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‘I've traveled all over the world, yet the building blocks of my life are in Tāmaki Makaurau.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Qiane Matata-Sipu


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Gems in
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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN in partnership with Tourism New Zealand

Energized by her Aotearoa whenua (homeland) and the art forms of her tūpuna (ancestors), designer Kiri Nathan is using high-end Indigenous fashion to share Māori stories with the world.

Based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Kiri produces handwoven kākahu (garments) and pounamu jewelry that celebrate the history and the future of Māori creativity. Her eponymous label has been worn by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Barack and Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, and Beyoncé, to name a few. Kiri believes ‘culture knows culture’, and she dedicates her time traveling in New Zealand, China, the US and further afield, to uplifting Indigenous storytelling and paving a path for the next generation of creatives. For the Aotearoa Country Special, we chat to Kiri about creativity across cultures, fostering a community through the Kāhui Collective, and exploring her Tāmaki Makaurau Travel Playbook.


On growing up between the UK and New Zealand

For the first eight years of my life, I lived six months in Glen Innes, New Zealand, and six months in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the UK, to follow dad's motorcycle-racing career. My grandfather and all of my uncles raced. My older cousins and I raced motocross too.

On life between the two countries

In the UK, we lived rurally, so we'd walk a half mile every morning to school and back, along country roads. A husband and wife ran the small cottage schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere. Children would come from all around the countryside to this brick house with huge open fireplaces and great big wooden tables, where we'd have breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. Even in the classroom, there was a huge open fireplace that everyone sat around. We learned things like knitting and how to write in old English script. It was fascinating. It was completely different to our day-to-day life in GI, where we were immersed in Māori and Pacifica ‘whānau’ [family]. Tāmaki Makaurau is one of the largest multicultural cities in the world, and is New Zealand’s largest populated city.

On early influences

Since I can remember, Grandma was always cutting out patterns, clothes, and sewing. I can’t think of her without thinking of her sewing and creating garments. When she passed away, a special little box came to me, with kākahu [clothing] that she made. She was the epitome of an English woman. She was a devoted royalist who loved Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and all those beautiful movies, mainly because of the fashion. I loved watching them with her and stepping back into her psyche as a young woman. I wish she had lived to see Meghan Markle wearing one of our pieces. She would've been beside herself. Then, when the honors came through from the Queen, that felt like a koha [gift] for grandma. She would have been proud that we'd built a business out of creativity.

Growing up between the UK and New Zealand, Kiri was strongly influenced by her nomadic lifestyle. One of her earliest influences was her grandmother, who sewed the family’s clothing, sparking Kiri’s interest in fashion. After finishing her studies, Kiri then turned to her love of travel, working as a flight attendant for Air New Zealand, while also creating original designs and submitting them to competitions. All images courtesy of Kiri Nathan.

On how travel has influenced your creativity

We were quite nomadic when we were growing up. We moved house 10 times in one year, and amongst all of those different houses — some of them emergency homes — we lived in a caravan for a year at the back of someone's lot. I grew accustomed to moving and being adaptable. I've always found it easy to travel. My mom liked to get out of Auckland every weekend, so travel was very natural from a young age. I became a flight attendant in my early 20s and that further ignited my travel bug. I'd jump on a bus or find a way to get somewhere and try to immerse myself in the culture of that place, to discover the raw and indigenous culture of that place. Then when I was traveling every week for meetings, I enjoyed the chaos and the excitement of the different foods, cultures and languages.

‘In Aotearoa we are spoiled with our whenua [land], from the top of the north to the bottom of the south.’

On your Māori roots

My grandma and father are Pākehā (New Zealander of European descent). Mom and our tūpuna [ancestors] are Māori. Both my Māori grandparents on my mom’s side ran away from their rural homes. They raised six children without Te Reo Māori, our language, and any knowledge of our culture. Although both could speak Te Reo Māori and held so much knowledge from growing up immersed in our culture, they didn't pass it on to any of their children. Mom was encouraged to marry a Pākehā and live a Pākehā life; my grandparents honestly thought that was best for her future. There was no sense of connection or pride in our whakapapa [genealogy that forms a fundamental principle in Māori culture]. Many other urban Māori have been disconnected from culture. At some point, that feeling of disconnection leads us back to te ao Māori, or at least that's what I would hope for all Māori that are living without.

