Flora MacKenzie began her working life as a nurse and ended it as a brothel owner. In between, she spent three decades as a very successful fashion designer.
Flora was born in Auckland in 1902. She was the daughter of Sir Hugh Ross MacKenzie, a farmer and horse stud owner in Mangere and chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board.
After finishing secondary school Flora began her training as a nurse, but she abandoned that before she had completed it and moved to Sydney where she discovered she had a flair for dressmaking.
On her return to New Zealand, she opened a business, Ninette Costumier, with Mrs N Austin. The salon was located firstly in rooms 16 and 20 (later rooms 9 and 10) of the Hallensteins Building on Queen Street. By 1927, Flora was the sole owner of the business, now called Ninette Gowns.
Ten years later Flora moved her salon to the top floor of the Vulcan Buildings. The new address was the prestigious north corner of Queen Street and Vulcan Lane.
Bruce Papas was employed as an embroidery designer at Ninette Gowns. Every morning he would take the lift up to the expansive workroom on the 4th floor. It had large windows that faced the workroom of Beggs Music Store and balconies that overlooked Queen Street.
The fitting room was decorated in a 'Black Chinese Banquet' theme, featured large mirrors, alabaster lamps and furniture embossed with mother of pearl. There were also black velvet curtains that Flora embroidered with gold dragons. She was very talented at embroidery.
Bruce completed a five-year apprenticeship at Ninette Gowns, moving on from embroidery design to managing the workroom and working closely with customers. In the late 1930s, Ninette Gowns had about eight staff, including cutters, sewers, embroiderers, steamers and an accountant.
Working hours were 8am until 4:30pm, unless overtime was required to complete orders for occasions such as society ‘dos’ and balls. "It was a great atmosphere," recalls Bruce. "There wasn’t too much chattering - everyone had a job to do."
Ninette Gowns was very successful, attracting a prosperous clientele from Auckland’s more affluent suburbs. Women living in more remote areas also wore Ninette Gowns. Flora would post sketches of her designs and fabric swatches for approval. The completed garment would also be sent by post - wrapped in cellophane or tissue paper and packaged in a box. Often the original design sketch would be included. In the 1940s, Clifton Firth photographed several Ninette Gowns garments in their boxes.
Flora insisted on high quality fabric which she bought from agents who visited with large swatchbooks. She would only buy what she liked - fabric from Abraham Silks in Switzerland was a favourite. Flora bought her fabric in lengths; the small meterage kept her garments exclusive. Ninette Gowns was also known for its skillful use of chiffon and guipuire lace.
During the Second World War there were shortages of the kind of luxury materials that Flora liked to use in her designs. There were rumours that she sent her staff down to the fish market to collect fish scales, which were washed and stitched onto dresses instead of sequins. By this time, Bruce Papas had left to start his own business, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if this was true - Flora was a very inventive person and was open-minded in her approach to design.
Many of Ninette Gowns garments were embroidered, adding to their value and originality. Most of the embroidery was done by hand but there was a large machine which "clunked away" in the corner. The machine was used mostly for eyelet work on the lapels of a coat or feature embroidery on a wool dress.
Not far away was Betty Sharman’s salon where Bruce loved taking a customer to choose a hat to go with their new garment by Ninette Gowns.
Flora closed Ninette Gowns in about 1958.