Why hanging on to clothes is always in style

By Sasha Borissenko
Photography by Bex McGill

Featured in Capital #85.
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While we can be kinder to the environment by op-shopping or buying from slow-fashion brands, the most sustainable fashion choice is to make use of what we already have.

Five Wellington fashionistas spoke to Sasha Borrissenko about a favourite “old piece” from their wardrobe.

The Marilyn Sainty jacket

Wellington born and bred Sue Elliott likes classic fashion items with a modern twist, which explains why she’s happy to wear clothes that date back to the Boer War, she laughs.

There’s a joke among Sue’s colleagues that when she’s asked about the origin of her clothes, she’ll always say “I got it decades ago”.

Whether it’s scarves from her mother, aunts, or grandfather, or her grandmother’s ball dress, it’s the quality and timeless character of the clothing that excites her. The oldest item in her wardrobe came from her grandmother: a lavender ball dress, with thin straps and beautiful bead-work on the bodice, and a long-sleeved waist-length jacket in matching fabric and beading. “Not a lot of call for ball dresses, but I did wear it aeons ago at a university ball.”

She loves the fact her daughter and even her son borrow her clothes. But at six foot two, Sue’s son’s scope for borrowing is realistically limited.

Sue wears a multi-purpose jacket by Marilyn Sainty, who collaborated with photographer Deborah Smith to produce the dolls’ house image on the back. The woollen jacket has a men’s-suit quality to it, she says, and it’s very easy to wear.

She likes things that will go anywhere: “I tend to select things that can be worn casually over jeans, or for smarter occasions with a few accessories.” The strategic communications specialist has had the jacket for 25 years. Sue started her career as a press secretary at Parliament, then founded one of Wellington’s first government relations companies with three other women. She and a partner sold the company after 19 years. She established a communications consultancy, Communications Chambers, in 2005, and now also works as a senior advisor for Massey University’s College of Creative Arts.

“I always say I am channelling my mother when I wear her coats”; Sue says a Jaegar camelhair coat her mother bought while living in England in about 1947 is “beautiful and perfect for Wellington weather.” It still looks brand new, and the only thing she has done to it is to replace the lining with one in a burnt orange, “my go-to accent colour.” She also has a mohair coat, “probably only about 45 years old”, from her mother with a large check pattern in coral tones. “On the coat theme I do have a great herring-bone coat of my grandfather’s – too big, but as I love linings I just roll up the sleeves and show off the beautiful Edwardian stripes.”

“I’m not a big shopper,” says Sue. “There are items in my wardrobe that I’ve collected over the years that I love but they’re not fashionable per se. I go with what I like.” She says that what interests her is the person wearing the clothes and the way they can reflect their personality.

She once heard about a memorably-titled recipe in the Ward Women’s Federated Farmers cookbook. “How to Smarten Up Old Chops certainly didn’t sound appetising, but as a fashion mantra, not bad, and my colleagues and I used it a lot. I love scarves, jewellery, shoes and lipstick. Although on the latter if you haven’t seen me before 9.30am, you have probably missed it.”

Sue says all her clothes are “very adaptable, to be worn casually or smartened up with a good jacket or accessories for more formal affairs”. A bonus of sticking with classic clothes and simple lines, she says, is that they are invariably comfortable.

The famous gown

Amanduh La, the founder and creative director of the Wellington International Pride Parade, started performing in drag in 2004.

When a performer twisted their ankle preparing for a performance at Parliament, Amanduh drew on her background in choreography, put on a pair of heels, and literally stepped in.

It was such a success that a friend suggested she enter the Mr Wellington drag performance competition. She was hesitant, but the cash prize piqued her interest.

Third place was announced, then second then first. She didn’t realise she had won until she noticed people staring at her; she had forgotten her newly minted drag name.

Amanduh entered New Zealand and Australian national competitions the following year with success, then travelled to compete further afield. She felt it a privilege to represent the LGBTQI+ community in this way, she says. In 2007, she moved from weekend drag gigs to performing as a full-time occupation..

She thought it would be lucrative. “My original maths told me that in a year I’d be eating squid, caviar, shellfish, and margaritas on the island of Mykonos. But in reality I was lucky if I could afford a four-pack of noodles and a coke.” But she wouldn’t do anything differently.

In 2017 she initiated the Wellington International Pride Parade, baffled that there had been nothing like it in 23 years. The first year attracted 9,000 participants. There were 50,000 in 2020.

