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fashion: feature

What legends are made of What legends are made of

Marilyn Sainty is one of the matriarchs of New Zealand fashion, as Sylvia Giles discovers

Excerpted from issue 22 of Lucire


THERE ONCE was a time when New Zealand didn’t have the burgeoning fashion industry it can now boast. Clothing was expensive and limited in choice, town was shut at 11 P.M. on a Friday night, and a fashion magazine was hot property. At this time in the ’60s, Marilyn Sainty was beginning her career in a boutique in Hamilton. As a tentative industry, fashion is a fickle mistress, but Sainty has seen the opening up of the economy, the demise of local production, and full circle to the recent boom of fashion designers we see today.

She then moved to Sydney, cutting her teeth working for a manufacturer for two years before starting the boutique, Starkers, in the city with two other women that ran for five years. After her jaunt in Sydney, she returned in 1974, and although she had planned to dash back off overseas, stayed and began to cultivate her self-titled clothing range.

Large manufacturers that generally reproduced garments from overseas’ department stores primarily made up the scene at that time. Noticing that there were no good T-shirts in stores, she starting using knits to produce both them and dresses, growing from there. ‘In those days I would make what I liked, put it in a box and send it to the different stores, working in season.’

Although the fashion on offer was limited, Sainty maintains that this was not due to any lack of interest. ‘Time and memory are quite distorted for me now. My main memory, extending back into childhood, is that there was always a strong interest in fashion in New Zealand that continues. The changes that have occurred over the 40 years that I have been making clothes seem unremarkable, in that everywhere has become more sophisticated in the area of design and there has always, it has seemed to me, to be an ebb and flow of talent. The audience is more affluent and on the whole more interested.’

The Scotties venture was born in 1976, with a store on Queen Street in Auckland, stocking Sainty’s own work alongside other local labels such as Jane Cross and Blooms. Since the 1980s, New Zealand has lead the way in terms of free trade, with the removal of tariffs that has been responsible for the influx of cheap clothing made in countries like Red China. While ‘Rogernomics’ may continue to be a dirty word for many, this has made fashion affordable, one could argue, even possible. ‘What has changed since the ’80s and the opening up of the economy is, of course, the leisure activity of shopping. There is so much more to buy and we contribute to that.’

But aside from any humanitarian issues for the country of manufacture, this can often mean death to local industry as well. But that is without the help of a niche, of course, and Sainty’s clothes have always displayed an adventurous sense of sophistication. With a commitment to the locally made, she created a fashion house with a number of loyal women by her side. ‘Manufacturing anything that is seasonal and constantly changing is hard work. It is rewarding but, at its height, all consuming, keeping all the balls in the air. I could not have done it without the amazingly hard-working women I worked with. I realized as soon as I became a mother that it was important for women to be able to work around their children, and that understanding meant that I was able to retain a group of very able women. They chose their hours and the work got done.’

As well as the respect for her own staff, she holds a position on the board of the Auckland Women’s Loan Fund, which aims to help women into self-employment. ‘My role is minor; although I absolutely love the concept and the other women involved are great. We operate in quite a small way; we are looking at how we can grow it. The idea is that it is a hand up, women helping women.’

Often, when fashion and politics collide, the result can be interesting. Many of the qualities that make up a designer can be described as being astute. In æsthetic, but also as a product of your environment, absorbing everything in the world around you and designing in response to it. Sainty had a brief flirt with politics, after the election of John Banks as Auckland mayor. While others may have written a letter to the editor, Sainty paid for a billboard declaring ‘I love trees, the zoo, airports, libraries, art galleries, pensioner housing, community concerts, freshly mown grass verges, chemical-free weed control. Banks is not my leader. Wake up Auckland.’

‘I think astute is the perfect word,’ responded Sainty, ‘I was always very influenced by my environment, my emotional state and politics in the broader sense. Also a need to create what was missing: colour, fabrics, shape, a need for simplicity, plus the drive to do something well, never quite achievable! It was often in reaction, too, although to things I no longer remember. Sometimes I would follow trends if they appealed. I was always interested in making wearable clothes that had some strength about them, that were exaggerated in some subtle way.’

She maintains that it was never an objective of her career to set about making political statements. ‘Banks was the last straw. The council thing was born out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness. I hate a lot of what has happened to Auckland, so much so that sometimes I feel I do not want to live here. How did we allow our city to be taken over by thoughtless development? I really admire the people who work so tirelessly for change and are treated so poorly.’

In 2005, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to our fashion industry and has remained a loyalist to New Zealand fashion. ‘I never felt isolated in New Zealand. I travelled and have always enjoyed other creative people. You can do most things from here and many people do.’

Not just any designer could hold their own next to labels such as Dries van Noten, Ann Demeule­meester, Marni, Lanvin, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons, names that designers spend their lives aspiring to. Her role at Scotties meant not only designing, but much time overseas buying for the coming season. ‘Buying in Europe twice a year is really just like shopping. You are limited by what you can afford and think you can sell, but it is mainly enjoyable as things are when you are constantly being presented with something new. Paris and Milan are no hardship.’

Only recently retired, she sees herself as letting life unfold. Recent reading material includes Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. She has her eye on more travelling and still plans to work part time; gathering information for the new Scotties website, but insists modestly that her role at the store is all ‘unpacking boxes and fixing the leaky roof’.

And so, Marilyn Sainty has earned her place as a matriarch of New Zealand fashion. But being so astute and consciously minded, as a designer and individual, it is a good thing that, in retirement, her influence over the industry still continues, however minor. And if fashion is a fickle mistress, keeping her happy over four decades is quite remarkable. The mental exercise, the thrill of the deadlines and the ever-quickening pace are all elements that hook any designer you care to ask. When I asked if she had missed it she replied, ‘I do not feel any withdrawal symptoms. It was time to move on and Beth [Ellery, currently designer-in-residence at Scotties] was there. I could walk out and leave everything, a gift really. Although I love making things, there are a lot of things in the world.’ •


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From top: From Marilyn Sainty’s scrapbook: a summer 1971–2 sketch. Winter 1971 magazine clipping. An autumn–winter 2007 design from Beth Ellery, who has taken on design duties.



Not just any designer could hold their own next to labels such as Dries van Noten, Ann Demeule­meester, Marni, Lanvin, Issey Miyake and Comme des Garçons, names that designers spend their lives aspiring to

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