World of WearableArt - an off-the-wall art extravaganza

New Zealand's World of WearableArt (WOW) is a unique Kiwi event – billed as 'Mardi Gras meets haute couture' – where art and fashion collude in a spectacular stage show.

When the World of WearableArt opens for its annual three-week season in Wellington, the magical worlds of design, costume and theatre collide in an eye-popping explosion of creativity that leaves audiences breathless and begging for more.

From a small country art gallery promotion 30 years ago, the World of WearableArt Awards has grown into New Zealand's largest and most dynamic cultural event, and a global art phenomenon that lists on the international cultural calendar, attracting entries and an audience from all over the world.

Each World of WearableArt season brings together more than 300 designers from the UK, Europe, North America, Asia, and 400-plus cast and crew. The season of sell-out shows in Wellington (often referred to as New Zealand's 'creative capital') plays to a combined audience of 60,000 people.

Around 150 works are modelled on stage, each entry individually choreographed to present its story and inspiration, transporting the audience into a realm with all the style, drama and fantasy of first-class theatre.

Design challenge 

Difficult to define by a few words or even images, the show features artworks that are theatrical designs rather than catwalk fashion. Dancers and models in wildly imaginative garments, made from unusual materials, lose their human selves in a graceful freestyle performance set to a pulsing music and light show.

WOW designers are challenged to create something that has both impact on a large stage and can withstand detailed scrutiny, but there are no rules about following traditional handcraft or sewing techniques.

Plastic, leather, metal, textiles, timber and even more exotic and recycled materials are mashed-up by extraordinary minds and multi-skilled craftspeople to emerge as wearable artworks ranging from the offbeat and outrageous to the stunning and utterly surreal.

Participating artists represent the worlds of film, fashion, photography, craft, design, sculpting, drama and art. Some entrants are professional artists, but the contest also attracts entries from many new young designers. The rewards include significant internships at Cirque de Soleil and Wellington's own WETA Workshop.

Past shows have also travelled offshore to Asia, the Middle East, Japan, Australia and the USA.

Humble beginnings

The glittering capital city event is a long way from the show's humble beginnings in the small South Island city of Nelson when, back in 1987, while trying to find innovative ways to promote a local art gallery, Nelson sculptor Dame Suzie Moncrieff came up with the ground-breaking concept.

Moncrieff's inspired solution was literally off-the-wall, taking art from the gallery wall to adorn the human form. Her vision saw artists and designers creating wearable art, then exhibiting those interpretations on stage in a spectacular dramatic setting. The result was more than a promotion, it was a mesmerising, unforgettable performance that has grown progressively.

By 2003, WOW had outgrown its original home in Nelson and moved to Wellington.

World of WearableArt Museum - Nelson 

The best way to get a taste of WOW is at the World of WearableArt & Classic Cars Museum in Nelson which houses creations from finalists and winners from the past 30 years.

The collection offers visitors a chance to view garments up-close, including examples made of ballet shoes, metal coils, tiny pairs of jeans, paper clips, tyres and feathers, human hair, coral, tree bark and pages from a book.

Every year a small part of the collection goes on tour to selected destinations showing in museums and at events throughout New Zealand.

Background: The World of WearableArt Awards Show

  • The World of WearableArt Awards Show is New Zealand’s single largest arts show, now in its 30th year. Held in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, it is a world-class event, attracting competitors and spectators from all over the world. 
  • Dame Suzie Moncrieff created the WOW concept in 1987 to challenge designers to take “art off the wall and onto the human form”. Designers come from all occupations and many different backgrounds. WOW gives them the opportunity to be innovative and original, while not being bound by the constraints of commercialism. The only limit is imagination.
  • The two-hour, high-energy shows feature around 150 designs selected from hundreds of entries from 40 or more countries.  
  • Prizes include internships with Weta Workshop in Wellington and Cirque de Soleil in Canada.
  • Each three-week season plays to sell-out crowds, a combined audience of 60,000 people.