The opening titles say “Dream it, do it, own it.” Behind them we see a view of the Wellington bays at dawn. A yellow bus and some cars drive around the coast.
The narrator, Ata te Kanawa says, “Expect the unexpected, so in the fashion world, the bloggers, the writers, love that! We see her seated at a desk on a deck overlooking Whanganui-a-Tara, typing on her computer, inspecting fabric samples.
“It puts huge pressure on us, because we have to come up with something different. We know we’re delivering on that.”
The scene changes to an interview crew setting up. Ata walks over and sits down, ready to be interviewed. A striking Miromoda fashion show poster on the wall behind her.
“My name is Ata te Kanawa, I’m Ngāti Maniapoto. I’m the co-founder of Miromoda.” The Miromoda brand shows briefly on screen, then we return to the interview with her.
“Miro, is the raranga term for weaving, and it means the twining of fibre.” The scene changes to catwalk shots, clothing shots, behind the catwalk scenes of staff working.
“Moda is Italian for fashion.” “The idea to get Māori fashion into New Zealand Fashion Week happened about twelve years ago, with a meeting that Creative New Zealand supported. Dame Pieter Stewart, founder of New Zealand Fashion Week attended, and she has since been our biggest supporter.”
The scene returns to the interview with Ata.
“So at first, I didn’t prioritise trademarking.” We see a denim jacket over a black tee shirt with the Miromoda ‘M’ on it. “I’ve got a good friend and she is a trade mark attorney. She strongly recommended that I register and own the trade mark.”
“Māori fashion and design students are strongly encouraged to enter our competition”. We see Ata leading a workshop with Māori fashion students. “The Miromoda showcase at New Zealand Fashion Week is definitely the launch pad for our designers.
“Before mum was a weaver, she was actually a trained tailor’s assistant. My mum was a huge inspiration”
We see a book cover, called Weaving a Kākahu, by Diggeress te Kanawa. and samples of muka weaving.
“And that is definitely why Miromoda is what it is.”
“My sister, who is now a textile conservator, and I, we were designing our clothes at a very young age. We had a fantastic machinist. We thought everybody did that.”
“The first show was very emotional” says Ata. In the shot we see preparations for a fashion show and then the show going off.
“On the morning of the first show, Sir Howard Morrison had died. It had also been a year since my mother had died. So we had two opera singers, Māori opera singers, open our show. They did a mihi, both to mum and Sir Howard Morrison. Everyone was a crying mess by about the second designer (on the catwalk).
We return to seeing Ata looking over the harbour. It’s misty and she is looking into the distance.
“I think that, ironically, the new thing, is the old thing. Sustainability, so second hand shops, op shops, clothes with whakapapa.” The scene changes to catwalk models dressed in clothes developed from second hand materials.
The credits come up, saying “Own your ideas” and then the final screen is the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand brand.
Māori are very much into fashion. Miromoda, it’s like Project Runway...
In 2019, Ata te Kanawa and Rex Turnbull marked 10 years of pitching contemporary Māori fashion in a rule-breaking showcase within New Zealand Fashion Week. Over 200 designers have participated, careers and labels have grown from this seed, all made possible by a community of people who shared the vision.
In 2008 there was little to see in the mainstream from Māori designers. A group of Māori journalists and photographers fabricated a dream show of fashion designed by Māori at New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW).
The group had been reporting on NZFW for some years and found they were having the same general conversation around Māori fashion, in different places. They were all feeling uncomfortable about what they were seeing, because Māori fashion was being treated like a novelty. They called for a hui to see if they could find a way to represent Māori fashion designers and create a place for them in the industry.
“I remember thinking that Māori are very much into fashion,” Ata says.
“One of my mates said ‘Ata, I just think you should go for it.’ I said, ‘Oh, ok, well I’ll give it a go’.”
The hui brought together people involved in growing the fashion industry, fashion schools, Creative New Zealand and other government agencies, as well as Dame Pieter Stewart from NZFW. Pointing at Ata and her friend Rex Turnbull, she said: “You and you! You’re going to organise a competition and the winners and runners-up can show at New Zealand Fashion Week next year.”
Offers of help from others followed. By the time the hui was over, Ata says, “we pretty much just got more than $50,000-$60,000 pledged to us in services and goods”.
Te Puni Kōkiri also came on board and helped with additional funding. Others, like the Porirua City Council and more recently, Wellington City Council have chipped in over the years with sponsorship arrangements.
Within weeks a new organisation led by Ata was established, with the aim of advancing the quality status of Māori fashion design.
Just over a year later the logistics, budget and event planning were in place. In September 2009, Māori fashion designers were showing their work at NZFW under the banner of a new organisation called Miromoda.
The first show launched with the wow factor. Two Māori opera stars, Zane Te Wiremu Jarvis and Mere Boynton opened the show. “It really set people up emotionally for a journey. Then when they saw what we had, they knew this was different, striking and innovative.”
Ten years after its first show, Miromoda is firmly established, with fashion reporters from across the globe coming here to write about its NZFW show. They write about how progressive Miromoda is and its unique place in world fashion shows. “You see them in the front rows of fashion shows, saying ‘hey, check this out.’ We’ve been a big ticket item at NZFW for a few years now,” Ata says.
NZFW founder Dame Pieter Stewart summed up the point of difference Miromoda had in the fashion industry. Speaking at the first hui she said:
“I have long wanted to have a New Zealand Fashion Week that didn’t look like Australia or London or New York and I think the answer lies in a Māori show.”
The plan was to create a brand that represented Māori fashion. So alongside establishing the showcase in NZFW, an urgent task was to come up with a name for the new organisation.
