We’d all rather be at the beach

Friday, November 27, 2015
A special visit from Her Excellency Lady Janine Mateparae

The At the Beach exhibition, in the New Zealand Maritime Museum continues to draw a large enthusiastic audience including a special visit this week from Lady Janine Mateparae. With an early career as a swimwear designer, Lady Janine is particularly interested in the New Zealand fashion design and manufacturing story being told within the exhibition. 

Swimwear manufacture in New Zealand has a long history and starts with wool, with early woollen knitting mills such as Roslyn, Lane Walker Rudkin and Manawatu Knitting mills converting locally grown fleeces into all manner of garments including woollen swimsuits as way to counter the seasonality of woollen underwear. While today wool hardly conjures up images of sleek summer swimwear, these woollen suits were considerably more slimline, lighter and conducive to swimming than their predecessors , the voluminous Edwardian bathing costume of blouse, bloomers and overskirt,  which weighed as much as a bucket of sand when wet.

British garment manufacturers R. & W. H. Symington Ltd saw an opportunity to extend their market and established their New Zealand operation in Palmerston North in 1934 and it was here in 1983, while in her last year of school that Lady Janine responded to an ad for a trainee designer. Symington's factory, known as Libertyland for the famous Liberty brand they produced, made thermal underwear for the winter market and swimwear for summer.

Training was very hands on and Lady Janine spent most of the first eighteen months on the factory floor learning the steps of the manufacturing processes before she embarked on design and pattern making. In her 12 years with the company she not only designed the suits but was also the house model for them.  

Symington’s produced over 30 women’s swimwear designs a season, primarily aimed at the middle market here and in Australia. Fashionable printed nylon lycra for their ranges was imported from Italy. Like high fashion brands Expozay and Moontide, Symington’s kept an eye on overseas trends, while priding themselves on not copying overseas samples instead preferring to design their own ranges.

While our unique fashion identity is often attributed to the showing of the New Zealand four (Zambesi, World, Nom’d and Karen Walker) at London Fashion Week in 1999, At the Beach proposes there was a precursor to this success that has had a profound impact on our style of dress.  From the late 1970s our talent for creating original swimwear designs gave us some of our biggest fashion industry successes with Expozay and Moontide.  These firms produced original print and suit designs, using indigenous imagery and our beach lifestyle to promote their brand values. As Kate Sylvester says beach culture is reflected in our everyday wear. “It’s intrinsic to our cultural identity — the reason our natural style is so casual is that we’d all rather be at the beach.”