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fashion: feature

Nom D's Margi Robertson: a force to be reckoned withNom D's Margi Robertson: a force to be reckoned with

Probably one of the most in-depth Q&As ever with Nom*D’s Margi Robertson. Questions by Sam Mitchell
photographed by Douglas Rimington

From issue 25 of Lucire


In my first year at design school in our pattern-making room there was an image cut from a magazine of you and your sister Elisabeth with the word God underneath in huge bold writing. I looked at that every day, and wholeheartedly agreed. As a woman of foreign background, functioning out of a relatively small city, how does it feel to have become such an icon for others in the industry?
Thatís so funny because on the other side of the magazine was the word mothers, which was how we were described in the industry. Not exactly "iconic", but a title that that denoted respect which was quite humbling. For me it was incredibly rewarding, too. For Chris and me, we have always loved living in Dunedin and the temptation to move to Auckland to further enhance our label in the market was never an option. There is no other city in New Zealand that can boast the history of Dunedin, its importance in early New Zealand, and its underground feel, itís very free of pressures and influences that can often prove to be very superficial in other cities in New Zealand.


How did Nom*D begin and grow, and at what point in your career did you realize that youíd become a force to be reckoned with within New Zealand fashion?
We fell into designing and manufacturing by accident. We started retailing in an environment that didnít really have the presence of specialized boutiques, so we had quite a small shop with labels that pretty much came from Auckland, but did not fall in the “mass-produced” category. One particular knitwear label that we stocked for a couple of years decided to make the move from “boutique” to a little more mainstream. As Liz, my sister from Zambesi had started doing her own label, we thought knitwear would be a great complement to Zambesi in our stores; we had Roslyn Knitting Mills over the hill, and a well established knitting manufacturing plant in Kaikorai Valley. It seemed perfect for us, and we wouldnít have to leave town!
   However, unfortunately, the mill closed down and the knitters didnít really appreciate the Nom*D style or philosophy so we did start having the garments made outside of Dunedin. We were fortunate that via our already established retail store, we had lots of contact with other retailers throughout New Zealand, so we pretty much started out wholesaling immediately both in New Zealand and Australia. I donít know whether we were a Ďforce to be reckoned withí but we had a nice business creating and producing garments that seemed to attract quite discerning fashionistas. We have been wholesaling and retailing our garments since then with the encouragement of great feedback from both the industry and consumers.


As anyone in the industry knows, you come from an incredibly talented family, so is there anything in particular about your childhood or growing up that inspired you to become a designer?
It would have to be the encouragement from our mother who was a machinist from her youth. She always worked in the industry here in Dunedin, from Menswear Suitmakers, to Sew Hoys and Hallensteinís. The sewing machine did not really ever get put awayóin fact it was often in the loungeóso you could watch TV at the same time as making up your “Saturday night” outfit. Mum encouraged us to customize patterns so the creativity would have started there, and never stopped really.
   We always had lots of fashion magazines around, mostly ones with patterns though, like Burda (German) or Dressmaking (Japanese): they always had patterns you could trace out. And knitting patterns, too, and she always had a huge chest of fabric ends, mostly bought from Penroses, who constantly had “remnants” on offer. They were often left-over fabric from manufacturers so nice handle and quality also became important.
   So I guess we always had an appreciation of nice clothes, good fabric, and an awareness of fashion via the magazines that Mum bought. We were a large family so if by any chance there was a “store-bought” purchase for any of us it was a big deal. Mum usually frequented sales, but we got the most amazing stuff. My most vivid memory was a collarless coat, with big box pleats from the hip and a removable scarf that had pom-poms on the ends. It was red, and I canít remember whether it was my older or younger sister that also had one. We often had matching outfits, even with the garments Mum made; our style became more individual when we could make our own choices and pay for our own clothes.