On your journey to reconnection

I always felt like something was missing; it was a calling from my tūpuna that ignited my reconnection. During my college years I discovered that my creative tendencies had been, for too long, without ahua Māori [essence of Māori]. This sparked a creative beginning for me, however there were no visible reference points; I was unsure where or how to reconnect. I was painfully aware of my lack of knowledge and yet still conscious of my responsibilities to culture. The reclamation process is long and it is ongoing, and it is distressing as you realize how much was stolen over generations of colonization. Whakapapa began to inform my creativity. I was heavily into graffiti at the time and after meeting two Māori fashion designers, I saw clothing as art: it was living, and told stories. During my first year at art school and as my eldest son turned one, I knew I needed to dedicate my work to learning and teaching him about our whakapapa and te ao Māori.

For Kiri, showcasing Māori culture is a fundamental part of her work. Her clothing, which is infused with ‘ahua’ Māori [essence of Māori] and inspired by the beauty of Aotearoa’s lush landscapes, has been worn by the likes of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé, and featured on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week (pictured third row). Trails along the West Coast, including Kitekite Falls and Piha beach, shot by Vaughan Brookfield. First row of Kiri’s designs courtesy of Kiri Nathan, second left image by David K Shields, third row courtesy of Kiri Nathan.

On starting your own label

I’ve spent 30 years creating fashion and art based on my whakapapa and te ao Māori. In 2010, at the age of 38, I decided, along with my husband, that the time was right for me to finally follow my dream of starting a fashion label. We were both committed to creating a brand whose foundations stood firmly in te ao Māori and our responsibilities to culture. We wanted to design and build a label that produced firsts in the form of kākahu and initiatives. In 2010, we had no references of commercially successful Māori brands and there were very real challenges for any Indigenous label, as the industry was simply not built with us in mind. Jason and I had no capital, no business degree, no manufacturing, sales or marketing experience. We were so naive and green, but I guess if we had known what lay ahead, we may never have started! We were blindly committed to our goal of creating a brand no one had experienced before; we knew we had to get up every day and work towards that goal, regardless of the constant reminder that nobody understood or supported what we were trying to achieve.

‘My husband and I were both committed to creating a brand whose foundations stood firmly in te ao Māori and our responsibilities to culture.’

On launching the Kāhui Collective

New Zealand and the global fashion industry have been shaken. What used to be swept under the carpet or not even considered is now an unacceptable way to conduct business. Social media platforms have made it almost impossible for people to get away with nasty ways of running a business and closing doors and pathways for anyone else that might be coming through. The politics of fashion have become more transparent, and demand answers. For me, what started as 'I'm just going to create something I've never seen before,’ is now helping validate the imagination, creativity, and connection to culture of budding Indigenous fashion entrepreneurs. I founded the Kāhui Collective in 2017. The Collective focuses on supporting Māori and Indigenous fashion designers. The one-on-one mentorship I offer is from myself to Māori designers, as I don't feel it’s my place as a Māori to advise Pasifika and other indigenous cultures on their origins. The aim is to bring in Pasifika and indigenous specialists who hold the correct matauranga [knowledge] to support our full Kāhui collective whanau [extended family] appropriately.

On how travel took Kāhui to the next level

A young Māori designer, Adrienne Whitewood, came to me one day and said, 'Can you please help me source my fabric? I'm making my designs, and printing my own fabric here in New Zealand, and it is so expensive, it will put me out of business if I don’t change my model. Can you please hook me up with someone in China that can produce this fabric for me?' I put my first proposal for funding together, received NZ $10,000, and took five Māori fashion designers to China. In 2019, my much brainier friends helped me write another proposal, and we managed to get a larger sum of funding. We took 15 Māori creatives to China for two weeks. We went through six cities, met with some of the most high-level Chinese fashion networks, and shot a documentary and several campaign shoots of the designers’ clothing. I believe culture knows culture. The way we approached relationships, the way we conducted ourselves and business in China was reciprocated with immediate and meaningful connection. We respected the Chinese as mana whenua [people of that land] and our experience was beautiful from beginning to end. It was an insanely productive and emotional experience, a game-changer for Kāhui Collective.

