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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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World of Wearcraft

This year’s Montana World of WearableArt™ Award Shows start in a little over two weeks’ time, but tickets to all 11 events have already sold out. Salient feature writer Elle Hunt finds out just how a promotion for a rural art gallery transformed into an international phenomenon.

Everyone loves a success story, and in the New Zealand arts community, there’s no greater one than that of the Montana World of WearableArt™ Awards Show.

The idea for the now-iconic shows was conceived by Nelson sculptor Suzie Moncrieff. In 1987, she decided to exhibit art on human bodies as an innovative form of promotion for a rural art gallery, in which she was a co-op member. Combined with elements of theatre and dance, the result was a never-seen-before blend of art and fashion—and WOW® was born.

“In those early days, I suspect nobody had any idea of where WOW® was headed,” says Mike Ward, a Nelson-based former Green Party politician, whose hand-painted creation The Emperor’s Entourage won the competition’s prestigious Supreme Award in 2005.

Certainly, it would have been hard to predict the measure of success that WOW® would go on to find. Today—23 years after its humble debut—WOW® is a major event in design, fashion and costume calendars worldwide, attracting over 300 entries from across the globe each year. The annual award shows, now held here in Wellington, contribute a huge amount to the city’s economy and tourism industry; in fact, a study by McDermott Miller for the Wellington City Council estimated that the Montana World of WearableArt™ Awards Show in 2009 gave rise to just over $15 million of new spending.

“The biggest winners are retailers, who see close to $5 million of that,” says David Perks, chief executive of Positively Wellington Tourism.

“Accommodation-wise, Wellington is close to capacity throughout the WOW® awards season, and hoteliers and the like take in somewhere around $4 million as a result of the shows. The hospitality sector sees about $3.5 million through its tills.”

McDermott Miller’s research also indicated that 65 per cent of the Montana World of WearableArt™ Awards Shows’ audiences in 2009 travelled from outside the Wellington region exclusively to see the event. “So we’re looking at well over 20,000 [visitors],” Perks points out.

Clearly, then, it’s hard to argue with WOW®’s popularity. What is less straightforward is the show itself—a fact that its brand and strategy manager Donna Ching acknowledges.

“It’s true—it is hard to describe!” she says.

“One of our biggest strengths as a brand internationally is that we’re so unique, but it can also be our biggest weakness when you’re trying to describe it, as it really needs to be seen to be believed…”

This year’s World of WearableArt™ shows will be the eleventh that Ching has worked on. Her involvement with WOW® began in 2000, when Moncrieff and competition director Heather Palmer asked Ching to be a part of the show’s full-time management team.

“At this stage, the show was a three-night event with a total audience of 7,500, and we had no permanent home or base,” remembers Ching.

“The main appeal was the commitment, vision, and shared fun of working alongside two inspiring people. It was really a passion for me, and I never thought about it from a career or financial perspective.

“You can’t experience anything quite like WOW® anywhere else in the world,” Ching continues.

“I love the quote from Bob Haven, professor in Costume Technology at Kentucky University in the United States, who, after his first experience of entering WOW®, said, ‘athletes have the Olympics; actors have the Oscars; musicians have the Grammys; and designers and costume creators have WOW®’.”

Unlike those honours, however, WOW® isn’t exclusive. As the competition is open-entry (and judging is ‘blind’), a butcher, a baker, or even… well, a former politician has just as much chance of winning the Supreme Award as a professional costume designer does. However, the standard of entries is high: to be successful in the competition, a design has to have visual impact on a 40-metre arena stage, as well as demonstrate a high quality of workmanship—in other words, a work of art with the WOW® factor.

Room to grow

Thanks to the passion and perseverance of Moncrieff, Palmer, Ching and the rest of the team, WOW® soon outgrew Nelson. In 2005, WOW® management decided to move the awards shows to Wellington, as part of a four-year contract with the Wellington City Council.

“Certainly, we believe that Wellington was the natural and right step for the show to take in its journey to reach an international audience,” says Perks.