Does having the the creative family network and peer support as a result of it that you do contribute to how you work and the outcome of your designs?
I cannot deny that having my sister Liz at Zambesi in Auckland is one very handy connection. We are each otherís best wholesale customers and in the early days when we just made knitwear we did collaborate on colours, etc. I did travel with Liz when she chose fabrics from Japan so I had a pretty good idea of where things were going and we worked together a lot. Once we decided to include woven garments in the Nom*D collection however, we tended to keep things pretty close to our chests; often, we do like the same things so we didnít want to be influenced or put off by what Zambesi were producing. Since those days, we have remained quite separate in our creative spaces, and working on our own has really pushed Nom*D forward as a stand-alone brand. A lot of talk about us flying on the coattails of Zambesi has definitely been dispelled. We feel very proud of what we have achieved.
   My other siblings are all really talented, although none work in the fashion industry. My younger sister Vera did work for both ourselves and Liz in retail, but has never been part of the design team. She does, however, have her own interior design business, which is quite unique in its style. Another sister works in finance in London and my brother has his own IT business. Both of them work as hard as any of us, and have achieved great success in their chosen careers, but totally outside of fashion!


Were you faced with any difficulties when founding yourself as a designer, such as sexism, racial prejudice, lack of educational availability or industry opinion?
I feel quite humbled that we have got so far, without any formal training in fashion design. I donít even think there was a tertiary institution then that worked with fashion design. University would have offered home science, I imagine, which then would have offshoots into textile fabrication. In my youth, to learn about the fashion industry you probably would have become an apprentice, either in pattern-making or cutting or the like!
   My only real difficulty in the industry in the early days was the lack of appreciation for Dunedin as a city. Even now, itís difficult with the media all in Auckland, so availability of samples, etc. for styling can be a mission.


If you were able to do everything, from your first inkling to become a designer, to the collection you showed at Air New Zealand Fashion Week, over from scratch, would you change anything, and why or why not?
No, I really feel quite happy with where we are. There wasnít a pre-determined plan in our early days regarding our growth. We just sort of evolved.


What is the biggest hiccup that has ever happened in the weeks leading up to a big show?
This year, one of our design assistants, who also is so deft at making patterns slipped on the black ice and broke her arm in July, just at the start of designing the winter collection. Thatís been really scary, but we have made it through with the help of various people in Dunedin. There are always the usual hiccups of manufacturers being late with samples, but I think thatís just the way it goes, rather than the unexpected!


What are the differences between how things happened for you in terms of media and shows when you were first starting out, to how they happen now?
Everybody in the industry, including media, are getting so much better at what they do, we all learn each year about how to do things better and try and establish just what the media want. Unfortunately, latterly it seems to be about celebrities or the anti-Fashion Week stories, which is so sad. There has been so much hard work to make this event significant in New Zealand, and I hate to see the bad vibes sent by people who really should know better. The pressure to create a “show” is how you learn to express the feeling about your collection, itís something that would have made a label like us grow faster had this avenue been open to us earlier!


How do you feel that your position has personally changed within the industry from being a new designer, to a national fashion icon?
Iím definitely not a new designer, so I guess we do fall into the iconic label. We have been going for 21 years now; itís quite exciting and scary that we are still going so well. Itís about having a fantastic team to work with, lots of collaborations, no egos to worry about, etc. We have never looked back after showing in London in 1999ówe got such great orders from the northern hemisphere it gave us the motivation to broaden what we do.


What are your three best pieces of advice about fashion?
Stay true to what you love. Be yourself in all situations. Be honest.


Who would you note as your personal design influences and why?
The Belgians and the Japanese have influenced me more than any other international designers. The simplicity and the attention to detail impresses me always, from the late í80s when we were first exposed till nowónever disappointed.


Can you remember the worst outfit youíve ever worn and what was it?
A hoop skirt on an aeroplane when I was going to Japan, so stupid, before airbridges and stuff. The wind from the propellers as I walked onto the tarmac! Such a fashion nightmareóand too late to get changed!


As a major player at Air New Zealand Fashion Week, how do you feel the event benefits the fashion community, and if you could change anything what would it be?
The whole of New Zealand is so interested in what is happening at Fashion Week, not only people in the industry but also people on the street. New Zealanders are so proud of New Zealanders doing well. Which in turn makes them try new ideas, try some new styles of clothes, and extend lots of boundaries.


Whatís your favourite piece from the winter collection?
Big blanket coat with lots of detachments! ē



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