Simple shapes are given a rich new life with Rotorua-based designer Adrienne Whitewood’s graphic prints. Her inspiration comes from patterns she sees around her - in harakeke mats, the teeth of the māngo-taniwha and the architecture of Rotorua Museum for example. "I absolutely love the path that print design has taken me on - a journey of self-exploration learning how I can better my application and knowledge of Māori design," she says.
Adrienne was born in 1987 in Rotorua, where many of her extended whānau worked in the clothing industry. "Both my parents met at a garment manufacturing factory. My dad was a button sewer and my mum was his boss." Adrienne’s grandmother was a seamstress. "My kuia showed me how to sew when I was eight years old and I have been fascinated with design ever since."
After finishing high school, Adrienne moved to Auckland for three years to study fashion design at AUT. But this isn’t the only study she has done. "I completed a certificate in whakairo (carving) at Toi Ohomai seven years ago, so that really inspired my designs."
When she graduated from AUT, Adrienne founded her label and started selling her designs in collective spaces and pop-up shops. In 2013 she opened her store, Ahu Boutique, the name derived from kakahu, the Māori word for clothing. Located on Eruera Street in Rotorua, Adrienne says she is committed to seeing cultural business growth in the CBD. "I grew up here and I want to be part of the retail scene."
Although Rotorua is home, Adrienne’s iwi Rongowhakaata, is from Gisborne. Her connection with the current Iwi in Residence at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa led to an invitation to create a collection inspired by the exhibition Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow. Adrienne designed a range for men and women called Pītau, based on a print that she designed with members of her iwi. "This print talks about my ancestral heritage, where I come from and a lot about the historical thought process going on at the time and how it shaped storytelling. It’s such an organic print, inspired by the Pītau-a-Manaia (the figurative made visible) from the artists of my iwi, where positive and negative create inspired meaning. This design is pure adornment placed on the body to stimulate creativity through formation. It was challenging making it fit on the body so I had to sculpt the shape then apply it digitally to get the sizing just right."
Adrienne says it is always exciting to leave the workroom and show her designs on the runway. Her most recent showing was as part of Ataahua at Auckland Museum in August 2019. The birth of her daughter Harete in March 2019 meant the year has been a juggle between being a mother and running her business; diverse roles she managed to combine when she carried Harete down the runway.
Adrienne is no stranger to the fashion award and show circuit. In 2010 she was the Emerging Designer Runner-Up in the Miromoda Māori Fashion Design Awards which earned her a place in their New Zealand Fashion Week show with her collection, Kimihia He Ngaio. In 2011, as the Supreme Award winner, she made her second appearance at Fashion Week. This was followed by the Supreme Award in the Cult Couture competition part of the Southside Arts Festival in 2012. Her entry was a minidress inspired by the taniko patterned bodices worn by kapa haka performers but transformed into a wearable street dress with a splash of Lady Gaga.
Even though she made two more appearances at Fashion Week in 2012 and 2013 it was not until 2017 that she had her first solo show. With this collection she introduced garments for men as well as for women. Titled Ta, meaning to print, the collection showcased a range of patterns drawn from the Māori arts of nga mahi whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving) and tukutuku (ornamental lattice work).
Despite her apparent success at New Zealand Fashion Week, Adrienne says it provided a reality check. "I had all these big dreams and I thought when I first did NZFW I was going to make it from there. I thought someone might discover my label and want to sign me and I was going to get all these orders."Embed from Getty Images
Instead, sales and orders come from visitors to Ahu Boutique. As well as tourists, her garments are popular with locals including many Aotearoa women with profile such as Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, singer songwriter Maisey Rika, television host Kahurangi Maxwell and Fashion Museum director Doris de Pont.
In an interview with Urbis magazine (2018), she said she loves the idea of an emotional connection to indigenous design. "I find a lot of my customers buy something because it reminds them of things they had as a child growing up in New Zealand. Flax and woven prints have been some of the most popular designs." Adrienne’s garments have also been collected by the Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa.
Becoming a mother has changed Adrienne’s whole approach to business. She is currently pursuing environmentally sustainable textiles and manufacturing processes overseas to increase her care of holistic thoughtful design. And she is also focused on making her business financially more sustainable so that she is, in her words, still around in 20 years. "Right now I’m working on my product and distribution. When I’m only a small team then I have to put focus on turning the numbers and keeping the wheel going." Her mentors, Tania Rupapera, Kiri Nathan and Maria Palmer, support her to do this. Tania shares her knowledge about the retail industry, Kiri mentors Adrienne on manufacturing in China and Maria helps with the business aspect of owning a fashion label.
Pop-up stores are proving to be successful approach for Adrienne to expand her customer base and in her pop-up on Wellington’s waterfront in September 2019, she sold her garments alongside a broad range of textile homewares. Her ambition for Ahu to be 'the home of Māori fashion' moved a step closer when she and her business and life partner, Hoete Mitai- Ngatai, opened a second retail outlet in Wellington's Victoria Street in March 2022.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Adrienne Whitewood at New Zealand Fashion Week, 2017.
Published July 2022.