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Bruce Papas: Advocate of elegance

Forty years before the establishment of New Zealand Fashion Week, 'fashion promotion' meant parades and competitions. In 1961, Aucklander Bruce Papas won the era's top fashion design competition - the inaugural Golden Shears. 

Bruce Papas with his sister Dawn on her wedding day. Dawn is wearing a bridal gown designed by Bruce Papas.

© All rights reserved.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-1999-2-4.

Head designer

Papas' entry for the competition, a gown titled 'Golden Peacock', was designed during his time as head designer at Queen Street's exclusive department store, Milne & Choyce. During the 10 years he spent with the store, he produced two haute couture and two ready-to-wear collections every year. To coincide with the seasonal fashion parades, Milne & Choyce displayed the Papas collections in their windows. These became a "must-see" for the general public, which on several occasions resulted in Queen Street being closed to traffic as people blocked the road to see the displays.

New Zealand's own Balenciaga

During his career, Papas designed a number of winning outfits for New Zealand Wool Board promotions and the Melbourne Cup, the gown worn by Queen Salote of Tonga at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an entire wardrobe for a Hungarian countess, and wedding, evening and couture daywear garments for Australasia's socially active and fashion conscious women.

The 'Golden Peacock' gown was bought by a Belgian concert pianist. Papas recalled that it had only been on display in the window at Milne & Choyce for 20 minutes before being snapped up.

Fashion commentators of the day regarded him as "New Zealand's own Balenciaga".

First fashion apprentice

When he was 15 years old, Papas began working for Flora MacKenzie, an established designer of that time, as the first indentured apprentice in the fashion trade in New Zealand.

During his time at MacKenzie's boutique, Ninette Gowns, Papas studied pattern making, embroidery design, fabric draping and bespoke tailoring. MacKenzie was once quoted as saying she had not taught him anything, as was his natural talent. He was with MacKenzie for five years before starting his own salon, based in two rooms at his mother's house.

In the early 1950s, Papas was offered a position with the House of Schiaparelli in Paris. But his dream of working in a French fashion house was interrupted by his call up for National Service.

When Bruce Papas completed his apprenticeship with Flora Mackenzie, he set up his own salon, Staevros Gowns. He continued to design gowns and evening dresses for a small number of clients, including his sister Jessie (right).

© All rights reserved.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PD-1999-2-239, 1999.2 and PH-1999-2-22.

Simplicity with a difference

Papas' theory for designing clothes is simple: a woman should look beautiful at all times. "I advocate simplicity with a difference. Full emphasis is placed on the fabric, line, shape and cut," he said. "Clothes should never be ugly, but should make the wearer look and feel elegant."

In 1965, Papas left Milne & Choyce to once again establish his own salon. Located on Queen Street, it quickly became a success. 

Papas' "simplicity with a difference" can be seen in these sketches from 1987.

© All rights reserved.Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1999.2, PD-1999-2-34.

"Bruce was noted for his innovative treatment of difficult fabrics such as leather, Guipure lace, chiffon, vicuna and cashmere," said fashion historian Angela Lassig. "He also played a role in encouraging some of New Zealand's best craftspeople into the fashion world. Weavers, potters, woodworkers, silk screeners, milliners and furriers all worked specifically to his requirements."

Papas says this involvement led to his being asked to present a paper on "Handcraft in Fashion" to the University of Auckland summer school.

His minimalist sketches seen in his newspaper advertising were considered a first for New Zealand. The new style excited comment and set a standard which was to become much copied.

Papas retired from the fashion world in the early 1980s.

Further reading

Dix, Kelly (2014). Bruce Papas. New Zealand Fashion Museum.


Cite this article

Auckland Museum. Bruce Papas: Advocate of elegance. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 5 January 2016. Updated: 8 January 2016.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/collections-research/collections/topics/bruce-papas-advocate-of-elegance

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