NZ's style sisters - Nom*D and Zambesi

Sisters Liz Findlay and Margi Robertson are the inspiration behind two of New Zealand's most successful fashion labels - Zambesi (Findlay) and Nom*D (Roberston).

Two of New Zealand's leading fashion names - Margarita (Margi) Robertson of Nom*D and Elisabeth (Liz) Findlay of Zambesi - began their careers adapting patterns with the help of their seamstress mother.

The sisters, who grew up in a family of four daughters in the southern South Island city of Dunedin, often saw their mother at the sewing machine making clothes for them.

"We used to customise all the patterns and change things around," Margi Robertson said. "You never wanted to go out in something that looked like a Butterick pattern so you changed it to make it more individual."

That individualism grew into an appreciation of fabric, texture and form that saw both sisters begin careers in the fashion industry during the 1970s. They started in retail, but slowly developed their own collections. When Margi chose to specialise in knitwear, Liz decided to go another route.

"I thought oh I'll just buy Margi's and do something different myself," Liz Findlay says.

While Liz went for fabric and Margi for wool, both explored the creativity gene passed onto them by their Greek Orthodox mother.

Margi stayed in Dunedin where she was born, and Liz settled in Auckland. Both have partners who have played a big role in their careers - Margi is married to Chris Robertson, and Liz to Neville Findlay.

Liz Findlay - the eldest of the four sisters - worked in the clothing industry and plied her trade for seven years before establishing the Zambesi label with husband Neville in 1979.

Liz directs design and production from a workroom of 16 staff in Auckland.

Zambesi has a style that is instantly recognisable. Liz's designs combine form, structure and simplicity with a sense of irony, and she follows an evolutionary line rather than being dictated to by current trends.

Margi Robertson began with a boutique retail store, before starting her knitwear label Nom*D in 1986. Her Dunedin store is called Plume - as in 'nom de plume'.

Nom*D's signature is wearable wool garments that break the traditional woollen style. Garments are versatile - often reversible - and experiment with textures, fittings and utilitarian concepts.

"The whole feeling of what we do is utilitarian," Margi explains. "The number one criteria is that the garment has to be very wearable. We're not interested in art gallery pieces."

Margi Robertson is down-to-earth and prefers to talk about the clothes rather than herself.

"What I'm finding now we have a stronger profile is a lot more is expected of us," she says.

"Sometimes I think I want it to be more about the clothes than about me, but then for the sake of our business I think I should do it. I don't enjoy that sort of thing though - I like our product having that attention."

Margi says her customers, and Dunedinites in general, have a sense of pride over what she has achieved and feel part of the success of Nom*D. After all, this is a label that sits alongside Comme Des Garcons and Martin Margiela in Liberty of London.

But Margi won't entertain the idea of leaving her hometown for bright lights and air kissing.

"I quite like being isolated," she admits. "And because we have achieved some sort of success here, it encourages other people to stay in Dunedin and have success."

Dunedin fashion scene
Dunedin - a university city with a strong Scottish heritage - has produced some of New Zealand's top designers. Nicholas Blanchet and Tanya Carlson are two of the best known locals.

The Dunedin fashion scene is vibrant and introspective, with creativity in part driven by isolation.

"Living here means you don't have to do what people expect," Margi says. "You don't have to fit in because the people are very accepting."

Liz, who lives in Auckland - New Zealand's largest city, understands Margi's passion for isolation.

"At the end of the day, the way you design or create is so personal it doesn't matter where you are. The way I design is a very instinctive thing. I don't try to analyse too much - and I would use those instincts wherever I was," Liz says.

"You can be in the tiniest town or the biggest city; you just have to concentrate on what you're doing and get on with it."

International fashion labels
The Findlays don't tend to move in fashion industry circles as might be expected of a label with stores in Auckland, Wellington, Sydney and Melbourne, and who are stocked in the northern hemisphere, including Liberty of London.

"We have a personal, private life - the extended family of Zambesi is enough to be involved in. Any time that hasn't been spent focused on Zambesi has been focused on our family."

Nom*D's biggest market is local, but it also has an international following.

"We sell a lot here because of the climate, particularly in Christchurch and Dunedin," Margi explains. "But the quantities that go out to one store in Japan are really big so it's probable Asia will ultimately be our biggest market, because of the population there.

"Our garments require four seasons. We have that here and so does Japan. That's where the northern hemisphere becomes attractive."

Zambesi's biggest market is Australasia, and the label is also making inroads into the northern hemisphere. Zambesi has been stocked in Liberty in London, and in New York at Legacy. Liz says Zambesi's garments also appeal to the Asian market.

New Zealand Four
Nom*D and Zambesi were part of the New Zealand Four - a group show with World and Karen Walker - that showed at London Fashion Week in 1999 and 2000. Australian Fashion Week has also played a huge role in presenting New Zealand fashion to the world.

"All those things add up to people knowing the name," Liz says. "For example, there was a Kiwi guy working for a fashion mag in Paris who wrote about us and they all add up. People go 'oh yeah, I've heard of Zambesi'."

Whatever international successes may come, both women will always stay true to their vision. Nom*D is now 24 years old, while the Zambesi name has been around for 30 years and is still synonymous with quality and creativity.

"The name hasn't dated," Liz says. "It still has mystery about it. I hate the idea we might be categorised or pigeonholed. I like the idea that we keep people guessing a bit. That's what's good about Zambesi - it has the element of familiarity, but also of 'you're going to discover something'."

More information:

New Zealand fashion designer: Margi Robertson

New Zealand fashion designer: Karen Walker

New Zealand fashion designer: Tanya Carlson