Fashion house Zambesi is rightly considered an iconic New Zealand label. Elisabeth Findlay's designs contain an enormous and continual capacity to surprise and to achieve a level of emotional resonance that is rare in contemporary fashion.
The art of fashion
Elisabeth is one of a handful of New Zealand fashion designers who create not only something pretty for their customers to wear but real art of a sort. From the time Elisabeth and her husband Neville founded the business in 1979, she’s been fine tuning her carefully assembled fabric "artworks".
And while at times Zambesi's seasonal collections may lean in one or another direction, there's no way that one day she's doing princesses and the next she’s channeling a rock 'n' roll aesthetic. Findlay only ever does her own thing - and it has stood the test of time. Considering that approach has been gaining Zambesi devotees for more than three decades, perhaps it's no surprise that Auckland Museum decided the label was worthy of an exhibition in 2005.
Curated by Peter Shand, Zambesi: edge of darkness had three distinctive themes - creative objects, creative practice and creative women.
Although it was a retrospective show, Shand didn't display the clothes in chronological order. "We tried to pull out that sense of connection of remembrance and associations that we all get with clothes."
"It could have potentially stopped at the I-remember-when stage, but to make a show with dimension and depth, the garments have to be carriers of the idea of emotion, rather than specific ideas of emotion," says Shand.
"Liz's whole approach is like an object lesson in creative practice," Shand says. "It’s dynamic, there are so many dimensions to what she’s doing and thinking and they’re all present in the process of design and all at play in her work. She tends not to serve a sense of season or fashion gimmickery. It's like she's taking people on a longer, slower journey than that."
An eclectic approach
Reminiscing, it seems as though Findlay's style and her signature aesthetic has always been there. "Looking back now [a career in fashion] seems inevitable," Elisabeth has said. "My Mum had a passion for clothes and taught us all to sew."
She and her sisters used to make their own clothes and Elisabeth, who never had any formal training in fashion design, was always into mixing things up. "I've always worn a bit of op shop with something new with a bit of designer. That’s the way it's always worked. I was a huge shopper, loved the markets and was always buying things."
That eclectic approach is still true of Elisabeth's work today. Her work is definitely not trend-based and you could say her design flows; she has a tendency to mix shapes and fabrics up, then take things, while not quite in the opposite direction, certainly in an unforeseen one.
A little bit underground
But to be honest, when Zambesi first started up, not that many people got it. In the 1980s, fashion opinions were provided by conservative fashion editors, advocates of pink and grey, pearls and turned up collars. Zambesi was so different for its time. "People would say: I really like what you do - but you just do black, don't you?"
"We've always liked the idea that Zambesi was a little bit underground," Elisabeth explains, "that people would discover us and that the clothes would speak for themselves."
In fact, those "darkly intellectual" looks touted by a bunch of "beautiful goths" as the label's look was once described, were probably only discovered by the rest of the world in 1997 when New Zealand labels were first invited to show at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney.
Findlay still recalls this proudly, "I always remember the first big show we did in Sydney. Anna Piaggi [fashion editor of Italian Vogue at the time] told me she loved the way we styled the show. That was so amazing. I guess if you respect someone’s opinion and they say something that affirms what you’re doing, you really feel good about it."
Since then Zambesi have shown their clothes further afield, including several outings at London Fashion Week, and had equally enthusiastic reactions. The results have seen them operating their own boutiques throughout New Zealand and Australia as well as selling their clothes in some of the most exclusive boutiques in Europe and America to some of the biggest celebrities out there.
A family business
However, as any journalist who's ever interviewed the Findlays knows, they don’t like to talk about their coups or celebrity clients too much. Instead they prefer to praise their long serving staff, their loyal customers and anyone included in what, in the tradition of Elisabeth's Greek ancestors, seems like an extended Zambesi family, albeit one that’s particularly beautifully dressed.
That sort of loyalty would seem to be the secret of Zambesi's success. As individuals and as a business, they have graciously remained true - to themselves, to their New Zealand-ness, their vision of how to design, how to run a business and how to live.
Cite this article
Zambesi: Edge of darkness. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 August 2015. Updated: 3 March 2016.