A name “that was international, but true to us” was a priority, Ata says.
The one they came up with – “Miromoda” – exactly meets these criteria. Miro is a Māori word for the twining of fibres, while Moda is an Italian word for fashion.
A legal identity for the business that would run Miromoda was also necessary, to register it with the New Zealand Companies Office. They decided to call it the Indigenous Māori Fashion Apparel Board Ltd.
Although Ata registered Miromoda’s company name with the NZ Companies Office immediately, she didn’t attach the same importance to protecting its intellectual property (IP) at that time.
However, among her friends was a lawyer who chivvied her along, offering her a sponsorship deal that included looking at copyright issues and applying to register the trade mark. They decided to register the trade mark for both Miromoda’s name and logo.
With legal advice, Ata found the process “fairly straightforward … they did all the paperwork,” she says.
“Now that the brand is 10 years old – and we’ve got a good brand – it’s synonymous with quality and authenticity, I can actually see the sense in it all!”
“It’s protecting the physicality of the brand, as well as the mana actually, the mana of the brand, and its whakapapa.”
“I’m confident our brand does symbolise indigenous fashion that is of quality and authenticity, for what we show at NZFW. That is what we’re driven by.”
Making it – from the workroom to fashion week
Every year, Miromoda organises a Māori Fashion Design Awards Competition, where entrants compete to be included in the Miromoda show at NZFW.
It is open to people “from any Iwi, who can whakapapa Māori,” Ata explains.
There are three categories designers can enter – Emerging, Established and Avant-Garde sections. The competition involves a show where Miromoda shortlists the best designs for each category. Dame Pieter as chief judge and two independent judges then choose the category winners and select the overall Supreme Award winner.
Although the competition process is seemingly simple, the designers’ work must be top quality in every respect to impress Ata. If you were to look at her whakapapa, you might see why this is the case. Her understanding of fashion and the creative process, passion for authenticity, high standards and commitment to promoting and supporting Māori is inherited.
Ata's mother and grandmother were responsible for saving the dying art of traditional Māori weaving (raranga) from extinction. Both women were considered tohunga raranga and were honoured by the Queen – one with a CNZM and QSO, the other a DBE – Dame of the British Empire. Her mum was also a tailor, so Ata grew up automatically knowing about clothing construction and international fashion trends.
“Quality was paramount in anything we did,” Ata says.
She has always applies those same high standards to whatever she does, including the Miromoda shows: how to run them and how to set benchmarks for the standards of quality and excellence she expects.
“Even up to a week before the show when we do the model fittings, if a design is not measuring up it will not go, so we’re quite ruthless like that, but that’s the only way,” says Ata. “We can have something up to 100 media people there, so there’s a pit full of photographers. They’re going to notice things like, an unfinished zip or something.”
Ata’s aim for Miromoda’s first NZFW show set the direction for those that followed.
“We would send a clear message to the audience: we’re Māori,” she says.
She stage-managed the opening – and the effect on those at the show was electrifying.
“When the audience saw what we had, they knew this was quite different to what they’d seen prior.”
While achieving this sounds simple on paper, getting the first show ready for a highly critical, professional audience was completely new territory to the Miromoda team.
Fortunately, they were given clear instructions from the outset about what they needed to do and followed the instructions exactly.
“We listened diligently to what we were told was expected of us and it was really satisfying that four or five shows down the track, our producer was saying that it’s her favourite show to produce.
“She said the reason is because we all listen … we didn’t know any other way and we pride ourselves on that reputation now.”
Getting the work ready to show is also carefully planned and managed. Designers whose work passes Ata’s high standards are given all the help Miromoda can provide.
“We prep them, we pay for models and makeup and the hair team so they get the best chance of presenting to the judges,” she says.
“And it happens all day – we bring them in at 9am, they prep and our judges come in at about 12pm, and then we just bang them through.
“They have 20 minutes each in front of the judges to explain their design concepts – it’s like Project Runway.”
In the evening, Miromoda hosts an entirely different event – a ticketed runway show for invited designers.
A dream come true
Looking back over the achievements of the past 10 years, Ata’s vision to help aspiring fashion designers has seen many achieve their goals.
They have opportunities to showcase their work and the way they perceive themselves as designers has flourished.
In fact, the biggest change Ata’s noticed since Miromoda’s first show is in the designers’ confidence.
“Where initially they were thinking ‘Oh I don’t know if this is good enough’, now they come in like Divas!”
There’s also been an “astounding” change in the way Māori fashion is perceived, Ata says.
No longer considered a novelty, packed houses of around 700 people watch Miromoda’s 34 models show off up to 80 or 90 outfits.
It’s not just locals flocking to Miromoda’s shows either. The brand’s attracting international media attention with bloggers and journalists rushing to report on the shows and feature articles appearing in France and Germany. Miromoda is in vogue.
“Miromoda’s a brand … and we’ve got a damn strong brand,” Ata says.
Now Miromoda is firmly established, Ata’s looking for new challenges. She speaks of developing the commercial side of the venture, saying it’s “a business … we’ve got to think smart.”
She’s also thinking of widening Miromoda’s entry criteria. There may be new categories and opportunities for a more diverse group of designers being included in future shows.
“And why not?” she asks. “Miromoda – Miro – means the twining of fibres. It’s also the twining of people, threads, you know we can spin it.”
Regardless of what her plans for the future may bring, Ata is clear about Miromoda’s place in helping designers get a place in NZFW.
“After 10 years, we’re satisfied that we’ve got a competition template that is good, that is successful and works well,” she says.