It was a long way from post war rural Taranaki to the 'New Look' of Europe's fashion scene but, in 1949, Emma Knuckey left the farm and sailed with her husband to London.
A fashionable hobby
Born in 1913, Knuckey grew up in New Plymouth and showed great interest in fashion and design. Fashion was "in the family" - her grandmother owned a drapery store and her mother was a talented seamstress. After marrying in 1939, Knuckey settled into life as a farmer's wife, continuing to design garments from her home in Waitara.
Knuckey's early illustrations depict glamorous gowns with fantastical names like "Midnight Magic" and "I'll Be There". However, she realised that she needed training in pattern-making if she was to become a designer.
In the mid 1940s she sent sketches of her designs to the Model House Group in London. She received much praise and an invitation to visit. Knuckey accepted the offer and, after enrolling her two children in boarding school, she travelled to England with her husband in February 1949.
A London education
In London, Knuckey was taught the necessary practical skills to translate her designs into pattern form. She studied technical pattern design under Charles Lers and spent her afternoons in the studio of Colin Beck – a fellow designer from Waitara. She visited the salons of many leading designers of the time.
"By just looking and listening she learned a great deal about the world of haute couture. Bit by bit she absorbed not only all the information that came her way, but also the very atmosphere of those exalted places." (NZ Draper and Allied Retailer, 22 June 1959)
Knuckey's London training influenced her design throughout her career, with a strong focus on simplicity of cut and quality of fabrics.
Gowns by Emma Knuckey
On her return to New Zealand, Knuckey and her family settled in Auckland. She opened her first salon, 'Gowns by Emma Knuckey', in Darby Street, off Queen Street. "My opening in 1950 was modelled on what I had seen and attended in London. I opened my business with an exciting fashion show - rows of small chairs, invitations, flowers, soft lights and music."
The workroom was upstairs where there were cutting tables and up to a dozen machinists. Not long after opening, Knuckey formed an business partnership with an employee, Betty Clark.
Quality fabric was extremely important to Knuckey. There was very little fabric manufactured in New Zealand at the time and designers were dependent on imports from overseas. Knuckey imported fine wool crepe and georgette from the House of Tissus Michel in England. She designed sheaths and suit lining with silk from House of Abrahams in Switzerland, and used tweed from Ireland and Scotland.
In Knuckey's own words, the business was "founded on the quality of export materials ... and first class workmanship". She describes her garments as "pure uncluttered design and line which would take the wearer anywhere from morning to dinner at night".
In 1956, crowds of rubber-neckers filled Darby Street, attempting to get a glimpse of Italian model, Lully Mariani, who spent one week modelling Emma Knuckey garments in the salon. "And when they had done with gaping they bought, thus swelling the ranks of the many well dressed women about Auckland" (NZ Draper and Allied Retailer).
At this time, department stores such as Smith & Caugheys and Milne & Choyce supplemented garments made in-house by designers such as Bruce Papas, with wholesale designs. In 1959, Knuckey and Clark closed their Darby Street salon in order to focus on the wholesale side of their business. Their garments were available through 246 (The Strand Arcade) on Queen Street, Phyllis Chapman on Vulcan Lane and the Showrooms of Smith & Caugheys.
A return to retail
In 1971, after a decade's hiatus, Knuckey opened a new retail store not far from the label's first home in Darby Street. "We've done the round circle," Knuckey said in an interview with the Auckland Star (26 November 1970), referring also to the return to 'mannish' designs - "white collars, ties, belts and bursts of pleats".
The 1970s saw the most notable changes in Knuckey's style with the advent of wide legged trousers, hotpants and miniskirts. Her sketchbook from 1969-70 includes sketches for Miss K, a line aimed at the sophisticated younger woman. This line enabled her to grow her client base and the younger collections were shown next to Knuckey's regular designs, in her twice yearly fashion parades.
Emma Knuckey retired in 1974.
Cite this article
Robinson, Philippa and Dix, Kelly.
Emma Knuckey. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 22 February 2016. Updated: 26 February 2016.