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Elisabeth Findlay, Head Designer

 All photos by Brendan Kitto

All photos by Brendan Kitto

“My passport said ‘Stateless’. I realised that was refugee status, that you didn’t belong anywhere, and that was why I was a refugee.”

I was born in Greece and for a long time I wasn’t sure really where I belonged, until my adult years.

My father was Ukranian, my mother was Greek but born and brought up in Russia. My mother and her cousin thought the war was over in the early 40s and they decided they would try to go to Germany to find work. When they got there they ended up in labour camps. That’s where she met my Father, who was hiding out. It was a labour camp, so she learnt to sew uniforms there for the German army. It might be where she learnt to sew for all I know.

They had decided at the end of the war they would go to Greece and try and find work there because they decided it would be risky to go to Russia. My father had been taken prisoner and then escaped, and they were pretty harsh on anyone that came back. You’re sort of seen as a deserter and there was risk of being shot. So they went to Greece to find work, but there was no work because it was devastated after the war. They were in a Red Cross refugee camp, and they arranged for them to emigrate to New Zealand.

My family emigrated in 1951. I was three with an older brother, Demetrius, he was 18 months older than me. We came out on the Goya, in May 1951 I think.

"There's a real melancholy about that history."

My father was, I guess you’d call him a heavy drinker and I don’t blame him in a way, because I think it’s a bit of an escape. There’s a real melancholy about that history. You do take it on, I think as children. You’re very aware of what they went through, and how hard life was, and they’d come to a land of milk and honey.

They were really keen to learn English, unlike a lot of other Greek and Russian families in Dunedin where I grew up, where they were not allowed to speak English in the house. In some ways, you think I wish I could speak the language, but in reality to keep that language up you need to be speaking the language all the time, and if you’re not going to do that, it kind of disappears. Language, music, food, they were the things that made me feel different.

"When I was really little, people used to say, ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ And I used to think, ‘Where is that?’ I had no idea."

My passport said ‘Stateless’, so that’s a bit of a statement, isn’t it? I realised that was refugee status, that you didn’t belong anywhere, and that was why I was a refugee.

I didn’t really try and analyse it, it’s just something that you recognise in yourself as years go by, this is my home, this is where I want to be. I don’t really want to go and live in Greece or go and live in Russia, I want to live here.

“Mum worked as a seamstress. That passion for making clothes came from her.”

We didn’t have a lot of money, but mum worked. She worked as a seamstress. And she was into clothes, she always looked great whatever she bought. [My sister] Margi and I would be in her wardrobe all the time, going through her drawers. She taught us to sew and she loved sewing, that was her thing. She loved playing around with patterns and that passion for making clothes came from her.

Mum’s father in Russia, he was a shoe maker. But he sadly was taken away when she was 13. She didn’t know at the time but they took all the Greeks, and other different nationalities, out in the square and shot them because they thought they were going to collaborate with the Germans. I remember her getting a letter saying that he had died in a camp in Siberia, but when we went to visit our relatives, they said ‘No, he was taken out and shot.’ They found out many years later. That was the actual truth. But he was obviously very artistic and loved to make things. It’s a pretty sad story but life goes on, and you carry on, which is what they did.

I remember dad sat down to prove he could sew as well and he made himself his own swim togs, on the machine, so he was quite artistic as well. He’d mend all our shoes, put new soles on them, stuff like that.

“We opened a little multi-brand store, and the rest is history, isn’t it?”

I just loved clothes. First of all, I loved putting them on my back and my feet. It was pretty superficial. I worked in the clothing industry for seven years. I started off at Derek Batts which is quite a big company, in administration, and then asked if I could go through to production. I ended up managing some of the production area. Working out yields and all of that kind of thing, and then I learnt how to use industrial machines, because I was fascinated by it all, and I worked for a fabric importer, and I worked in retail.

I learnt all aspects, I didn’t have a goal in mind, I didnt think one day I’m going to have my own thing, I just loved being around clothes and making things and putting fabric and ideas together I guess. One day Neville and a friend of his said, ‘you guys should have your own store’.

