AOTEAORA NEW ZEALAND
Designer Kiri Nathan. IMAGE: Lyle Adams.
Contemporary Maori fashion designer, weaver, artist
Delivering Māori fashion and art with cultural and business excellence
The Kiri Nathan label produces bespoke fashion, Pounamu jewellery and contemporary hand woven Kākahu (garments). Inspired by Aotearoa New Zealand & Te Ao Māori, the company is built on tradition, culture, unique designs, integrity and a clear company vision.
The current portrayal of sustainability, especially from a fashion perspective, has a very narrow focus. In fashion it’s most often focussed on materials, labour rights and other ad hoc initiatives such as craft, waste and carbon. However sustainability is an all encompassing concept that considers the interconnectedness of living systems; systems such our planet and humanity. For these systems to not only support life, but to thrive, they need to be respected, and to exist in balance and harmony with each other.
This holistic view of sustainability as a way of living, is a fundamental philosophy of Maori culture, and integral to the values of the Kiri Nathan brand.
Kiri Nathan is co-founder of this self named fashion brand. Inspired by Aotearoa New Zealand & Te Ao Māori, the company is built on tradition, culture, unique designs, integrity and a clear company vision. Its mission is to deliver Māori fashion and art with cultural and business excellence.
The label encompasses hand woven and designer pieces designed by Kiri Nathan, and ponaumu created by Kiri’s partner and husband Jason. The label's pieces have been worn by iconic figures such as Barack Obama, The Duchess of Sussex, Beyonce, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Celebrating ten years in business in 2020, Kiri Nathan has carved out a market both within New Zealand and on the world stage. Through determination and hard work, Kiri has always stayed true to her cultural integrity and values of living an authentic life. Kiri Nathan pieces are hand made in New Zealand and use contemporary materials and traditional techniques to create its unique pieces.
IMAGE: KIRI NATHAN
Kiri reflects that the history of the label and it’s products were the reason why it wasn’t accepted into the fashion arena in the first place, but those same products are the reason they have been given many incredible opportunities. Regardless of who the customer is, it's important that when anyone purchases a Kiri Nathan piece, they connect with it in an authentic way, so telling the story of the brand and its values and cultural heritage is key.
When starting the label, Kiri wanted to create something different that she hadn't seen before while still drawing on what she had experience of. She also wanted to create something that stood apart from the existing visual offering of Māori design in the market. Kiri and Jason made a conscious decision to position themselves in the high end price bracket for this reason.
Building a brand that was doing things differently, and then creating a market for it, was challenging. In the past there has been no space for Māori design, nothing in the legitimate world of business in New Zealand for indigenous fashion. The fashion industry is also a notoriously closed industry. It has operated with an old school mentality of not sharing and not supporting for years, so to move into this ecosystem presenting a different point of view was challenging.
Kiri is frank about facing these challenges, and determined to make it easier for the next generation coming through. To shift this mindset and support Māori and indigenous designers reach the market and maintain their cultural integrity, in recent years Kiri has developed a mentorship program, founded The Kahui Collective and is currently developing an online department store for indigenous designers.
IMAGE: KIRI NATHAN
Kiri’s main inspiration is her children and creating a beautiful life for them. Creatively, for her fashion line, Kiri is inspired by her culture, it’s history and the Māori way of looking at the world. Texture and form are also inspirations, whether through pattern drafting or handweaving to create things never seen before.
However Kiri is a realist, and recognises that the label needs to ensure its work remains viable. Over the last ten years the label has learned that certain commercial lines need to be included while still coming from the same inspiration source as everything else. To keep her creativity alive and be completely hands on, Kiri has also been working on an art project for the last 10 years.
The values of sustainability are an intrinsic part of the Kiri Nathan brand, built on a foundation of Te Ao Māori, the Māori worldview, running deeper than the surface consideration that much of the industry is renowned for. The values of the brand come down to the values of Kiri, and her husband and partner Jason, the values of their culture, and their whanau (family). Kiri says,
“Our first measure, or priority, is our kids. The second is, are we conducting ourselves with cultural integrity. Everything else follows from that."
"If we can look the kids in the eye and feel like we are proud of our decisions, are good people and conduct ourselves in life and business with integrity, this is our measure.”
Kiri sees a direct correlation between indigenous practices and sustainable practices, and talking authentically about what you are doing, with a very clear and true narrative. This ethos is about doing the right thing in a holistic way, and recognising that everything is interconnected. “We can’t be talking about using sustainable cotton when there are no fashion designers left. When the system is that dire and that fragile, the focus needs to be on the sustainability of the people,” says Kiri.
It’s important for the brand to look at not only surviving from a business perspective, but also looking after Hauora (wellbeing). Kiri believes no-one yet knows how to process the stress of the modern world in a healthy way. “For Māori, we have tools that we can draw on from the last 100 + years, but we are not utilising them, the busyness of life has taken over.”
The sustainability of the small-scale manufacturing industry in New Zealand is an area Kiri is committed to support. There was once a thriving local industry, but in the last two decades it has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. A lot of work needs to be done to revive the industry in New Zealand and generate meaningful skilled jobs, an area which Kiri is working to address in multiple ways to ensure designers can continue to make in New Zealand in a viable way.
Creating long term sustainability through collaboration - The Kahui Collective
Recognising the challenges that young Māori fashion designers face in getting their product to market and running a commercially viable business that stays true to cultural values, Kiri founded the Kahui Collective in 2017. The collective is a community where networks, connections and knowledge are shared. In 2017 Kiri took five Māori creatives to China to introduce and support them into trade within the largest fabric markets in the world. In 2019 she took 15 Māori to China with the added “into market” focus, facilitating high level meetings with market buyers and distributors.