“Since their first year in Wellington they have increased their audience size by over 30 per cent.”

This decision was hotly contested by Nelsonians. Those who had supported WOW® since its infancy saw it as a uniquely Nelson experience—and moving it across the Cook Strait was perceived as a slight to the city in which it had flourished.

While Ward allows that the move to Wellington “opened up more possibilities” for WOW®, he points out that, as home to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the New Zealand Ballet and Sir Peter Jackson’s movie-making, Wellington “might be expected to produce ‘spectacular’”.

“Call me parochial,” says Ward, “but I like to think WOW® presented as an even more remarkable achievement—and a more intimate experience—against the backdrop of a modest provincial city, and that it would have continued to develop had it stayed here.

“The move was a great loss to Nelson, and in fact, came as a shock to most Nelsonians. If the city thought that there was any chance of getting it back, I believe it would [endeavour to].”

Ching maintains that WOW® had to move to Wellington if the brand was to develop both commercially and creatively, as it had “outgrown the infrastructure of a smaller city”.

“Nelson had nurtured this event—and we’re so proud of our Nelson roots—but the event had to grow for it to continue to be successful, and Wellington was the natural choice…

“The full-time WOW® team are based in Nelson—we’re a bit like a travelling circus, and move to Wellington for the three-week period of the shows,” she says.

“So the show is still effectively produced out of Nelson.”

Nelson is also recognised at the competition’s home throughout the year, due to the WearableArt™ & Classic Cars Museum, in which a selection of successful entries in the competition are displayed.

“Often, the first experiences international people have of WOW® is the Museum, and they get inspired to enter or see the show,” says Ching.

“There’s a really nice cross-promotional opportunity between Nelson and Wellington—the show promotes the Museum in Nelson, and the Museum promotes the Wellington show.”

Opening doors

Of course, WOW® is more than just a spectacle for tourists and a cash-cow for councils. Entering WOW® presents designers and creative types with the chance to challenge themselves—as well as the opportunity to make contacts in a competitive industry. In the case of 24-year-old Claire Prebble, her success in WOW® led her directly to Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop.

Having entered WOW® 14 times, Prebble—who grew up in Golden Bay—is a comparative veteran of the competition. She gave up on conventional schooling at the age of 13 in order to pursue alternative forms of education, which allowed her more time with which to pursue her passion.

“I got involved at a really young age, and I just really, really enjoyed entering each year,” she recalls.

“I got a real buzz from seeing my costumes up on stage, and meeting all the other artists.”

She did not struggle to come up with ideas for entries.

“Sometimes I’d just have a visual idea, and I’d have to figure out a way to make it happen,” she says.

“There might’ve been some years where I’d get stuck and have to think quite a lot about what I was going to make, but that wasn’t very often… Sometimes, I’ll have ideas for costumes, and they’ll be there for years and years—it’s just a matter of when is the right time to do them.”

In 2004, aged 18, Prebble became the youngest-ever recipient of the Supreme Award for her creation Eos, which was made of sterling silver wire, copper wire, beads and silk. In order to achieve a striking stage presence, she paid particular attention to extending the design’s wings, ram’s horns, and train.

“She was a real visual thing for me, and then I came up with the concept of what she meant,” says Prebble.

“I found out that Eos was the Greek goddess of the dawn, and that worked really well, because I worked on her so many nights ‘til dawn… It all just sort of—fell together.”

Prebble used her winnings to travel for six months, in order to broaden her knowledge of international approaches to design.

“I’d been itching to travel for so many years; it was something that I really wanted to do,” she says.

“Growing up in Golden Bay, it’s only, like, 5,000 people—so I’d never even really used public transport!

“It was a huge learning curve, and probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Prebble met Sir Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop through WOW®.

“I just kept in touch with him, and a couple of years later—maybe in 2006 or 2007—I was up in Wellington for the Montana World of WearableArt™ Awards Show, and I asked him if there were any projects going on,” she remembers.

