Not one to seek the limelight, Adrienne Winkelmann did allow herself some pride on being awarded AUT University’s top honour, an honorary doctorate in 2016. Part of that gratification stemmed from the knowledge that she had left school at 15 because she never felt she fitted into the academic mould. Nonetheless, following her creative instincts has proved to be the path to a long career as one of New Zealand’s most enduring and successful contemporary haute couture fashion designers.
Adrienne remembers the day when ATI (now AUT University) informed her that she’d been accepted into its design course – a course that was notoriously hard to get into. That was one of the happiest moments of her life. She was 21 and the possibly the oldest student in her year.
She launched her own label and opened a boutique in Mayfair Mall off Auckland’s Queen Street in 1978 with capital of just $5000.
In 1984 she moved to the new Commercial Union Building Arcade at the top of Vulcan Lane.
Since 2000 Adrienne has operated her high-end couture business from a shop in Chancery, on Courthouse Lane. Adrienne maintains a large workroom in nearby O’Connell Street where she also houses her extensive collection of fabrics, a pattern archive, and the thousands of fashion magazines she has been collecting since she was a teenager.
The attraction to fashion came first and foremost from her mother, Kathleen, now in her 80s. Adrienne describes her mother as a woman of dignity, elegance and great style who understood her daughter’s passion for beautiful, visual things. Kathleen came from a large Croatian family, dressed beautifully, sewed for her sisters, and later, for her daughters. In her teens Adrienne became obsessed with the desire to design.
"In the late 1970s I have strong memories of taking the bus to town on Friday afternoons after school to check out all the fabulous designer boutiques of the day – Hullabaloo, Amy, Pussyfooting and Tigermoth and dreaming that one day this would be my world."
At ATI Adrienne studied both design and business management and won prizes in several design competitions. She remembers being quite put out when receiving one first and a third place in a particular contest. She queried this. "They said I simply couldn’t win them all! Why not? I never really understood that!"
'Knowing your business' and 'doing things properly' were concepts she learned from her mother and are still guiding principles. Doing things properly meant learning all aspects of the fashion business. As a student she studied pattern-making, developed her interest in tailoring and had the opportunity to do work placements in 'real world' of the local fashion industry. "I think a lot of people think fashion designers are artists but you’re a tradesperson; you have to be able to cut a pattern and do all those sorts of things."
Over the years she has learned how to balance creativity with having a good business head. Resilience too. One of the major setbacks of her life was fighting a ferocious cancer while she was in her early 40s. "Some of the toughest times were coming to work while undergoing chemotherapy. I needed to and wanted to – to ensure that the business continued to flourish and all my clients and staff were taken care of."
When she left ATI Adrienne worked as head designer for Australian company, Prue Acton. "I was so nervous that I designed my first range in the quiet of night," she remembers.
With a legacy from her late father and the support of her mother, Adrienne opened her first shop. She says her mother’s help was invaluable. "She worked beside me for years while I was developing my business and encouraged me to be better than I ever imagined."
Another very important family member was her sister Helen who was a willing guinea pig and all round good sport when it came to indulging her younger sister’s sartorial creativity. Adrienne recalls Helen going out on a Saturday night fully "punked up" in 'Adrienne Winkelmann' vinyl hot pants. As a law student, she was also Adrienne’s first house model, and her law student friends became Adrienne’s first customers.
Adrienne talent for creating bold, modern, tailored classics was quickly recognised and she became an editorial favourite whose designs appeared regularly in local fashion magazines at both ends of the fashion spectrum from the glossy high end Fashion Quarterly to the street style broadsheet ChaCha.
Her sister Helen is now a Court of Appeal judge and Adrienne continues to design for independent, successful women. "I really always wanted to work with businesswomen because I really enjoy women who are doing interesting things – women who are responsible for their own destiny really. It is important to me that my clothes enhance and reflect the positions these women hold, while still being elegant and feminine."
Her clientele spans several countries, and includes local female members of Parliament. "We have a big client base in Australia – a lot of them are women who have come to New Zealand for business and continue to buy from us when they go home. We know their sizes and they’ll just ring up." Adrienne and key staff cross the Tasman two or three times a season to fit clients.
Adrienne produces two collections a year of between 60-70 garments. She is proud that all of her garments, which can be bought off the rack or made to measure, are locally made and focused on quality. She says she doesn’t really take time out to design a range – the process these days is more organic. She takes a lively interest in the ideas of her talented and loyal crew; a core staff of 25 that can extend to around 30 at collection times.
Adrienne’s designs reference her favourite eras – Schiaparelli and Chanel from the 1950s; the 1960s with the 'Jackie O' look. Other favourite designers include Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Courrèges and Alexander McQueen. She particularly enjoys working on couture evening dresses, "Not that I ever wear one!" She is also enjoying the return of fashion to more feminine styles where she can indulge her love of colour and beautiful fabrics.
Adrienne attributes the longevity and success of her business to family support, talented staff, a strong work ethic and most of all, the sheer love for her work. There’s no sign of her slowing down after more than 35 years although she says she is trying to cut back on her six-day working week.
"I work hard, but if you love what you do it’s never a chore. We make beautiful clothes and we have a very interesting clientele. To have a creative, fun workplace is important for me. I’ve always just loved it."
Text by Katherine Findlay.
Published October 2017, updated August 2019.