She formed this initiative to support the first community of Māori fashion designers that genuinely tautoko (support) each other’s growth and success. With Kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and Manaakitanga (Caring for others) at the fore, it lives as an example of how fellow creatives can thrive in collaborative spaces, whilst still maintaining their individual voices. Voices that have greater impact and focused intention in numbers, in a tribe. In early 2020, the Kahui Collective launched a popup retail location in the heart of downtown Auckland to great success.
Kiri also leads the first Māori Fashion Coalition with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. With the world so connected, the market for New Zealand indigenous design has huge potential to grow. For Kiri, finding like minded designers, and bringing them together to collaborate with a collective approach to market was an obvious solution.
KIRI NATHAN AT THE KAHUI COLLECTIVE POPUP IN BRITOMART, AUCKLAND, 2020.
Mentoring the next generation
Kiri has spent the last 12 months building a mentorship program to support emerging indigenous designers to commercialise and grow without losing their cultural integrity. The mentorship is based on an ecosystem that Kiri has mapped out to ensure the designers are producing the best that they can from a creative and a business perspective, while prioritising the values of kindness, respect and wellbeing. It's about being smarter about the way things are done, which has a flow on effect on the designer, the industry and the community.
Cultural integrity is a key part of the mentorship program, and Kiri pulls in specialists within New Zealand around Māori intellectual property and tikanga (customs, protocol). The mentorship program is about ensuring respect for culture, and making sure designers are not tokenistic or appropriating. Anything that is inspired by te ao Māori has to adhere to tikanga. Many indigenous designers draw from their culture, so through the mentorship program designers are questioned on this, and challenged to respond honestly. Questions such as where did you source the pattern from, do you know its roots, its origin, do you know the tikanga, the protocol around this? It provides an educational element to designers and encourages them to consistently question the authenticity and the cultural integrity of their work.
New Zealand is a sprawling, sparsely populated island, with many remote areas. While many Māori have moved to urban areas over the last 40 years, many still live on or have returned to iwi land in the regions. For many Māori creatives, inspiration comes from their culture. Moving to an urban centre would remove them from their communities and the lives they are drawing inspiration from. At the same time, the vast majority of the clothing industry is in urban areas such as Auckland, meaning designers based in the regions don’t have easy access to industry. The need to support regional creatives became very apparent.
Kiri identified technology as a key avenue and believes that how we utilise technology can make positive change and build community through story telling, while at the same time making sure not to tokenise them.
“Once makers are connected to the market, that’s money in their pocket and food on the table, and things start to change within a whanau environment, and a community environment,” says Kiri.
Taking Indigenous design to the world
In 2017 Kiri was awarded a leadership award through the United States State department for Women in Entrepreneurship, along with 38 other women from countries around the world. These women, many of whom were indigenous, were also running successful businesses. Kiri learnt that many either knew of, or were working with, indigenous designers within their countries, and she soon realised the issues these women faced were the same ones NZ indigenous designers were facing, no-one genuinely knew their story and no one could connect them directly to a market.
Pulling these strands together cemented Kiri’s vision to create a platform for indigenous designers that would be not only a store, but an educational piece and a connector. The online department store is currently being built, and is specifically designed to answer the question, ‘How can we make this work for remote designers so they benefit?’ The designers will tell the story of their brand, what it stands for, and the role their culture plays within it. What's important to Kiri is that the site shows a direct correlation between their practices and sustainability. It’s about quality, cultural integrity and will only speak the truth. It will also put money directly into the bank accounts of the designers.
The main driver for Kiri is recognising that indigenous designers and creatives have the same issues around the world. The challenges we have in New Zealand, are also in Africa, Egypt, South America. Kiri is creating a pathway to bring indigenous designers together and provide support, to help them take their product to market in order to meet the desire for conscious consumerism.
The Kiri Nathan label will always be a small bespoke business because of the nature of its design and its market position. The department store vision and the mentorship program are what Kiri is now focussed on, as they can not only do so much good for indigenous people, but will also generate revenue that can be put towards doing good for many others. Now it’s a matter of building and delivering it and ensuring the integrity is maintained as it grows. This is a huge and far reaching global goal, however Kiri and Jason have been building the foundations for the last four years and are now excited to see it coming to fruition.
Advice for emerging designers
Kiri’s advice to designers carving out a niche for themselves is to be authentic, step into your power, take people with you, and look at the big picture.
Kiri is a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her contribution to Māori and the fashion industry. She has been honored with a Sir Peter Blake leadership award and is the winner of the 2019 MWDI Māori business woman of the year.
Kiri sits on the board of the 'I have a dream' charitable trust, supporting the education and wellbeing of over 1500 decile one children, she also sits on the advisory board for Super Diverse Women and is a founding member of the Wāhine Toa initiative that identifies and mentors leadership in young Maori Women.
Kiri Nathan has worked hard to carve out a niche for her business, while always maintaining a strong focus on cultural integrity and her personal values. It is these two factors combined that have given the brand an incredibly strong foundation that is highly-regarded, in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as around the globe, as a leader in indigenous creative business. While recognising that in order to survive as a business and support the next generation coming through requires financial success, this has never been the driving force for the brand. Success for Kiri is staying true to her cultural and family values, and in bringing others with her.
Nga Mihi Nui Kiri, thank you for sharing your story with us.