How Rita Angus landscapes inspired a Starfish collection

It’s not every day that you get to delve into the nitty-gritty details of a fashion label. Te Papa’s assistant archivist Gareth Watkins is going through Starfish’s archive, recently gifted to Te Papa. Read his first blog here.

“It’s my product. It’s my vision. It’s my dream. It’s my life,” writes Laurie Foon, founder of the Starfish fashion label in the late 1990s.

Laurie’s business notebooks from that period not only contain work notes but also have many handwritten self-affirmations which suggest the complexities of juggling the personal, the professional, the business and the creative sides of developing a fashion label from scratch:

Text from Laurie Foon notebook

Text from Laurie Foon notebook, circa 1997. Photograph by Gareth Watkins. Te Papa (CA001202-002-0001)

It’s fascinating to be able to read Laurie’s aims for the Starfish label shortly before the first fashion collection was released in the summer of 1997/98.

Text from Laurie Foon notebook

Text from Laurie Foon notebook, 1997. Photograph by Gareth Watkins. Te Papa (CA001201-001-0002)

“Design Rules:

1. Think before we buy (overnight)
2. Watch gaudy prints and strong fabrics
3. Think big styles as well
4. Design the layer the whole way
5. Sizing right – 8 – 10 – 12 – 14
6. Carry the design story through
7. Name the garment
8. If we don’t love it – can it!
9. Timelessness
10. People come to us for something special
11. Simplicity. Clean. Cut detail.”

Another aspect of Laurie’s work that I find stimulating is the way that she reimagines and reinterprets local landscapes and artists into her garment design, as demonstrated in the Heirloom fashion collection co-designed with Carleen Schollum.

Heirloom workbook featuring fabric scraps and a postcard of a painting by RIta Angus

Heirloom workbook, 2009, CA-001201-004-0001, which includes a postcard image of Cass by Rita Angus, 1936. Collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. Image reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Photograph by Gareth Watkins

The inspiration for Heirloom came from a visit to Te Papa in 2008 when Laurie and Carleen saw a retrospective exhibition of Rita Angus, one of New Zealand’s most significant painters.

The workbook makes me think about the cyclical nature of this fashion collection: how the garment designs are inspired by an exhibition at Te Papa and now, almost 10 years later, they themselves become part of Te Papa’s collection.

The Heirloom narrative reads: “Inspired by the work and ongoing legacy of Rita Angus, Heirloom acknowledges things that are precious to us and things that we want to pass on. Central to this is enduring design and the use of natural and eco-friendly materials to create garments that will be treasured for seasons to come.”

Indeed, Megan, a reader of my first blog, commented that she still has many Starfish garments in her wardrobe – even one from the early 1990s: “Now that’s a sustainable garment!”

The Heirloom narrative continues: “The colour palette also channels Rita’s work, with her love of New Zealand landscapes and light reflected in a blend of earthy tones and vivid highlights.”

The New Zealand landscape also features in Laurie’s notebooks, with entries documenting caravan trips to the West Coast of the South Island, where Laurie notes, “This coast brings out my own wildness – and issues.”

But Laurie’s hunger for inspiration isn’t confined to the people and landscape of New Zealand. Energy bounces off the page in this entry written during a trip to New York City in 1997:

“Here I realise, that if ever you are stagnating in life, here is the place to come
Here is the brain food
Whatever you think, whatever your emotion, whatever your colour, whatever you believe
Whatever you want
Here is the place to understand, here it’s alright
BRAIN FOOD
I am alive
I realize it’s all OK
You are with me forever
and the world is our home
To learn, see and experience
To be is the aim
And we are
Be not afraid of any emotion
Especially not love”

Text from Laurie Foon notebook

Text from Laurie Foon notebook, 1997. Photograph by Garth Watkins. Te Papa (CA001202-002-0001)

And another favourite quote I find: “When the world ZIGS you’ve got to ZAG” – an inspired suggestion.

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