“I was actually interested in being involved in Halo, but he said—well, there’s this project happening, and if you want the job, you can start tomorrow. So I flew home, and packed my bags, and came back up, and that was my 21st birthday.”

That job turned out to be designing costumes and weapons for James Cameron’s blockbuster, Avatar. Prebble worked on the movie for nearly three years, basing herself both in New Zealand and the States.

As an independent contractor, Prebble is employed to work as and when she is needed: “I keep busy with my own bits and pieces,” she says.

“Jewellery, costume work, fashion, a little bit of teaching… I get up to a real mixture of things.

“I’ve got something else on at the moment, and I’m putting all my energy into that—it’s a personal project, a costume that I’ve been thinking about for the past five years, and I’ve finally got the time to make it.”

For this reason, Prebble has not entered WOW® this year, although she has nothing but praise for the competition.

“The whole impact of the show is so spectacular and over-the-top, and it just creates such a wonderful atmosphere,” she enthuses. “It gave me such a buzz [to enter]. And it was so wonderful to meet a whole bunch of creative people who were so into it as well, and so encouraging. That would be what it’s about for me, really.”

A practical application

22-year-old Emma Whiteside graduated with a Bachelor of Industrial Design with Honours in 2009. That same year, she entered Queen Adelaide, a design made of recycled automotive radiator copper, into WOW®’s Shell Sustainability Award.

“I entered that year because it was my last year at university, and I still wanted to enter as a student,” she explains.

“I was a dancer growing up, so I quite liked the idea of relating performance to my design degree—and because I can’t sew, I wanted to push myself into doing something different.

“One of the main reasons I entered WOW® was because I wanted to do something outside uni, using my design skills in the real world.”

Working on Queen Adelaide during her Honours year was “an amazing amount of work.

“I was in my second-to-last semester of my final year at uni, and I was doing three papers: two industrial design core papers, and a fifth-year research [paper] that I was silly enough to take on—again, just because I wanted to push myself.

“So by doing WOW®, I took the risk of my grades going down,” she explains.

“But they turned out all right,” she adds, with a slight smile.

Whiteside started designing her entry with a medium in mind: scraps of automotive radiator copper, which she gathered from a factory in Auckland.

“My parents used to own the factory, so I grew up playing around with this material when I was little, and I really wanted to use it,” she says.

“I’d also used the material to make a light in my second year at university, so I knew it’d work really well with stage lights going into it.”

She used aluminium hoops as a framework for a fabric dress, which the copper parts were then sewn onto. Working with fabric was a “huge challenge” for her.

“When I started putting the dress together and it wasn’t even holding itself up—that was a big problem,” she says.

“I was going to give up then. And the next time that I thought it wasn’t going to work out was at 4 o’ clock in the morning before it was supposed to be sent, and I was still sewing copper onto the dress!”

To be eligible for the Shell Sustainability award, an entry has to be made of at least 85 per cent recycled materials. Whiteside reinforced the visual spectacle of her design with a strong and relevant concept.

“The reason I called it Queen Adelaide was because Queen Adelaide was quite a resourceful queen—she didn’t like spending public money, so at her coronation, she decided to take out all the jewels of her old crown and put them into her new one. She was sort of the ‘recycling queen’.”

Whiteside’s success in WOW® opened a number of doors for her: most notably, she was commissioned to build a giant bamboo globe for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which was then exhibited at Te Papa. At the moment, however, she is focusing on developing her newly-minted furniture and lighting design business, which she has started with a fellow design graduate.

Whiteside believes WOW®’s appeal lies in its lack of elitism: “It’s not biased, there’s no hierarchy about whether you’re a professional or not… anyone can enter. That’s the thing that captures designers to enter.

“And for the spectators… it’s the fact that it’s not just a fashion show on a catwalk. It’s more like a circus, or a whole theatre production. That’s what keeps people coming back every year.”

Image: ‘Firebird’, Susan Holmes, Auckland. Winner of the 2009 Untouched World WOW Factor Award. Photo courtesy of World of WearableArt Ltd and edited by Salient.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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