'For you Grandma'- Kiri Nathan dedicates honour to the woman who inspired her most

By Jessica Tyson

Fashion designer Kiri Nathan has received the insignia of a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit – an achievement she dedicates to her grandmother.

“Today was special because of my grandmother. My grandmother, on my Pākeha side, was a real royalist and she is the reason that I started sewing," Nathan said after receiving the honour at Government House for her services to Māori and the fashion industry.

“She’ll be having a champers up there. She would have been over the moon about this particular acknowledgment.”

Nathan receives the insignia of a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit photographed with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy / Source: File

Nathan says her grandmother, Inez Fullerton, was from the era where all women knew how to sew and knit and were real homemakers and were beautiful craftspeople.

“I still have her Singer sewing machine that I used to sit at the foot of when I used to watch her sewing," she says.

"As soon as you walk through the front door of our whare that’s the first thing that you see, her old sewing machine. So today is really special. I bought her favourite flowers, irises. I filled the whole kitchen table with irised this morning so we just sat around and thought about Grandma.”

Kiri Nathan and her whānau / Source: Kiri Nathan, Facebook

Joining her to celebrate the investitures ceremony yesterday was her husband, Jason Nathan, her father and three of her five children.

“What they see is the mahi, the day in and day out mahi, and the juggle, and the reality of what it is to try and do what we’re doing. So it’s really nice for them to come and see how other people might perceive that and just to be in this kind of environment.”

She says it was nice for her father to be there, especially on behalf of her grandmother.

“It’s a bit of an emotional day for my dad as well just in regards to my grandma. We’re all thinking about my grandma today," says Nathan.

Kiri Nathan showcases at NZ Fashion Week / Source: Kiri Nathan, Facebook

Fashion icon

Ten years ago Nathan, of Ngāpuhi, Waikato, Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Haua, founded the Kiri Nathan label and has developed it into an internationally acclaimed high-end fashion brand with a distinctly Māori essence and aesthetic.

Nathan’s label has contributed to upholding the values of Māoridom through her designs, including handwoven accessories, custom dresses, contemporary iterations of traditional korowai, kākahu and artwork. Her husband Jason Nathan is the creator of the label's pounamu jewellery and pounamu artwork.

Devon Toi & Maia Cotton for He Kākano Ahau / Photographer: David K Shields

“Being able to create pieces that really move people is a privilege and Jason and I have been really lucky to learn some of these crafts and move them into different and contemporary spaces.”

Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex wearing Kiri Nathan pounamu / Source: Kiri Nathan, Facebook

Together the couple has met and gifted pounamu and korowai to prominent figures including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Barrack Obama, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Demi Lovato as well as Will.I.Am and Ed Sheeran.

“We’ve been really lucky to have been exposed to world leaders and so forth but it’s just as special when someone we don’t know comes from anywhere all over the motu and they’re bought to tears or emotional over their taonga.”

Distinguished Professor Dame Jane Harding wearing a korowai made by Kiri Nathan / File

At the request of Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, Nathan wove two contemporary kākahu to be used to cloak women in all future knighting investiture ceremonies. Yesterday one of the korowai was worn by Distinguished Professor Dame Jane Harding, a world-leading neonatologist at the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute.

"Those two kākahu were in our whare for so long. These things become part of the whānau and so it was really nice to see them again and, even Jason, he did a little bit of lashing on the ahu on that so that was really special.”

Kāhui Fashion Collective open high-end Māori fashion store / Te Ao February 2020

Kāhui Collective

Nathan recently established the Kāhui Collective, a group that fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing to create a uniquely Māori fashion industry.

She has led several hīkoi to China from 2017 to 2019 to support 15 Māori fashion designers into global growth.

“It was just a couple of designers in need. I raised some pūtea and took them to China to introduce them to the fabric markets. What that has eventually led to over three years of a lot of mahi and a lot of conversations is the first Māori Fashion Coalition with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise so that’s the first in our history,” says Nathan.

Kāhui Fashion Collective on its hikoi in China / Photographer: Damien Nikora

Designers from the Kāhui Fashion Collection also showed at Guangzhou Fashion Week in 2019.

“The moments that really touch my heart are when I see them actively collaborating or helping each other into new opportunities tuakana, teina kind of situation. But it’s just lovely to see you have a vision for something and just seeing the reality of that.”

Model wears Kiri Nathan on the Great Wall of China during Kāhui Collective hikoi / Photographer Damien Nikora.

Lifting Māori fashion standards

Nathan says she wants to see Māori fashion standards lifted to cultural and business excellence.

“Then to see that offering throughout the world so that its delivering education, connection to our culture but also education on what is the  appropriate way to act or consume, to think about the larger picture; sustainable and ethical practices and how they relate directly to traditional practices.”

She says the challenge has been that there’s never been an example of how designers can take beautifully crafted fashion “that has been sourced from our culture and then sold with total respect to our culture, not only in our own country but also to the world.”

“We’ve been doing this for centuries for generations and all around the world, indigenous peoples, so it’ll be really lovely to see that not only normalised but really thrive because it's real and it's beautiful and should be valued.”

Mikaara Kirkwood for project He Kākano Ahau / Image by David K Shields

Reo journey

Nathan has decided to take a year off study full immersion te reo Māori fulltime alongside her eldest child Astley Nathan.

“It’s that thing I’ve been wanting to pursue for so long, and always the mahi comes first, or the tamariki come first, it always seemed to get pushed down the line of priorities so my husband and I just sat down and had a kōrero and I just can’t do it anymore, I just can’t live without a better grasp of the reo.”

The pair have enrolled to study at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa in Auckland.

“So a full year with our mātāmua next year at Takiura and I’m so excited. So I have to do two years of work this year so that I can study and just give it everything next year.”