Wahine Toa: Kiri Nathan

Nancy Gilbert with Kiri Nathan. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

The latest Wahine Toa post by By Nancy Gilbert, wife of U.S. Ambassador Mark Gilbert.

This month I’d like to introduce Kiri Nathan, an elegant mother, fashion designer, Māori female leadership and youth advocate of Ngā Puhi and Tainui descent. She has developed an internationally-recognized brand – Kiri Nathan – a high-end fashion label with a Māori heart and soul whose distinctive creations have come to represent New Zealand globally.  I visited Kiri in her suburban Auckland home to discover what makes this cultural ambassador resonate with local and global audiences, with her work adorning Beyonce, Demi Lovato, Mariah Carey and a red carpet reveal by Disney’s rising star for Moana, Aulii Cravalho.

It’s a normal day, and Kiri’s house is filled with warmth and noise from her family – her husband and creative partner, Jason Nathan, and her raison d’être – their five children. Her expansive deck showcases stunning couture from her latest collection. The range offers hand-made full length gowns adorned with contemporary korowai (Māori cloaks), all complemented with precious pounamu (New Zealand greenstone) carved by her husband. “My inspirations come mainly from Māori but don’t exclude external and international influences. I’ve always been drawn to texture, nature and the work of indigenous artists” she explains. “I design from the heart; a little piece of myself is in everything that carries the Kiri Nathan label”.

Kiri weaves her inspirations into high-end fashion. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
Kiri weaves her inspirations into high-end fashion. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
International Showcase London Fashion Week.P hoto credit: Kiri Nathan.

Kiri fell into fashion by chance after years of following her father’s motorcycle racing career between New Zealand and the European racing circuit. She was twelve years old when her parents divorced, when she moved to her grandmother, Inez Fullerton, who worked as a seamstress in Auckland. “I would sit at grandma’s feet watching her create beautiful dresses on her prized Singer sewing machine”, she fondly recalls.  “My mother was also a home sewer.  Grandma created from patterns and obeyed the rules; mum broke all the rules! Both of these learnings were invaluable.  The design process was very normal to me from a young age”. The aspiring designer then started experimenting with fabrics and design.

At work. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
Kiri Nathan at work. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.

Her talents were noticed by industry leaders opening a design school, and she applied. Now an ambitious single mother, Kiri started her Diploma in Visual Arts with a Fashion Major. “I ‘failed’ a black silk dress with a Māori design and woven braid. I loved that dress. So I entered it in the Creative Youth Awards and won the Women’s Wear section, and Overall Supreme Award. The experience taught me resilience and to hang onto my individuality. This is something Jason and I try to instill in our children, and in young designers.”

“At this point, I had a creative awakening pushing me to connect on a deeper level with who I was as a young Māori woman”, she theorized. Visiting her Ngā Puhi marae and embarking on the Te Reo Māori (Māori language) journey deepened her understanding of the Māori principles that enabled her to feature a component of Māori life, art, whakatauki (proverb), or traditional carving into fashion.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
Nancy & Kiri Interview.P hoto credit: U.S. Department of State.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

The epiphany led to further study that would profoundly affect her fashion.  “I have always found inspiration and pride in Māoridom and who we are as a people; this has organically and naturally evolved into my design aesthetic.” She studied rarangā- (traditional weaving with harakeke and muka/flax); and furthered that learning weaving Korowai and Kakahu (cloaks worn by leadership to mark their prestige or on auspicious occasions). It is the sheer drama of this art form, which she incorporates into her couture and ready-to-wear clothing that separates her garments from anything else in the world.

Kiri’s instincts proved to have the Midas-touch, winning or placing in every competition she entered. She won the Overall Supreme Award and Traditionally Inspired Award at New Zealand’s most prestigious fashion Awards, ‘Style Pasifika’, for a female take on a military uniform which was inspired by a vintage photo of her grandparents wearing army uniforms. “The Prime Minister gave me the honor and I vividly remember my 85yr old grandmother sitting proudly in the audience.” she says. “I also recall winning the inaugural Miromoda show, therefore showing at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2010.  I walked into the finale heavily pregnant with our 5th child.  The following evening I won at Cult Couture, accepted my award and went straight to hospital to give birth to our baby Kaiawa,” she laughs.

In 2010 Kiri and Jason launched the Kiri Nathan label and business. As a newcomer to the industry, “I was ridiculously green”, she says. Preferring the company of her whānau (family) over industry parties, Kiri was conscious she didn’t fit the fashion mold. But she planted her feet firmly in the industry with mentorship and support from New Zealand fashion icons and entrepreneurs who recognized the potential early on.  Jason developed as a self-taught carver of pounamu (Greenstone), and a sounding board. “Jason and I collaborate on garments that see pounamu woven into the pieces; these are bespoke and unique pieces that celebrate traditional and contemporary Māori.” Kiri soon became the first Kiwi to be invited to the international showcase at London Fashion Week.  The Kiri Nathan label is also the first New Zealand fashion line to be asked to work with Walt Disney.

Kiri's son Awatere in KN weaving and pounamu carved by Jason Nathan . Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
Kiri’s son Awatere in KN weaving and pounamu carved by Jason Nathan. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.

With her business off the ground, Kiri was able to follow her humanitarian pursuits. “There is a responsibility when drawing inspiration from my culture and country to adhere myself and my business with tikangā (protocol) and to always give back and support our communities”. As a trustee of the “I have a dream” charity, she works to offer underserved youth opportunities to succeed in education through long-term mentorship, youth-led events, and workshops.  The financial support from the charitable trust over a 13yr period offers a holistic approach involving whanau, school, and community.

‘He Kākano Ahau’ fine arts project. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.
‘He Kākano Ahau’ fine arts project. Photo credit: Kiri Nathan.

In the years since her launch she has grown as an artist to include a wide range of works. In collaboration with Jason and internationally acclaimed photographer David K. Shields, Kiri has been working on their fine arts project ‘He Kākano Ahau’ for the last six years. “The collection portrays who we are as Māori today in a stylized format that has not been approached before.  The body of work speaks to two stories – one of Whanau and one of Creatives” -adorned in Kiri’s weaving and fashion, Jason’s Pounamu and captured in breathtaking natural locations or on Marae.  “The focus is purely on the positive, we are capturing the Strength, Pride and Beauty in who we are as Māori today.”  ‘He Kakano Ahau’ has been invited to exhibit in Paris, London, and New York.

As a mother, Kiri has brought the lessons of the business world back into the home: “You have to fail to learn, grow and succeed! Conduct yourself with integrity.  As a woman and a mother, my goals have always been very clear.  Be a good human, raise good humans!” As an artist, her designs and fabrication will take your breath away … and she’s only just begun.