Donna Tulloch & Mild-Red
As a 4th former at Gore High School in the 1960s, Mild-Red designer Donna Tulloch says her idol was the English fashion model Twiggy. "I loved her fashion and I loved her look."
A keen sewer from an early age, with her sights set on doing "something in fashion" when she left school, Donna sent Twiggy some of her fashion sketches and was delighted to receive an encouraging letter and a signed photograph in reply. Both the letter and the photograph are still in her possession.
In the early 1970s, Donna White (as she was then) moved to Dunedin where she eventually set up her own business, Donna White, designing and making one-off garments for individual clients. For a short time, she also designed a limited edition children’s-wear range, Loose Goose.
Donna’s big breakthrough came in 1995 with the introduction of Mild-Red, a play on Mildred, her middle name. Inspired by French designer Sonia Rykiel, who was self-taught like herself and whose work she admired, she began with a small range of knitwear that portrayed the common cardy and the woolly jumper in a more fashionable light. Strapped for cash, she bought recovery yarn (unused knitted panels) from Tamahine Knitwear which she would unpick and recycle.
As demand for her knitwear grew, Donna realised she needed to expand into other items of clothing. "To give a complete story, I knew I had to do wovens to complement the knitwear." And so it remains to this day, with wovens making up 70 percent of every Mild-Red collection and knitwear 30 percent.
The collections evolve organically during the design process. There are two a year, with a common theme extending from winter into summer.
Mild-Red’s influence comes from art, sculpture, architecture and the intellectual fashion aesthetic of Japanese designers Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. Fabric informs everything Donna does. She has an instinctive way with cloth, enhancing its properties and piecing materials to create complex three-dimensional shapes. Mixing textures and fibre types, tones and reflective qualities are signatures of her designs. She enjoys experimenting with form, breaking traditional lines, creating a mix of architectural shapes, asymmetrical drape and layering that flow around the body. One piece can often be worn in multiple ways.
Although she has sometimes worked very successfully with prints and patterns, Donna’s current output is mostly monochromatic. She especially loves playing with the many shades of black.
In Auckland for New Zealand Fashion Week in 2002, world-renowned fashion commentator, author and academic Colin McDowell singled Mild-Red out for praise. He had heard of Zambesi, WORLD and Trelise Cooper before coming to New Zealand, he said in a radio interview, but Mild-Red was a complete surprise. "I saw a label earlier this week called Mild-Red. I had never heard of this label and I was absolutely bowled over by the sophistication and elegance and maturity, the control of it all, beautiful shapes, beautiful subtle colours. It could have been from most of the capitals of the world. It was really that good."
Being based in Dunedin hasn’t prevented Donna Tulloch from exhibiting and selling her designs globally. She sells throughout New Zealand and Australia and is also stocked at Galerie Paris in Yokohama in Japan where, in 2008, she had both a solo and joint exhibition as part of the Triennial of Contemporary Art. The joint exhibition was a collaboration with the New Zealand sculptor Graham Bennett who created flexible, articulate spiny sculptures to accompany and be worn with and on Donna’s outfits. One of Donna’s pieces for this show featured The Pride of New Zealand tartan, a black, grey and white plaid designed by Dunedin bespoke tailor Ivan Coward with help from John Clark of Alliance Textiles.
Mild-Red continues to be proudly made in New Zealand. Donna is passionate about living in Dunedin, keeping her manufacturing local and her business a hands-on manageable size. She says she would never manufacture outside New Zealand. "I would close down rather than have that happen."
In 2014, in collaboration with her daughter Brya, Donna Tulloch opened her own retail space at the Mild-Red headquarters in Dunedin. Described by Donna as "lying between a concept store and a boutique", it showcases the entire Mild-Red collection complemented by accessories and jewellery from other like-minded designers.
In 2017, Donna Tulloch was selected as Toitū Otago Settlers Museum contemporary designer of the year.
Text by Cecilie Geary.
Last published December 2015.