NZ fashion designer: Tanya Carlson

New Zealand fashion designer Tanya Carlson is having an impact on the international fashion market.

Life in a cold climate at the bottom of the earth, in a community of brooding, insular types seems to spark powerful creative forces - judging by the number of top New Zealand fashion designers who hail from Dunedin.

This southern university city is the breeding ground of some of New Zealand’s best-known and most influential fashion designers including Margie Robertson of Nom*D and Elisabeth Findlay of Zambesi.

Dunedin is also home to another designer, Tanya Carlson whose garments have found their way onto international catwalks.

Kiwi OE
Tanya Carlson’s label ''Carlson'' was born in 1997 and it was not long before it had a real impact on the Australasian market, and found openings into the lucrative US market.

A typical Kiwi, Carlson was 17 when she flew the coop - on the proverbial Kiwi OE (overseas experience) - but her escape had a specific aim.

She headed to Australia on a pre-determined mission to become a fashion designer. After two years doing a fine arts degree at the highly regarded East Sydney Technical College, followed by four years studying fashion design, she did what most Kiwis ultimately end up doing - she came home.

"But I cried!," Carlson laughs. "I rang Sydney every week to find out what was going on there."

Private tailoring
Carlson then threw herself into work as a private tailor making one-off pieces for clients. That work became the backbone of her business and her name spread through word of mouth.

As the business grew, her designs went offshore to stock Australian stores, as well as her own two retail boutiques and other fashion stores throughout New Zealand.

In May 2001, Carlson designs appeared at the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week.

Carlson fashion colours
Carlson''s summer 2001 / 2002 collection was entitled ‘Rise of the Coloured Empires’, inspired by a book referenced in a volume of Emily Bronte poetry.

The irony of the name is not lost on the eternally-befitted-in-black Carlson who is happiest in a polo-neck sweater and pants.

"I’m a huge colourist," she says. "I absolutely love colour and I’m always inspiring everyone else to wear colour, but typically I wear black head to foot."

But, it''s not just Carlson''s use of colour that contrasts with her persona - her down-to-earth, tomboyish, laid-back nature juxtaposes her fashion creations, so often flowing, feminine, intricate and romantic.

"I’m not in the slightest bit feminine," she says. "When people meet me they go ‘oh, but you do such gorgeous girlie clothes!’ It’s just that element of dressing up I love, and the whole history and female idea of pageantry.

"It’s the same kind of joy you get opening up an old box of your grandmother’s clothes and going ‘oooh ahh’. It’s that element of discovery. Everyone loves that!"

Dance projects
Her theatrical style isn’t confined to fashion. Carlson has designed the costumes for a number of major dance projects with leading contemporary dancer, Dunedin-based Daniel Belton.

It’s a sideline opportunity that she enjoys, and her sense of theatre and occasion is apparent in the way her garments are constructed, with handcrafted bodices and layering used to good effect.

Layered look
But Carlson also has practical reasons to employ the layered look.

"It comes from having such inclement weather!" she says of Dunedin''s southern climes.

"We’re stuck inside and we wear layers of clothes. When you come inside and someone has a fire going, you peel them all off. It’s just the way we dress here."

Carlson recalls how a Vogue representative commented in New Zealand: "God, I understand the New Zealand layering aspect now."

Carlson says New Zealanders, particularly in the cooler south, aren’t particularly body-conscious because they cover up. "That’s the great difference between us and Australia."

Sophisticated taste
Carlson''s garments have been compared to European labels, and particularly a Belgian influence. It’s a look that’s appreciated by the local clientele.

"People here have a real appreciation of the intellectual construction that goes into the label. New Zealanders are quite sophisticated in their taste," she says.

"I think it’s because they’ve been brought up being exposed to people like [Martin] Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier, whereas if you went to any mid-sized American town you’d never see labels like that."

Dunedin store ''Plume'', for example, stocks top international designers, including Demeulemeester and Comme des Garcons, as well as its flagship New Zealand label Nom*D and other local labels.

"It’s the most amazing shop," says Carlson. "It’s here, and it’s selling out of Costume National shoes! It’s really quite odd."

Carlson says on a recent trip to America, several people asked her where her shoes came from and she was astounded that they hadn’t heard of the Costume National fashion label by Italian designer Ennio Capasa.

"Americans have just started understanding Costume National," she adds.

Creative isolation
Carlson credits New Zealand''s isolation with giving her the impetus to follow her dream.

"For me the creative part of it comes from the isolation and the weather. We have brooding sensibilities down here in Dunedin, especially in winter. It’s cold, dark and gothic, and also quite insular.

"Because of that, you have this opportunity to get a lot of work done, it’s a case of ‘head down bum up’. You’re not looking over your shoulder all the time at your peers."

That said, it seems that her family choose to do quite the opposite in response to the environment. Carlson’s father is best described as a surfer, making the most of the Otago coast; her mother is a nurse who spends all her spare time "trekking and hiking everywhere"; her brother works for international environmental group Greenpeace.

Little wonder then that Carlson’s mother describes her eldest daughter as a "hothouse flower". Carlson’s younger sister is into multi-sport - including duathlon - but is also working for Carlson in her fashion business.

Outdoor experiences
Many of Tanya Carlson’s designs reflect the essence of what it is to be a little girl in small-town New Zealand - imagination, outdoor experiences and dreams of being world famous.

"I grew up on the Otago Peninsula - right out in the wilderness," explains Carlson. "There’s an element of romanticism to the way I grew up. I grew up without a television, so I did lots of reading and I’m sure that fuelled my imagination.

"The Otago Peninsula is quite Scottish or English in its feel - lots of cliffs and old stone walls. It’s a very romantic setting with Wuthering Heights sensibilities. I think that’s pretty much where my thing comes from - all these ideas about the moors and riding your horse!"

Otago Peninsula, best known for its albatross colony and yellow-eyed penguin sanctuary, has attracted top New Zealand artists from other media too - including painters Ralph Hotere and modernist Colin McCahon who have both portrayed the landscapes in the area that Carlson grew up in.

Carlson, a talented artist who deploys her own painting skills in her design, says that "all those hours spent life drawing has given me a sense of form and a real understanding of women’s bodies."