V&A’s Selling Dreams exhibition chronicles 100 years of fashion photography—and with it all the glamour, mystery and drama. Auckland Museum talks to WORLD founder Denise L’Estrange-Corbet about the label’s own Eureka moment in the 90s, selling their dream and channelling a vortex of creativity onto the runway.
AM: Irving Penn said of his role with Vogue: “I always thought we were selling dreams, not clothes.” How would you describe what you do?
Denise L’Estrange-Corbet : WORLD’s by-line since our inception in 1989 is ‘Factory of Ideas and Experiments…’ which is how we see ourselves. Our studio is a constant hive of activity in the product and development stages of garment construction, with fabrics and the other mediums we have worked in. We are always pushing boundaries and collaborating with different techniques and artisans in an effort to extend ourselves. All designers today have to produce wearable ranges if we are to continue funding what we really love—which is completely losing oneself in an idea. The true genius of a fashion designer is to create pieces which are outstanding, which gives the audience a glimpse of how their creative minds work. A catwalk with everyday boring clothes is a show I do not want to be at. I want to be inspired, regenerated, enthralled, mystified, drawn in, elated, flummoxed, all at the same time, which is how people feel when they attend a WORLD show. They want to see more, they want to know how you did what you did, and complain the show was too quick. At a WORLD show they see things never seen before in fashion. I want them to walk away thinking “How did they do that?”, as opposed to “Why did they do that?”
WORLD has done all of the above to the public since our first show and worked in mediums never used in clothing before. We do this for the public as much as for ourselves, as we want to challenge our creative genius, so our brains don’t shrivel up, wither and die. I still want to wake up in the middle of the night thinking “I’ve got it” when thinking of how to create something. I want my ideas to keep me awake at night working out how it is going to come together. Our last catwalk show featured LED lighting, and was so intricate, nobody could possibly imagine. I want the left side of my brain to collapse from exhaustion as opposed to boredom. I want WORLD to leave its mark in the history books of New Zealand fashion, as the most experimental and boundary-pushing brand of its time—it has limitless possibilities. That is where WORLD is. That is how WE are. That is the genius of WORLD.
AM: Are there stand out moments where you observed New Zealand’s own story of selling dreams start to take shape?
Denise L’Estrange-Corbet: I guess it was in 1999 when we were the first brand out on the catwalk at London Fashion Week. We had been forewarned by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, that it is unheard of for London buyers to place an order for an unknown brand—especially a little one from New Zealand, that arrived without fanfare or masses of promotional material. It was explained that even small buyers preferred to wait three seasons to ensure the brand they are looking at was reliable, as there are so many things at play here. Rack space is one, as another label has to be dropped to accommodate a new one in the stores—and that is just the start, there are a whole myriad of issues at play here. We showed our collection, did a few interviews, and expected nothing more. That evening a cocktail party was held on the roof at New Zealand House in Haymarket for all the NZ brands involved. No sooner had we walked in, we were approached by a lady called Debbie Taylor, the Head Buyer of Women’s Designer Fashion brands at Selfridges. We had no idea who she was, and she said “Hi, are you WORLD? I want to buy your entire collection for Selfridges, has anyone else bought it yet?” At first we thought she was joking! She was relieved she was the first department store to nab us, and we were gobsmacked. The next day Liberty approached us with the same offer. We were the first NZ brand to achieve this sort of recognition after one showing; we knew then that selling our dreams was taking shape. We realised our vision was being recognised and understood by the fashion elite—that is incredible ideas, and what fashion is about. To do something different, to claim your own fashion signature, and to run with it, and that was all we needed to know we were really good at what we do.
Auckland Museum thanks Denise L’Estrange-Corbet MNZN, and WORLD for their support of V&A’s Selling Dreams exhibition.