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Fashion Theme: Will she ever grow up?

Will she ever grow up?

Will she ever grow up? It’s a question Barbara Lee’s friends and family have been asking for many years – it’s also the theme of her debut catwalk show on the opening day of L’Oreal New Zealand Fashion Week.

Barbara is an enduring feature of New Zealand’s fashion scene, designing for women she says are tough yet feminine “and just a little bit wicked”. She’s a contemporary of Canterbury fashionistas, Paula Ryan and Pieter Stewart, but her longevity in the market doesn’t insulate her from pre-show jitters.

“Every season you’re only as good as your last collection,” says Barbara. “That’s the wonderful thing about fashion – each season you’re starting from scratch, you’re at the same point as that kid who just graduated from design school.”

Fashion Week marks a return to wholesaling for Barbara after a break of more than 10 years. In 1991 she was chosen by Air New Zealand to redesign and produce their corporate wardrobe but the scope of the international commission was so huge, she says it took over her life for several years. The success of the Air New Zealand commission in turn generated a separate new business, which has seen Barbara designing and producing corporate wardrobes and school uniforms for clients throughout New Zealand.

However Barbara never gave up her retail store, Panache, in Christchurch’s Tuam Street, and has continued to produce seasonal fashion collections each year. Two months ago she relented to being ‘shoulder tapped’ by Pieter Stewart and is showing at L’Oreal New Zealand Fashion Week in order to launch her return to wholesaling the Barbara Lee fashion label.

Barbara admits her 2004 Winter Collection is somewhat autobiographical.

“It starts with sexy school uniform-style dresses, a theme with relates to our corporate and uniform business but is also based on some of the first garments I ever made when I started out as a designer,” says Barbara.

“The collection tells the story of a young woman who moves from school to university and later the corporate world, with outfits to match each stage of her life. The message to take away is her clothes never lose their edge or their sense of fun and sexiness. So the answer is NO, she never grows up!”

The collection also acknowledges Barbara’s trademark love affair with black and white, pinstripes and “totally outrageous totally unwearable evening wear.”

Over the years, Barbara has worked with all the big names in the fashion business. Nicky Watson was one of her favourite models when she was still a Christchurch schoolgirl. Barbara also recalls a Benson and Hedges awards night where she dressed three of the key presenters – Kirsteen Britten, Paula Ryan and Maysie Bestal-Cohen. Another coup was when a garment she gave to Miss New Zealand won ‘best gown’ at the ’97 Miss World competition.

“At heart, I love fashion. It’s never boring, you’re either drinking champagne or cutting your throat.”

The critically acclaimed South Island breakbeat band, Minuit (pron: min-wee), is providing some of the music for Barbara Lee’s show and they are attending as guests. Their album – the 88 – has attracted rave reviews, including, “One of the classiest releases of 2003,” Rip It Up. “This is highly original music, unlike anything else coming out of New Zealand. For once, do believe the hype,” Nick Gormack, The Press.

Barbara Lee is showing in the Group 1 show at 2pm on Monday 20 October at the Town Hall. Together with fellow Canterbury labels, Sakaguchi and tango, Barbara Lee is sponsored by ClothesLink Canterbury.

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