The man behind the scissors

By Sarah Lang
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #36. Subscribe to get the real thing here.

Hank Cubitt, the Senior Costumier for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, has been flat out working on the 170 costumes needed for The Sleeping Beauty which has just opened in Wellington.

Sarah Lang interviewed him four years ago, when the St James was still open and The Dump Shop was called “Second Treasures”

This story was first published in November 2016.

Hank’s spanx. That’s what Hank Cubitt calls the cotton undies he sews for himself. He also makes nearly all his own outerwear. But he’s sacrificed his sewing room to make room for son Juno, 8 months, who joins daughter Milly, 5, and their mother Rachael Ouwerkerk at home in Ngaio. “I’ve gone all suburban. Me!” Apart from the occasional embellishment of baby vomit, Cubitt is impeccably dressed while out and about. His black-rimmed glasses, tween waistcoat, single stud earring and liberally applied hair gel give him a distinctive look. He calls it “snappy casual.” 

You might remember him as the proprietor of his Willis Street shop, House of Hank: Innovative Menswear (1999-2006, RIP) with its window displays of immaculately styled and sometimes outrageous outfits. “I loved meeting the capital’s different characters.” He spent three years running Wellington Hatters on Woodward Street, then joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s wardrobe department as assistant costumier, in charge of the menswear.

“It’s a great challenge,” he says, evoking past eras with wildly various styles and fabrics, as per the costume designers drawings. It’s about upkeep too. “The costumes get a flogging.” Very delicate materials can’t be washed after every performance, so he wields a spray bottle filled with vodka. “It gets rid of the perspiration smell. I stole the idea from a touring Russian ballet. Initially I thought they were drinking it.” 

Cubitt has lived in Wellington nearly all his life. He travelled with the ballet as touring wardrobe manager and is now Senior Costumier. “China was my favourite for its size, gradure, and the sheer pace of change. We take our sewing machines, dryers, everything .We’re a travelling circus.”

Having made the outfits for 2015’s acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the costumiers are refitting them to different dancers for four reprise performances this month. Cubitt watches rehearsals to get a feel for each show. “They’re incredible endurance athletes.”

Working from the ballet’s HQ on Courtney Place, he gets his flat white with two sugars downstairs at Mojo St James, and often has lunch at Satay Village on Ghuznee Street, watching the world go by. “I’m a people-watcher.” He indulges this hobby at the Newtown fruit-and-vege market on Saturdays. “It has cheaper, fresher produce, and more diverse people than other markets. We eat rotis and watch people haggling over 50 cents for bok choy.” Cubitt also grows vegetables, flowers, and a prized collection of potted bonsai. He recently picked up 10 plant pots for 50c at what he calls The Dump Shop – the second treasures recycling shop at the southern Landfill. “They have anything you need for next to nothing.”

On the weekend, the family gets outside whenever it’s sunny, sometimes getting fish and hand-cut chips at Seaview Takeaways in Lyall Bay. “You can’t beat the waterfront now that summer’s nearly here.” Closer to home, he often heads to Johnsonville’s Twiglands Garden Centre and its cafe, Herbs. “Ah, coffee and plants. You can’t beat that combo.”

The Royal New Zealand Ballet performs The Sleeping Beauty at the Opera House, 29 October – 7 November 2020. 


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