Teu le Vā (the Pacific Dimension) and He Korahi Māori (the Māori Dimension) are written into the Museum’s mission. With the help of designer Nichola Te Kiri, the Wardrobe Project has reimagined staff uniforms so now those dimensions will be woven into the very fabric of the clothes our staff wear.

Our Visitor Hosts and Volunteer Guides are the first people you see when you arrive at the Museum – they sell you your tickets, they answer your questions, they take you on tours. And until now, you may not have taken much notice of what they were wearing: a uniform of some description, something that made them recognisable as staff of the Museum, but that’s all. 

The Wardrobe Project has its roots back in 2017 when a Museum working group was established to set about reimagining those garments. A brief was given to artists and designers to pitch for a fabric design that would evoke the Museum’s mission to "connect people through stories of people, land and seas". Ultimately, the goal was to clothe our Visitor Hosts and Volunteer Guides in a design with a story; something that would connect them to the kaupapa of Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum and the taonga it has in its care. 

But also, crucially, it was important that the new wardrobe be something that our people really wanted to wear. Throughout the process, the staff who will be wearing the new garments were consulted about style, cut and fabric, their ‘wants’ and ‘absolutely-do-not-wants’. It would be gender-neutral, too, so staff could choose garments that made them feel good and comfortable without having to navigate outdated, gender-specific fit descriptions. The team worked with Arrow Uniforms in partnership with Fashion Uniforms to devise a range of garments that together form not a uniform but a whole wardrobe, hence the project’s name.

The pattern

No stranger to distilling the stories of diverse whakapapa, Kirikiriroa-based clothing and jewellery designer Nichola Te Kiri draws on her dual Māori and Pākeha heritage to tell stories through worn objects. Nichola was one of a panel of designers and artists who were approached to submit a design for the project, each of whom was presented with a selection of taonga selected by our Human History and Māori and Pacific Development teams: a korowai cloak, a manulua, a piece of tapa cloth and a patikitiki pattern.

The taonga were chosen to represent manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga: protection, knowledge, hospitality and generosity. Nichola began by researching the taonga offered as inspiration: their stories, their makers, and the actual physical structure of each object, searching for the design and structural components that would inform her design.

Nichola returned to the Museum to study the collection objects themselves, the layers, and the different elements. From there she devised the tohu (design) that embodied the kōrero she wanted to have, dominated by birds’ wings (a reference to Rongo) and diamond shapes (embodying protection and shelter). The triangle of the bird wings also point to the three-part natural world paradigm of Te Kore (the void), Te Pō (the darkness), and Te Ao Mārama (the world of light). Just like the objects that inform them, the motifs in the fabric are also layered: when the triangular birds’ wing form is flipped it transfigures the manu (bird) into a maunga (mountain), which in turn references the Museum’s place on Pukekawa, and also the wider Tāmaki region when seen from the Dome atop the Museum, ringed as it is by mountains. 
 

One of Nichola's concept drawings, demonstrating to the working group the interconnectedness of the manu and maunga motifs.

Nichola describes how the colours, too, speak to the objects in the collections inside the Museum as well as the world outside its walls: “The palette of blues, browns and greens all represent the connection to the land, connection to the sky, connection to the sea.” A meeting between Nichola and friend and artist Graham Tipene, whose Ngāti Whatua o Ōrākei whakapapa connects him specifically to Tāmaki Makaurau, uncovered further layers: the design also features the patiki (flounder), of which there was an abundance milling around the original foreshore that used to lap right up to the foot of the present-day Domain. 

Though the design is digitally rendered and printed, the pattern retains the traces of Nichola’s digital brushstrokes. The textural background of the design also references hukahuka, evoking the feathers of a kahu huruhuru (feather cloak). The triangular forms sailing along the top of the frieze are birds, referencing the manulua – Nichola has imagined them as kahu (hawk), which hold significance as a kaitiaki for her as well Ngāti Whatua o Ōrākei. “Everything seemed to fit,” Nichola says. 
 

Nichola with a wardrobe garment during a visit to Fashion Uniforms in Papakura.

Nichola has named the final design Kahu Tāmaki. At the end of such a long design process with such diverse criteria, how did Nichola know the design was finished? “The piece does represent all of these diverse elements, but it’s really about connection, relationships, and collaboration,” Nichola says. “I knew it was done because I felt proud.” 

“I’ve really enjoyed working with the team. This project feels like it’s not just me, it’s such a team effort.”

The production

Nearly every element of the new staff wardrobe has been made, proudly, in Aotearoa. The fabric design was born in Nichola’s studio in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton),  printed in Tauranga, cut and sewn in the Fashion Uniforms factory in Papakura, and the finishing touches applied at Arrow Uniforms in Wellington. Even the formal neckties were manufactured just up the road from the Museum at Parisian Neckwear Co., which has been in business in Auckland since 1919.
 

Newly printed fabric being rolled up in the factory in Tauranga.

“It’s a very New Zealand-based project,” says Fiona Blanchard, Head of Visitor Services, who describes the overall goal of the project to create a “cohesive look and feel across the Museum teams, a functional and recognisable wardrobe that is representative of the Museum’s grand identity.” No small ask, it would not only need to meet that conceptual brief, but also be fit-for-purpose, culturally relevant, connected to our collections, well-made, timeless, professional, and “something that our people could wear with pride.”

The working group landed on the design options for the wardrobe after extensive consultation with the various teams who would be wearing the pieces. Staff pointed out that their jobs vary enormously, and so the range was designed to respond to those needs: from laying wreaths in formal commemoration ceremonies to clambering over the Museum roof in all weather; from puletasi and la faitaga for our Māori and Pacific Development team to garments that stretch and bend with our Learning and Public Programmes team as they kneel down to engage with children.
 

A finished top being pressed at Fashion Uniforms in Papakura.

While the decision to produce the uniforms in New Zealand rather than outsourcing overseas was made when the world was still blissfully unaware of the impending disruption that would be caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it has turned out to be a serendipitous choice. The relatively close proximity of each step of the design and manufacture process has also enabled the teams to work closely together, further enriching the connectedness of the project. “This is a collaboration,” Nichola says. “I really don’t feel that I own it. It’s myself, but also it’s the working group, it’s the factory managers, the digital fabric designers, the machinists – we’ve all had a part to play in it. High five, team! We did this.”

Visitor Hosts and Volunteer Guides have had the chance to take sample garments for test runs to fine-tune wearability and have been involved with final fittings, too. Machinists with particular expertise in each type of fabric provided input into how the pattern would fall and where the motifs should land, and got Nichola’s blessing. The whole wardrobe will be blessed alongside the new Te Ao Mārama (South Atrium). 
 

Nichola inspects her design printed on a neckscarf.


So what does Nichola hope the staff wearing the new pieces will feel? “I hope they feel pride and connection. I’d like them to feel good, to have a sense that the design is representing them as well as representing the Museum. They will know the story; they’ll be able to tell it and share it.” 

And what about our visitors? “I hope visitors appreciate it,” Nichola says. “I hope they’re drawn to it and that it might spark curiosity – ‘Why is it made like that? What does this mean?’ I hope it draws them in.” So from the reopening of Te Ao Mārama on Thursday 3 December, when you step inside, spare a moment to appreciate our new staff wardrobe, and ask a Visitor Host to tell you the story.