SooKim

Late 1970s-1989

The Cook Street Market was the birthplace and training ground for many New Zealand designers - a hub where creativity and a can-do attitude flourished. Suzanne (Sue) Bringans and Kim Panther founded their fashion label, SooKim, at Cook Street. They started simply with sarongs, but soon they had enough of a following to open a SooKim retail store in 1983.

Sue grew up in Wellington where her father managed a men’s clothing store and her mother was an expert seamstress. She learnt to sew at a young age, designing her own version of the latest fashions. "I always wanted to wear beautiful clothes. When I couldn’t afford them, I went to op shops and re-designed the stuff I bought there." (Sunday Star, 22 January 1989).

Sue moved to Auckland in 1974 when she was 27 years old. After dabbling in hairdressing and teaching art, she became a stallholder at the Cook Street Market in the late 1970s. It was a busy hub of all sorts of creative enterprise with lots of young customers taking advantage of one of the few venues that traded on Saturdays. At $25 the stall rent was relatively cheap which made it possible for creative young designers to make a living from their craft.

Sue Bringans in her Cook Street Market stall. Image © Jason Bringans.

Sue was brimming with new ideas and her then life and business partner, Kim Panther, was a skilled pattern cutter able to translate her design ideas and cut out the garments. Initially Sue did the sewing herself but as the business grew she employed others to help produce enough stock to meet demand.

'SooKim' was a combination of both their names; its Japanese sound perfectly captured the rising influence of designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Commes des Garçons and their aesthetic on western fashion.

SooKim label. Image © Jason Bringans.

In 1983 Sue and Kim closed the market stall and signed the lease on a retail store on Victoria Street West in Auckland. They found their shop manager, Sandi Reefman, working at Hullabaloo. "I’d recently returned from Australia and I met Sue when I was working at Hullabaloo. She was doing clothing that was fresh, innovative and exciting and I wanted to be part of it." Sandi managed the SooKim store for more than three years when she left to work for Chrissy R in her shop in High Street.

The shop was a large space with a sit down area, a conservatory down the back and amazing window displays. They didn’t just sell clothes. They sold applied art objects such as clocks made by students and Sue designed jewellery from recycled materials such as rubber stoppers and metal pieces. She was an inventive designer who was constantly looking for new materials. She re-cut old jerseys from the army store, added fur and sold them as glamorous recreations.

A SooKim fashion show, 1980s. Image © Jason Bringans.

Rubber was another material she used and her neoprene swimwear and tops were featured on the pages of glossy magazines.

The business grew and before long they opened a factory in Birkenhead with 10 dressmakers. SooKim was being worn by television news presenters and the actresses on the tv show, Gloss. Sue’s son remembers: "I would walk into a club like Zanzibar or Playground, and every single woman was wearing SooKim."

The SooKim label was also sold in designer Denise Campbell’s shop on Ponsonby Road, Zainy.

It wasn’t all glamorous behind the scenes. Sue was proud to say that it was hard work and a struggle at times. But it was her strength that drew women to her designs. She told the Sunday Star in 1989 that women identify with her strong spirit. "That’s what draws them in here. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve met some amazing women."

Sue Bringans. Image © Jason Bringans.

Sue and Kim closed their Victoria Street shop in January 1989. It prompted by a rent increase and Sue was exhausted after a bout of cervical cancer and the prospect of surgery on a faulty heart. Later that year she took a much needed holiday. She visited the markets in Paris where her great-grandfather had worked centuries earlier as a silk merchant.

She returned from Paris inspired, with a suitcase full of fabric, to open a stall at the Oriental Markets on Auckland’s waterfront. The Oriental Markets were home to several former Cook Street Market stallholders, including Adrienne Foote. Sue continued to design under the SooKim label, making street and club wear, before leaving the world of fashion to open a cafe with her son Jason. Sue became unwell again and died in 2009.

Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image © Jason Bringans.

Last published August 2017.

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