10 Apr 2016

Kate Sylvester talks career, inspiration and making mistakes

From Standing Room Only, 2:25 pm on 10 April 2016

How one of New Zealand's top designers creates a collection.

Kate Sylvester shares her connection with art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Kate Sylvester shares her connection with art at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Photo: Sonia Sly


LISTEN: Kate Sylvester talks about her connection with the art world.


Kate Sylvester began her career hand sewing screen-printed t-shirts with a punk rock edge.

The Massey fashion design alumni advertised her first streetwear brand Sister via graffiti on the streets of Auckland. Later, she presented her more refined womenswear collections on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week.

The Auckland designer can attest that building a brand from scratch isn’t easy.

In a consumer-driven society where customers get bored very quickly and often own more clothes than they need or have time to wear, Sylvester finds herself on a treadmill racing against time and the changing of seasons – the only way to play the game of fashion – in search of inspiration.

Kate Sylvester's A Muse Collection shown at iD Fashion Week 2016

Kate Sylvester's A Muse Collection shown at iD Fashion Week 2016 Photo: Sonia Sly

Art, she says, is a primary source for finding something new and exciting.  

“I look at the world around me and I find something each season that I want to tell a story about. I reference music, movies... I’m a huge book nerd and I come back to art again and again."

Once inspiration strikes the next port of call is making sure that the story behind a collection is cohesive, and most importantly, that the garments actually work.

“We test everything and get all of our staff in the workroom to try things on and figure out what works and what doesn’t according to different body types.”

But pulling together a collection for presentation is a different ball game.  

Kate learnt the hard way early on and knows that the key to putting on a show is creating something that an audience can understand and connect with. The designer says she was ahead of her time for one presentation at New Zealand Fashion Week.  

“We created a collection based on minimalist sheers with lots of cutaway slashes, peep holes and slip dresses. We made boob tubes out of hosiery and for the show [we had] all the models come out and challenge the audience just like in a Vanessa Beecroft installation.”

She says the idea was strong, but her timing was terrible.  

“It tanked big time! [But] we know it was a really great idea because Vanessa Beecroft has done the last two Kanye West shows with Yeezy doing exactly this.”

For Sylvester, this experience was one of the toughest commercial lessons she ever learnt – not only was the show a flop, but the collection was unsuccessful once it hit the racks.

“When we did this, it was just at the start of the boho thing after the minimalism of the '90s. I learnt this incredibly important lesson [in that] you’ve got to keep a strong voice and you can’t just go off on crazy artistic tangents. We have to be commercial and if you’re not sending a strong message to retailers and customers, they get confused and if you’re not on-trend the press don’t know what to do with you.”

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