Noticing a distinct lack of resources and support for Māori designers, Kiri founded the Kāhui Collective — a program which provides mentorship and know-how to emerging creators in the fashion industry. In 2017 and 2019, Kiri organized a trip to China for Māori creatives, helping them tap into supply chains, develop networks and expand their businesses there. All images courtesy of Kiri Nathan.

On the first Kāhui Collective pop-up store

The following February, we launched a pop-up store at Britomart [in Auckland]. Britomart is a fashion district that houses some of New Zealand’s and the world’s most well-established fashion brands. It has been cleverly curated by Jeremy Priddy into a village of sophisticated, eclectic and mindful brands that operate together more like whānau than commercial lease neighbors. It has heart and vision. We popped up for a month, and the support from New Zealanders was unreal — people flew in from other parts of the country to come and visit this tiny little cube store with six Māori designers, all because we created a space and experience no one had offered before. We were then going to do New York Fashion Week and Shanghai Fashion Week, however Covid hit.  Travel was at a standstill and fashion weeks across the world moved to digital platforms. Having our first permanent retail store in Britomart is the next step for Kiri Nathan and Kāhui.

On what the Māori concept of ‘manaakitanga’ means to you

Manaakitanga is everything. Being able to make people feel warm, safe, welcomed and cared for, that's always been very important to me. It’s the ngako or center of how I live and run the businesses. It's important to manaaki [cherish, care for and nurture]; when others feel cared for, when they know they are in a safe environment, you're more inclined to have a long-lasting relationship.

‘You can't come to Auckland and not go to the Ōtara Market. It has every kind of Māori and Pasifika food that you could think of. It's an amazing and organic cultural experience.’

On how Tāmaki Makaurau inspires you

My creative roots are steeped in Glen Innes — in what was our way of  being and our community. I've traveled all over the world, yet the building blocks of my life are Glen Innes and Tāmaki Makaurau. It's home; as a rural Māori it has shaped who I am and how I choose to walk in this world. I love to escape every now and then and hit the beach or the lakes, just take a breath in te tai ao [the natural environment]. One of the wonderful things about Aotearoa is that we are spoiled in regard to our whenua [land]; from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, there is stunning natural beauty. There are so many places in my own country that I have yet to walk, kayak or discover. We have everything from mountains, lakes and oceans, and nothing can kill you! There are no lions, tigers or snakes. Abel Tasman Park is one of the most beautiful places to kayak through — it's gorgeous, and I would recommend it to all. Fiordland is also still on our hit list.

On showing friends around your version of Aotearoa

When I have visitors, I take them out to the West Coast to the bushwalks, coastal tracks, Karekare waterfall and beach, Bethells Lake and Beach, and Piha. This coastline is home to the most beautiful coastal walks — hundreds of tracks within the Waitākere. Cascade Falls is a really lovely track, where you can jump in the waterhole and cool off before heading back. Karekare waterfall is where my husband proposed to me and where we got married; it is a special place for us. I love taking visitors on the ferry over to Waiheke Island so we can head to the vineyards, on the beach walks and to the great restaurants — it's beautiful. There's all manner of accommodation if you'd like to stay for a while, or you can go for a day trip. Tāmaki Drive and waterfront is awesome if you'd like a walk, bike or run by the ocean, and you can hire kayaks at Ōkahu Bay. There are also loads of bars and restaurants throughout the bays to choose from.


