NZ fashion designer: Margi Robertson

Margarita or Margi Robertson is one of New Zealand’s foremost fashion designers, and founder of leading label Nom*D.

Margarita or Margi Robertson is one of New Zealand’s foremost fashion designers, and founder of leading label Nom*D. She lives in Dunedin, in New Zealand’s South Island.

Robertson is the sister of another famous and legendary New Zealand designer, Liz Findlay, who founded fashion house Zambesi.

The Nom*D and Zambesi labels make up half of the so-called "New Zealand Four", the nickname given to four Kiwi fashion labels that put on a group show at the prestigious London Fashion Week in 1999 and 2000. The other two members of the "Four" are World and Karen Walker.

Nom*D, founded in 1986, is an iconic New Zealand brand, and is often praised for its dark wit and sombre tones which reflect the Gothic style of Dunedin, the city it came from.

What inspired you to become a fashion designer?
I can remember being in primary school at College Street School in Dunedin - and wearing a new dress Mum had just made for me. We had chosen the style and fabric together.

There was one girl in my class who commented on my dress and the fact that it suited me. I realised that she had observed all the clothes that I wore, which of course had all been made by Mum. We were always involved in our choice of clothing. As soon as I was old enough, I was making the garments myself - overseen by Mum, of course!

When did you first start making your own designs?
At the age of 13, at sewing class in King Edward Technical College in Dunedin. At least that's my earliest memory! I made a shift dress, two-tone, pink and navy, centre front seam, sleeveless with a high roll neck collar. I remember wearing it to our formal that year (1966). It was very Mary Quant I thought!

Where do you draw inspiration for your designs?
I feel a great synergy with my hometown, Dunedin. The feel is quite dark. There are many subcultures that exist and are easily accepted here - so the vibe is relaxed and non-conformity is not an issue. The city can be Gothic and gloomy sometimes, but I feel I am living in an environment that thrives on individualism and creativity. It’s all I need.

What is your favourite holiday spot in New Zealand?
The typical holiday spot for Otago people is, of course, Central Otago [in New Zealand’s South Island]! Queenstown and Wanaka have the most amazing landscapes that are unique in the world. It’s great to travel via Middlemarch and detour at St Bathans for some real NZ history. Naseby [a gold mining town in Central Otago] is another really pretty town.

We have spent two family holidays in the Marlborough Sounds recently; at Punga Cove and Kenepuru Sound. We had a truly relaxing time, without the bustle of a resort. We also went to Golden Bay, near Nelson at the top of the South Island, for the first time and it was absolutely amazing. It makes you realise there are so many fantastic small towns in NZ, you just have to make sure you go there!

Our Sunday afternoon treat with my elderly Mum these days is to go to Waihola, south of Dunedin airport - for beautiful freshly-cooked blue cod and chips. You can sit on the edge of the lake and take in the swans and ducks and feed your leftover chips to the seagulls!

Have you ever lived overseas?
Oh, how I wish I had! But sadly, no. After leaving school at 15, I immediately went to work in an office. I worked there for seven years and in 1975, we opened our first store.

Which New Zealand cities are the most unique, fashion-wise?
In those early days when I was not involved with a store, I travelled to Auckland because my sister Liz [who owns Zambesi] had already moved there. There was an abundance of boutique stores, which didn't exist in Dunedin - so it was there that the idea of opening a boutique in Dunedin flourished. These days I think most cities house their own particular type of fashion stores, and a lot of the choices depend on population.

Do you and your sister, Liz Findlay, inspire each other?
These days we don't really inspire each other anymore. However, we do have very similar tastes. Liz is a little more sophisticated in her approach. She loves precious fabrics. Nom*D’s approach is a little more hardcore. We test drive many of our fabrics before we use them, for things like washability and shrinkage. Our focus is wearability and comfort with the trademark darkness.

What is your vision of the typical Nom*D customer?
There is no typical Nom*D customer, they can vary from schoolgirls to grandmothers (like me). The one thing they have in common is the strength to be unique in their own style and not desire to be the centre of attention -nor a conformist.

What’s your favourite colour and fabric?
BLACK…it’s perfect for any occasion! For fabric: rayon or viscose because I love the drape.

What is the Nom*D style and philosophy?
We went from making just knitwear in 1986, to beginning to work with wovens in 1998 when we were invited to show at London Fashion Week. We worked with many themes of uniforms at that time.

The realisation that many of our garments were androgynous made us delve further into streetwear, and the use of vintage and/or recycled garments as a vital part of the collection. Hand stenciled t-shirts are now vital to each collection. The accessibility of these to a huge demographic is good for the brand. We now work with a variety of fabrics, especially in women’s wear.

What do you think is the "next big thing" in NZ fashion?
I wish I had a crystal ball, then we’d all know! I think NZ designers are looking less to international brands for inspiration and have the strength to create and believe in their own ideas - which will make them globally more competitive with the rest of the world.