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Designing Dame back down to earth

Being able to get out and see New Zealand during the past 12 months has had some unexpected results for fashion designer Dame Trelise Cooper. Visiting Wanaka this week, she tells Rebecca Fox about the joy of rediscovering her country.

Known for her patterns and bright colours, Dame Trelise Cooper admits there are some more muted tones creeping in to some of her designs.

Deep sumac, ochre, russet, cinnamon and greens are tones not usually seen in a Trelise Cooper design.


Clothing designer Dame Trelise Cooper (second from left) with Kate Wilson from Dunedin (left), ...
Clothing designer Dame Trelise Cooper (second from left) with Kate Wilson from Dunedin (left), Escape Clothing owner Lucy Lucas, Pam Neill (Cooper’s mother) and Marion Harper from Dunedin at Escape Clothing. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED


But for the designer, who was made a Dame in 2014 for her services to fashion and the community and has more than 300 stockists in New Zealand and Australia, the more earthy tones appearing in her ranges are a reflection, she thinks, of the time she has been spending in the outdoors since Covid-19 hit last year.

"I’ve been out in nature more, going on bush walks and up beautiful forest tracks, so it’s reflective of that palate."

While Covid had a major impact on her business — she and her team design their clothing range in Auckland — it also put an end to Cooper’s travels.

Jumping on a plane to visit suppliers, customers, go to fabric fairs and to spend New Zealand winters at her home in France was normal for her.

All of a sudden she was grounded. And she is enjoying it — something she never thought she would say.

"It was the gift of Covid. This will be only my second New Zealand winter in 15 years."

It has given her the gift of time. Instead of forever rushing to catch a plane and working across time zones she has been able to take weekends off, spend time with her family and travel the country.

"I found that very hard to pop around and see customers before."

She has visited Wanaka a few times in recent months with family, but this week was the first time in an official capacity.

Cooper was visiting as the patron of the New Zealand Ballet Foundation to take part in a dinner before the RNZB’s opening of Ultra Violet and The Autumn Ball on Monday night at the Festival of Colour.

"It was five and a-half years ago that I was last here for a charity event, for the hospice in Wanaka."

This time she took the opportunity to visit Escape Clothing, which she collaborated with for the hospice event.

"They put on a high tea; it was a very successful morning. It was nice to catch up with people."

The reduction in overseas travel has created a different pace of life and Dame Trelise is feeling that her life has become more ordered.

"It’s been a very nice bonus. It’s a change that has been quite fun."

Another bonus has been getting to spend time with her son, who has twice visited from his California home. A professor at a university there, he has been able to teach remotely as the campus has been shut for a year.

"That’s been a great joy for us as we usually only get to see him one to two weeks at a time."

While there have been silver linings, it has not all been plain sailing.

Cooper describes the first four months of restrictions as very stressful. She credits the Government’s wage subsidy as a "lifesaver" in allowing her to keep her staff.

Then, six months in, she realised her business was going to make it.

She puts survival down to New Zealanders taking time to explore their backyard and spend locally.

But then she was hit by the theft of her spring and summer 2021 samples. Those arrested have been charged and will soon appear in court.

And then there was a garment naming controversy.

"There were a couple of things outside of Covid which all occurred at the same time."

Not being able to travel to fabric fairs and other trade events forced her and her team to be more creative and inventive, she says.

"For many, many years that is just what you did."

They got out their archives of fabrics, some of which had been discarded, and created their own patterns.

"Those ranges have been some of our most successful."

She works closely with her three graphic designers — a new part of the business in the past five years — to work on new prints and colours.

One of the biggest changes Cooper made while restrictions were in place was extending the seasons of her clothing ranges.

So instead of bringing out winter clothing in February when summer is in full swing, retailers continued to sell her summer range.

She also added a new wedding guest range, which came out in December — previously unheard of to release a range then — targeting those with summer events to go to.

The approach worked and it is something she hopes to continue as it makes sense to work with the seasons.

As for Cooper’s picks for winter — those earthy tones will be popular and a coat is a must.

She loves a coat or jacket with a twist and this year a new manufacturing technique has meant she has been able to create a very cosy, comfortable jacket that "wraps the body". It comes in her signature brights — pink and red and in her new earthy tones of camel and sumac.


14 April 21