Margi, my sister in Dunedin, was working in an admin role as well and we were always talking about clothes and meeting up and going shopping. She said, ‘I’m thinking of opening a store’, and I said ‘That’s really funny’. I had a lot of good contacts, because my job previous to opening our own store was with Vamp, which was Walter Hart. Anyway, we both decided that’s what we’d do. So we opened a little multi-brand store, and the rest is history, isn’t it?

We did that for about four years, had another store in Takapuna with a different name, and then we decided we’d start our own brand, which was Zambesi and that was 1979, when Sophie was born. She was born in April, and we started the brand in June.

It was like, let’s just get on with it. We had my first full time staff member who was a pattern maker and a sample machinist all rolled into one, she was amazing - Sue Lowe. That was the beginning. It just very, very slowly grew. We never had a plan or a strategy, we were just doing what we wanted to do, make clothes, and enjoying it. It grew from there.

We’re always recognised for our black undertone, the backbone of the collection, and that’s very greek, isn’t it? I think there is a kind of melancholy. Serious side, but there’s a fun side too, I hope.

“I do worry about the future of the industry and where will you find those skills, because I don’t know that it’s being cultivated.”

I do worry about the future of the industry and where will you find those skills, because I don’t know that it’s being cultivated. Everyone wants to be a designer or a creative. The thing is, to be able to be that person you need the skills behind you, unless you’re going to do everything yourself which is not viable if you want to make a living out of it.

A lot of great skills do come through immigration, because that’s a big part of the cultures that end up here. All our machinists have got amazing skills, and there’s no young machinists, is there? They [young people] don’t see it as an art, and unfortunately it has never had the status that it deserves. Being able to make a beautiful garment is an art, it’s a skill. It’s not like pressing a button that fills up a can of beans. It’s actually quite a skill to do it beautifully.

Mum used to make us undo stuff all the time, she was a real perfectionist, and Dayne [Johnston - Zambesi Man designer] is a real perfectionist as well. We care about the quality, we care about the fabric, it’s not going to be thrown together, it’s going to be made as well as it can be made.

All our patterns are done manually, Dayne does a manual pattern, Olga does a manual pattern. I’m not saying that doing something on the computer is wrong, but it’s just a different aesthetic, it’s a different mentality we have about making things. There’s a lot of skills, and it’s a huge long process from pattern to the end product that ends up going into the store.

I love making clothes. I love styling. I always start with fabric, so it’s not about sketching and trying to find something to fit the sketch. I like choosing fabric and then I decide what to do with it. I think for me creatively I like having a vision of how that will look. I find that easy. I guess if I was formally trained I might think differently.

I think I’m quite practical and I’m quite grounded but I think I still like to dream about things so I like to have a vision of what I’d like to see being worn, or wear myself. It’s probably a bit self indulgent. I’ve got great creative people around me.

Olga brings a lot of creativity to Zambesi since she’s been on board, the last few years bringing more and more of her creativity to the collections. She thinks differently, she doesn’t start with fabric and that can be hard for me. That’s cool.

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“Our brand is proudly made in New Zealand. That’s really important. I feel proud to be part of that. It makes me feel like I belong here.”

With the Zambesi collection, it’s not about having a different concept or idea every season, or a name, or something that explains it. Which is not great for journalists, I know that. But for us, it’s just expanding the wardrobe all the time. If you talk to any of our customers they talk about things that they’ve had for years and mixing it with something new and it still works and they say, your stuff doesn’t date, we’re still wearing it, we love it. And I’ve still got that piece. It’s an ongoing, unfolding story. It’s about respecting the past but always moving forward as well.

Our brand is proudly made in New Zealand. That’s really important. I feel proud to be part of that. It makes me feel like I belong here. When you are creating something, for us, we’d like to think that it’s an international brand and that it could be anywhere in the world and it doesn’t have to speak of New Zealand ... it’s about being clothes you would wear anywhere if you wanted to.

What we’re trying to do is encourage our customers to dress for themselves, and be individual, and I think in NZ that really works. And our customer would be very individual, they want to look like them, they don’t want to look like a brand.

I’ve always liked that there’s a question mark, like, ‘What are you wearing? Where’s that from?’ It’s not overtly branded.  

 

 

Olga Khimich, Designer / Womenswear Pattern Maker