Telling stories through fashion: A history of eco-friendly Starfish

Telling stories through fashion: A history of eco-friendly Starfish

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.

I’m sitting in a popular Wellington café with Te Papa archivist Jennifer Twist and Laurie Foon – founder of the Wellington-based Starfish fashion label.

We’re chatting about the amazingly rich document and ephemera archive that Laurie has gifted to Te Papa.

Laurie describes fashion designers as “storytellers”.

This really tweaks my interest as I’ve only recently joined Te Papa, coming from a documentary and storytelling background, and this is the first time I had equated storytelling with clothing design.

Printed fabric samples from the Wonderland collection, Winter 2006, CA001200/004/0002. Photo by Gareth Watkins

Laurie talks to us about bringing fashion back home; of designs and fabrics that can “illustrate who we are” while reacting to overseas trends.

For her it’s about designing clothing that celebrates what Wellington is about, and that, in Laurie’s words, can “travel the distance of a day” and which are “unique but also utilitarian.”

The Foon/Starfish archive spans 1993-2013, and contains items relating to the creation of over 40 fashion collections (four collections were produced in some years).

My role over the next six months is to catalogue and rehouse the items for researchers in the future.

I’m working with original sketches, fabric swatches, and photographic negatives, plus finished look books, marketing material, and finalised narratives for each collection – all of which give a wonderful insight into the label’s design and manufacturing processes.

Drawings by co-designer Carleen Schollum and fabric swatches from the Pretty City collection, Winter 2005, CA001200/007/0001. Photo by Gareth Watkins

For example, each fashion collection has a narrative that is inspired by a local story – whether it’s celebrating individuals such as Nancy ‘The White Mouse’ Wake (who fought with the French Resistance in WW2), or taking inspiration from Laurie’s great-grandfather William Yan-Foon who emigrated from China to Wellington in the 19th Century, or advocating – in the Joyride collection – for the greater use of public transport.

Laurie says the narrative needs to anchor the collection throughout its 14-month life cycle: from concept to end-of-season sale.

It informs the marketing, garment design and fabric choices.

Starfish workbooks, CA001201. Photo by Gareth Watkins

She goes on to tell us that sustainability and eco-friendly practices, along with community mindedness were core values for Starfish. Whenever possible, they sourced sustainable fabrics and manufactured garments locally.

Their commitment to local communities fed into campaigns (with accompanying tee shirts): Bypass My Ass [protesting plans to build a traffic bypass through upper Cuba Street], Save our Streets, and I Love Te Aro.

Starfish sustainable fabric label, CA001202. Photo by Gareth Watkins

The Foon/Starfish archive also highlights for me some of the technological and manufacturing changes seen over the last 25-years.

Think about how computers have advanced since 1991, how designing, printing and photography have changed, and how the internet has blossomed into its own retail space.

As I work through the archive I find myself smiling at the creativity, playfulness, and joy in the designs.

I only have to think on garment names from the Heirloom collection to put a grin on my face: the Honey I’m Home dress, Remember Me By top, Simple Pleasure pant, To Be Proud Of coat, Hand Me On dress, Little Treasure scarf, and Always My Favourite jacket.

The fashion collections still resonate and the storytelling continues.


  1. I thought I’d found a treasure when I discovered Laurie & her sister’s stall in the James Smiths market & took much joy in seeing Laurie’s business grow into Starfish. Well done for all you have achieved x

  2. I bought some fantastic tops from Starfish when you were in the market down by Wellington waterfront. I treasured them as they were so beautiful and made me feel gorgeous again after I’d had my baby! Thanks

  3. So pleased to see this epic journey honoured and documented! I still have many garments still in my wardrobe. One from the old James Smith days. Now that’s a sustainable garment!
    Thank you Laurie et al, Thank you Te Papa. x

    1. Same! I’ve been a Starfish fan since 1993 Jive Junkies at Wakefield Market, and am still wearing my Leisure Pants to do the gardening, so that is damn good price per wear! Love Starfish, love the ethics, such a shame that cheap polyester crap wins over quality. Great idea to document this.

  4. Yah for Starfish and Laurie Foon! Laurie was also heavily involved in the anti-
    Bypass campaign. You can see her iconic ‘Bypass my Ass’ t-shirts and other donated memorabilia from this campaign in the Attic at Wellington Museum!

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