For the first time in New Zealand’s history the governor-general spoke at the opening ceremony. And in a world first the Army, Air Force, Navy, Police, and Corrections officers marched together in solidarity.

Performing drag has allowed her to meet remarkable people, some of whom she now considers her family. She recalls first meeting Georgina Beyer:

“I was taken aback by her sophistication. Listening to her speak, she was so fluent and commanding.” Despite Georgina’s public career and accomplishments, she never forgot who she was or her sisters on the street, Amanduh says. They developed a close bond, and Georgina gifted her the blue dress she wore for her final performance on Dancing with the Stars. Amanduh was baffled, then devastated to learn that Georgina was dying. “She told me to remember her and to remember her stories, so I chose that blue dress for this article.”

“It’s these people in the LGBTQI+ community that worked and advocated for our people in the shadows so that I can walk in the sun. There was no fanfare; there was a quiet sense of dignity that mustn’t be forgotten.”

Amanduh takes pride in helping to change the general population’s understanding of what it means to be a drag queen, and to create a platform for diversity and individuality.

Once upon a time people thought drag was exclusively reserved for Priscilla Queen of the Desert-types, she says. But now, in 2022, Amanduh performed in front of 48,000 people at an All Blacks’ rugby test game against Ireland. It was the first time that a New Zealand representative rugby event incorporated an LGBTQI+ element.

“I was a little bit nervous about the reception but it was unbelievable. There was a sense of unity and harmony that I did not expect. I was so filled with emotion. I could have never imagined this level of support for the LGBTQI+ community 10 years ago.”

Fashion is at the heart of her performance and her philosophy. “Fashion to me is everything. It shouldn’t be followed, it should be unique. You should be able to wear or be anything you want, whenever you want.”

She says fashion should be about who you are on the inside. “It’s a way of expressing your identity, personality, and what you’re feeling. I think fashion has the ability to change the conceptual design of people and how they function in the world.”

The timeless Zambesi

Cheryll Goodley’s love of fashion comes from her mother.

“My mother was always very fashionable and well-presented. When my sister and I were children, she’d always make us really lovely dresses.”

Cheryll’s mother drafted her own patterns, and dressed her daughters in crocheted jerseys and flared trousers patterned with daisies, well ahead of popular trends.

As teenagers they wondered why they didn’t look like everybody else. But it was a good thing – “It subconsciously gave us the freedom to be different.”

Her mother’s influence combined with living in Wellington and Dunedin inform her personal style. Her cupboard is filled with pieces mostly in black and white, with statement jewellery and pops of colour to lift an outfit, she says. She wears clothes she’s comfortable in, which “don’t scream an era.”

Her chosen piece is a Zambesi jacket she purchased in 2014. It’s suitable for any occasion, but a little sparkle adds something special, she says.

“It’s a really good jacket. The tail at the back gives it volume and structure. It’s amazing and timeless. I love that Zambesi produces quality.” She feels comfortable in their clothes and likes to buy “pieces that are intended to last.”

The jacket is reflective, she says, of her style philosophy of buying fewer items of better quality. “I’m not interested in buying in bulk or buying one item in many different colours. I have a very sustainable ethos.”

When she travels overseas she doesn’t buy a lot – “the odd pair of boots if the budget permits” – and is a huge fan of New Zealand designers, whose wares she says are as good and as varied as those of overseas names.

While she loves the likes of Comme des Garçons, it’s on the pricier side, and she generally prefers local designers such as Zambesi, Jimmy D, Leila Jacobs, and Company of Strangers.

Cheryll’s had the jacket for eight years and wears it regularly. People admire the jacket without realising the year it was made, she says.

Cheryll’s love of design and quality has been constant. For many years she has been a regular attendee at Dunedin Fashion Week, often along with her sister and mother. It has also proved financially advantageous. For more than 20 years the mother-of-two has championed her business, Landau Group, a printing consultancy where she collaborates regularly with graphic designers and artists.

The handmade party dress

Mele Wendt’s fashion journey also started with her mother and a shared love of sewing. One of three children of palagi and Samoan parents, Mele grew up in Western Samoa when it was hard to buy ready-made clothes.

“My mother was fashionable and liked to look good. My sister and I learned to sew from a very young age and we’d experiment with design. We’d make things out of scraps of material when our parents went out to cocktail parties. We could make little tops, skirts and shorts before I was 10 years old.”

Her sewing is sporadic, she says, periods of sewing a lot alternating with years of doing nothing.