A Glen Innes girl born and raised, Kiri is a fervent supporter of local businesses there, including her all-time favorite Mexican spot called Chocola (pictured top three images) and Marsic Brothers fish and chips shop (pictured middle). As a way of giving back to the community and supporting emerging Māori creatives from the area, Kiri and her husband are also working on opening a workshop to help incubate rising talent. All images shot by Vaughan Brookfield, final two images of Caretaker cocktail bar in Britomart.

On the best spots for food and drink

The Caretaker is nestled in Britomart's underground. It’s a moody bar that serves up custom cocktails, and you simply let the waiter know what flavors you prefer and they create a cocktail especially curated to your taste — they are primo! Ahi is a wonderful restaurant in Commercial Bay, and Amano in Britomart is one of my favorites for kai [food]. I have a special little place that I love in Glen Innes called Chocola, that serves up authentic Mexican kai — it is so good! Best Mexican in Auckland. It's only open three days a week, for limited hours, and is run by a beautiful husband and wife. It's in this tiny little place hidden behind a hospice [secondhand store], which is also one of the best hospice stores in Auckland. The best fish and chips shop in Auckland is in Glen Innes, called Marsic Bros. If you ask anyone from Glen Innes, they will know Marsic Bros, and if they don't, they're lying about being from Glen Innes. I also take visitors to our farmers markets in Clevedon, Coatesville or Waiheke. Then there's Ōtara Markets — you can't come to Auckland and not go to the Ōtara Market. It has every kind of Māori and Pasifika kai that you could think of. It's an amazing and organic cultural experience. I'd also hit Britomart for the Saturday market, which has some of the most lovely artisan kai and little hidden treasures.


On where to see the history of Māori fashion

If you’re in Tāmaki you can see a collection of historical European fashion and you can view traditional korowai, kākahu and woven pieces in the Māori gallery in the war museum. Alternatively, I'd suggest you see if the New Zealand Fashion Museum has exhibitions on. The largest collection of Māori cloaks and attire is housed in Te Papa, our national museum in Pōneke, Wellington. Te Papa also acquired 13 of our pieces to house in the national collection, as they are actively curating collections of Māori and Pasifika fashion throughout New Zealand history, bridging the gap between traditional Māori attire and current fashions.


‘I'm so proud of any New Zealander that achieves — be it unnoticed or noticed, nationally or globally. When achievement happens in a way that uplifts every person in our country, it’s pure inspiration.’

On why Aotearoa is special to you

It's about whakapapa to me. Whenua is the land, wairua is the essence or spirit, whakapapa is genealogy and everything you come from and everything that will come after you. It’s circular, never linear. Aotearoa inspires me daily for many different reasons. I'm so proud of any New Zealander that achieves — be it unnoticed or noticed, nationally or globally. When achievement happens in a way that uplifts every person in our country, it’s pure inspiration. I feel spiritually connected to Aotearoa, our shared history — be it unjust or uplifting, it is ours. There's so much yet to be healed and reclaimed for Māori. We need to have honest communication, receive acknowledgment and follow it with action to heal and move forward. I'm hopeful that our country can be an example for other colonized countries around the world of how we can work towards and live in a fair, healthy, prosperous, and joyful existence. This is why creating Kāhui Collective was so important to me — this newly formed community that collectively rejected the industry status quo to build new frameworks, conduct ourselves differently, and create supported pathways so that more than one can sit in success and prosperity. The world, the noise can become deafening at times, and you can often wonder how you, a blip on the radar, could possibly make a difference. But if we start with our own whānau, in our own homes and businesses, that ripple effect is powerful once in full momentum. I know my privilege of living in Aotearoa, and my responsibilities to that privilege.

On a window or an aisle seat

Window. I like to see the whenua [land] when I'm taking off and landing.

On a song that best represents Tāmaki for you

‘E Papa’ by Herbs. This waiata [song] was composed in the middle of political uprisings, anti-racial movements, and land occupations. It was based on the shared experiences of the Māori and Pasifika singers and musicians who wrote it. You can play the Herbs or that particular song to any New Zealander, and I guarantee they sing along.

On Tāmaki in one word


This is the city and the village that raised me.


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