A remarkable milestone in New Zealand fashion has recently taken place with iconic clothing brand Zambesi marking 40 years at the leading edge of the fashion scene with two individual shows at New Zealand Fashion Week.
A retrospective show on the runway at Auckland Town Hall on August 30 presented four decades of favourites from the Zambesi archives, modelled by members of the extended “Zamfam” and styled by the Zambesi team including former staffers Tulia Wilson and Terzann Elliott.
The show opened with a special performance from Anika Moa and models including singers Stan Walker and Moana Maniapoto, DJ Half Queen (aka Shaki Wasasala) and Danielle Hayes, who made this her last-ever runway appearance before retiring from modelling.
Co-founder Elisabeth Findlay says customers make an emotional connection with Zambesi, which has remained consistent and original throughout its history, meaning pieces from decades past can be mixed with contemporary ones. Customers are renowned for their loyalty, with some wearing nothing but Zambesi and passing much-loved pieces from one generation to the next.
“Clothes from 40 years ago can still be worn now – the Zambesi wardrobe is timeless and still relevant,” says Elisabeth. “Like old friends, people hold on to their Zambesi pieces.”
There is a New Zealand attitude apparent in Zambesi clothes too. They are beautiful but not at all fussy. And while they are recognisable to those in the know, Zambesi clothes never shout. There is a subtlety and effortlessness to them.
“The clothes are comfortable, they give you confidence,” says Elisabeth. “You can rely on Zambesi clothes.”
“It’s a challenging and rewarding industry, you never feel like you’ve nailed it,” says Elisabeth. “That’s what attracts us to it, it’s an ongoing journey. It’s a beautiful thing in a way.”
As always, their shows are a family affair, with the couple’s daughters taking leading roles. Marissa Findlay directed the show and Sophie Findlay the music.
Elisabeth Findlay learned to sew while growing up in Dunedin; her mum was a seamstress. Elisabeth moved to Auckland in her early 20s and worked for the fabric importer Derek Batts and in the workroom at Vamp before opening her Parnell boutique Tart in 1975, stocking local brands she admired. This was followed a few years later by a second shop, Cachet in Takapuna.
While running the shops, Elisabeth also made her own clothes at home. She and husband Neville launched Zambesi in 1979. The first Zambesi store was in Lorne Street, Auckland. The name Zambesi was chosen because Elisabeth and Neville Findlay liked the sound of the word but it has come to represent a flow of work, akin to a river.
There are nearly 6000 Zambesi patterns for women and 1000 for men, each made by hand and cut from paper.
The first international Zambesi show was at Sydney Fashion Week in 1997. It received a standing ovation.
In 1999 Zambesi was one of the “New Zealand Four” chosen to go to London Fashion Week, along with NOM*d (designed by Elisabeth Findlay’s sister Margi Robertson), Karen Walker and WORLD.