Her chosen piece is a dress she made for her engagement party 29 years ago. She was going through a sewing phase, and made her dress from a bolt of lavalava material she had. Mele altered a blouse pattern to create an off-the-shoulder mu’umu’u dress, with ruffles for dramatic effect.

“I was quite happy with how it turned out and it was an amazing party – we danced the night away and I have such fond memories when I occasionally wear it now. You can dress it up or down and it’s fun and vibrant.”

Over the next few months after that party, Mele and her mum Jenny sewed some of the wedding party’s attire – flower girls’ dresses, page boy and groomsmen’s vests, and bridesmaids’ draw-string purses – with an island theme to reflect Mele and her fiancé Ete’s identity.

Mele tends to hold onto her clothes and make good use of them. If she isn’t using them and they’re in a good condition she gives them away. Her mother cleared out their closets regularly: if you didn’t wear something or it didn’t fit, you should give it away or throw it away.

“It would really force us to wear most of our clothes. We were relatively privileged kids compared to a lot of others in Samoa, and Fiji where we also spent a few years. So we’d pass clothes on to relatives and others. It’s also nice to think those cherished items sewn with love would go to a good home.”

For Mele, wearing clothes that last underpins her fashion philosophy, as does giving them a new life with someone else.

She says she is not into trends. “Fashion isn’t a huge part of my life but I do want to look good. I think people should buy things they look good in.”

Environmental considerations also figure: “I don’t feel comfortable that our landfills are filled with fast-fashion clothes that have only been worn once.”

In Fiji during her teenage years Mele took up modelling for street-style spreads and fashion parades. It was a lot of fun, and when she came to New Zealand for university she continued to dabble in modelling, mostly television advertisements, for the cash.

But in 1986 attitudes towards women in the modelling industry were sexist, Mele says. “Having my feminist hat on I couldn’t stomach it for too long, so I lost interest and stopped. Plus I put on a lot of weight with the New Zealand hostel food!”

After teaching for five years and having children she started working for Victoria University of Wellington where she founded the Pacific liaison officer role, and managed the domestic recruitment office for five years.

A suggestion at a cocktail party led her to apply for the CEO role at the Fulbright Commission. Despite having no doctorate and at just 39, Mele got the gig, and led the charge for 10 years. She is now a board member and consultant to the commission.

She became a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for her services to governance, the Pacific community, and women in 2019. Recently, she won the Not-For-Profit Governance Leader award at the Women in Governance awards.

The 30-year-old cashmere coat

Babette Mclellan grew up in a small town and remembers fondly her 10 years learning classical ballet. It gave her an appreciation of classical music, and teaching beginners provided a foundation for teaching yoga later.

She wanted to get a job, save money, and go travelling – the custom in the ’sixties, she says. Her parents had other ideas, so she completed a secretarial course at the Wellington Polytechnic, which led to a job as a personal assistant at a law firm. At night, she’d work at the Steak Bar on Willis Street and as a nurse aid at Newtown’s Calvary Hospital.

The moment she’d saved enough money, she was on a ship to England. There she felt free to develop her fashion sense.

“I believed in wearing what I loved and my fashion sense grew from that – mistakes were made and it was worth checking in with friends from time to time!” The hippy look of the early ’seventies greatly appealed. Babette still loves long skirts with fitted tops, boots, and velvet.

After four years she returned to New Zealand, where she married and gave birth to two daughters. Besides working with her husband, Babette took up jazz ballet, massage therapy, and modelling – which she still does today. “After my hair went grey, my daughter suggested I try modelling as there was a demand for older models. I would never have done so without her pushing me.”

A memorable modelling experience was a shoot with Capital in 2016 (see Cap #28), she says.

“I had to float on a white swan in Thorndon Pool in one of Wellington’s worst howling winds. I had to be anchored down with ropes as the swan was intent on becoming airborne.”

In her forties and after a marriage breakdown, Babette sought a new beginning and a living as a sports masseuse for the Wellington YMCA. At this time, 30 years ago, she bought her wool/cashmere pink swing coat by Jane Daniels (pictured) on impulse when she started her new job.

In a difficult time, she says she bought this garment as a gift to “honour and encourage” herself. “It is still in perfect condition, apart from re-doing the lining not so long ago.”

She’s taught yoga for the last 20 years. Her yoga and meditation practice took her to India in 2014. “It showed me that stunning colours are bountiful in all aspects of Indian life.”

India informed her sense of fashion. The radiant colours women wore astounded her, she says. And in summer she’s also partial to baggy pants and Indian tops.

Babette’s motto in life? “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet,” she says, quoting Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.


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