Māori fashion meets China

Fashion designer Kiri Nathan recently travelled to China with a group of other Māori fashion designers. The group came back energised and ready to step up their respective businesses, announcing the establishment of Kāhui Māori Fashion Collective. The Collective will act as a support network for all Māori designers. Kiri Nathan spoke to us about her recent trip to China.
The participants of the fashion hikoi

The fashion designers have established the Kāhui Māori Fashion Collective, which will act as a support network for all Māori fashion designers. [Pic: Damien Nikora 2019]

Why was this journey important to you?

If this initiative – Kāhui Fashion Collective – and vision for the future of Māori fashion is not supported and actioned, nothing will change.  

The status quo will remain and Māori fashion will continue to have no real relevance or place in our creative or commercial sectors.  

It is personal to me because we’ve faced extreme challenge in building a fashion label with a cultural ethos and aesthetic. I simply want current and future Māori creative entrepreneurs to have a supported journey with opportunities and viable outcomes.

You mentioned that you’ve learned some lessons the hard way – can you tell me about your experience building links with China?

Communicating, trading, and business culture in China is so very different to the way we do things at home.  

As a foreigner trying to do business in China, I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge and respect that they are Tangata Whenua (the people of that land) and with that comes rights. The right to do business in a manner that has been developed over 8000 years. 

We, as manuhiri (visitors), need to learn how to adapt and respect their whakapapa (genealogy), language and their business culture – not the other way around.

In the process of my learning, I’ve made many costly mistakes. Ones that I’d like to try and help other Māori designers avoid. 

Thinking back to your first experiences of the fashion world in China, how were your perceptions of Chinese culture and business challenged then?

I was initially completely overwhelmed by the scale. I felt very, very small in perspective of the world.

But I went into China with an open mind and an understanding that it was going to take time to learn their culture and ways of trading – that just seemed like the right thing to do.

I soaked up and thrived in all the learning; it was refreshing to witness and experience traditions in everyday activities.  

Over the years and after various trips, I now feel so very comfortable in all areas. Things happen faster and with more ease, relationships have developed, and it doesn’t feel overwhelming at all.  

China itself has physically morphed and developed in so many ways over the last 10 years. I am so inspired by their work ethic and ability to make things happen – entire technological cities have been built to accommodate millions, with skylines that challenge the best in the world. 

The middle class is growing so rapidly in China and it is fascinating to witness worldwide trends birthing from this super power country. 

Can you talk to me about the Māori aesthetic, and how that might appeal to Chinese markets? 

It’s not necessarily an aesthetic we’re talking about, it’s more in line with an ethos, an ancient belief system that is so intrinsically aligned between Chinese and Māori peoples.  

On this hikoi (trip) we met with luxury department store Lane Crawford, China’s number one luxury brand Shang Xia, and China’s largest online store Alibaba TMall Global.  The education gained from all three very different perspectives will serve us well over these coming years in building our market strategy.  

Fast fashion is not an area we are interested in, however, commercialisation of superbly delivered brands, storytelling and products with connectivity is.  Therefore our strategy and appeal to the Chinese market will be built on authentically delivering cultural and business excellence. 

The designs were modelled by model Chanelle Taylor and photographed by renowned photographer Damien Nikora.

How could Māori designers looking to step up their business benefit from working with Chinese partners on fabric sourcing and manufacturing? Can they do it without compromising ethics or quality?

This is a challenging space for many reasons. Fashion is one of the largest contributors of harm to Papatuānuku (Earth Mother), so one of Kāhui’s integral focuses is on how we minimise this impact, through fabric content, fabric manufacture, packaging, honest sustainability – not just flying the word around because it sounds good.

There are no fabric manufacturers in New Zealand other than wool, even our merino is shipped to China for manufacture. So we need to source offshore for cost effective price points, custom fabrics, variety and exclusivity. The price points are far more effective in China even after agent and landing costs are considered.  

When we look at working with any new manufacturers, we meet them in person, we inspect their factories and spend time observing the workers and working conditions.  We also insist on ethical certification. 

In your experience, is there better cultural understanding between Māori and Chinese, than say, Pakeha New Zealanders might experience?

There is a natural ease and understanding between Chinese and Māori.  I wouldn’t however say more so than any other race.  I go back to what I said earlier – if you are going to China to do business, you need to respect their Tangata Whenua rights and their 8000-year-old culture, which includes the way they do business.  If you go into a relationship where both parties bring their mana to the table and both parties leave with their mana (regardless of race) I think the outcome will be a human and cultural understanding. 

Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono was one of the sponsors of Kāhui Māori Collective’s hikoi to China in April and May 2019.