long leadership trajectory ahead of them to further develop their collaborative potential. Some are grassroots activists. Some of them are social entrepreneurs. Some are government leaders. Others are educators. There are leaders in the tech industry too. One of the other things that we are committed to is making sure that Oceania and Pacific leaders are fully focused, because the Pacific Islands and Oceania have a lot to share and teach the rest of the world.

I am also privileged to work with the Girls Opportunity Alliance, another Obama Foundation program. GOA brings together girl-serving organisations around the world. GOA partners with CARE International,  Room to Read, Madre, and more,  sharing programming and workshops, supporting groups through amplification of their efforts or GoFundMe campaigns, and creating space so the organisations can share with one another. I hope Global Women will use their resources to support adolescent girls too.”

Of course, I have to ask you about your brother, Barack Obama, the man, the President, and your relationship with him!

“I lucked out in the brother department and yes, I raised him well! Kidding! He did a lot to help raise me, but I like to think that all the strong women in his life helped inspire his leadership.”

After we concluded our interview, Dr. Soetoro-Ng was traveling to Ōtautahi, then to Aoraki to listen to climate stories, then onto some brainstorming in Pōneke, followed by an invitation to the Marae in Tolaga Bay to learn about challenges there with the storm and slash where she will listen and learn to see how we can support this devastation.

The global community and Global Women are indeed fortunate to count Maya as a friend and ally. Her commitments to our international crises, indigenous peoples, justice, trust, and harmony are exemplary. Mahalo and terima kasih!


All interviews and stories written by our Editor in Residence, Jenni Prisk (Global Women Member)