World of WearableArt celebrates 30 years of edgy art and visual spectacle

World of WearableArt's 30th anniversary shows will feature 140 weird and wonderful garments by 147 designers from 17 countries who will again push the limits of what can be worn.

World of WearableArt in Wellington
27 September - 14 October 2018

It’s no coincidence that World of WearableArt (WOW), part international design competition and part multi-million-dollar theatrical spectacle, calls New Zealand home. 

“As a young country and as New Zealanders we still very much have that pioneer spirit in our DNA,” the WOW’s creator and irrepressible driving force Dame Suzie Moncrieff says. 

“We are not constrained by convention and tend to be innovative and entrepreneurial in our approach,” she explains.

In 1987, Moncrieff heard about a wearable art exhibition in Auckland. “This sparked my imagination and I flew to Auckland to see it. To my disappointment I only found a rack of silk painted dresses on hangers,” she remembers. 

However the idea of taking art off the wall and onto the moving body had been ignited.

Soon after, Moncrieff set up the first wearable art show which integrated music and dance in order to promote her rural art gallery in Nelson. Models presented the avant-garde pieces to an audience of 200 in a makeshift marquee made from tarpaulins borrowed from local farmers during one of the worst rainstorms in years. The concept hit a nerve and WOW has been growing ever since.

Today, WOW has become the top event for costume designers from all around the world, with the choreographed extravaganza attracting more than 60,000 fans in Wellington each year.  This year’s 30th anniversary show will feature 140 weird and wonderful garments by 147 designers from 17 countries who will again push the limits of what can be worn. 

“The finalist garments show just how talented WOW designers are. Construction techniques like laser cutting, 3D design sculpting and melding art and science into the garments are on show along with handbuilt elements such as weaving, ceramics and felting,” says WOW Competition Director Heather Palmer. 

“There are strong sculptural and engineered techniques as well as painting and fabric concepts that are experimental and edgy.”

By the end of this year’s show’s season, WOW will have showcased more than 4,800 finalist garments on its stage and has long earned itself an impressive reputation.  “Athletes have the Olympics, actors have the Oscars, musicians have the Grammys, designers and costume creators have WOW,” Bob Haven, Professor in Costume Technology at Kentucky University sums it up. 

Thirty years on from its humble beginnings, Moncrieff, who was made a Dame of the Order of New Zealand in 2011 for her services to the arts, still thrives on the joy WOW brings not only to the audiences who come to see it, but also on what it gives to the designers who enter. 
The wide variety of entrants is testament to its success.  WOW finalists have included fashion designers, woodworkers, boat builders and architects, as well as textile artists, teachers, sculptors and painters.

Many designers are drawn to the competition because of its various cash prizes and internships with leading creative companies such as Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and Canada’s Cirque du Soleil. It’s a perfect launch pad for emerging creatives. 

“WOW is a benchmark event that has set the highest standards, while being accessible to artists all over the world,” Weta Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor describes the competition. 

Many finalists have gone on to work as costume designers for celebrities or in film. Others come with an established international following. 2017 supreme winner, Rinaldy Yunardi from Indonesia, designed accessories worn by Madonna at this year’s Met Gala in New York. 

The theatrical extravaganza, which kicks off in Wellington on 27 September, will see models turn the garments into performance art, set in a series of six worlds inspired by the competition themes. This year’s themes are Under the Microscope, Reflective Surfaces and the crowd-favourite, Bizarre Bra, along with the recurring Avant-garde, Aotearoa and Open sections. 

“WOW is unique in drawing together many different artistic and performance disciplines,” show director Malia Johnston says. “There are several performance layers occurring from dance, to live music, audio visual components, aerial work and shifting set design.”

WOW’s allure also stems from the accessibility to its audience. “It’s an art form that appeals to people from all backgrounds and ages, and presenting the works not as a catwalk show but within a theatrical setting including dancers and actors, Moncrieff explains. 

“I think we straddle the boundaries of the definition of pop culture,” she adds. “WOW is accessible, unique and a culture of its own. It invites everyone to make.” 

When the show wraps up in Wellington, WOW’s international travelling exhibition will head to St Petersburg, Russia in October. Since starting its tour in 2015, the exhibition has been seen by more than 600,000 visitors across New Zealand, Australia and the USA.

For those who can’t make it to the shows or who want to take a closer look at the garments, there is the the WOW Museum in Nelson. With the permanent collection now approaching 500 pieces, there is a lot of pleasure to be gained in discovering or revisiting past garments, many of which have become iconic.

30 Years of WOW - By the numbers:

  • 4,877: Garments that will have adorned the stage since 1987
  • Almost 770,000: People that will have seen a WOW show since 1987 
  • Over 4,500: People that have been on the WOW stage since 1987 
  • 10,200: Total people that have worked on a WOW show since 1987 (including cast and crew)
  • Almost $2,430,000: Value of prizes (cash and in kind) WOW has awarded designers since 1987 
  • 207: Number of designer sections since 1987 

Suzie Moncrieff’s 8 favourite garments from 30 years of WOW 

  • Lady of the Wood, David Walker, USA
  • Hermecea. Jan Kerr, New Zealand
  • Beast in the Beauty, David Walker, USA
  • Superminx, Simon Hames, New Zealand
  • Hylonome, Mary Wing To, UK
  • Persephone’s Descent, Stuart Walker, New Zealand
  • Dragon Fish, Susan Holmes, New Zealand
  • Gothic Habit, Lyn Christiansen, USA