A royally praised fashion exchange

Just celebrated at Buckingham Palace is Karen Walker’s partnership with Cook Island artisans for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange.

For the first time, the 53 countries of the Commonwealth have come together to showcase a wealth of design and craft.

The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange celebrates the talent, power and potential of artisans and designers and encourages new partnerships, trade networks and sustainability.

New Zealand’s very own Karen Walker represented New Zealand, collaborating with craftswomen from the Cook Islands called the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās based in Māngere in Auckland, to create a gown that combines her chic-meets-eccentric handwriting with traditional Cook Islands tivaivai.

Some of the Creative Mamas stitching the dress

Karen Walker and 73-year-old Māmā Tukua Turia, the lead artisan from the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās were in attendance at Buckingham Palace this week as their collaboration was unveiled amongst 30 other dresses. The reception was hosted by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

Walker joined other international designers including Stella McCartney and Burberry for the United Kingdom, and the reception had more than 300 guests in attendance from the worlds of fashion, politics and the arts including Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell.

Walker says, “Being part of such a significant project has been a really special experience for me and seeing all the designs together at Buckingham Palace, alongside my new lifelong friend Tukua, was the icing on the cake. This collaboration is one of my career highlights and I’m so proud to have represented New Zealand and worked with Tukua’s beautiful tivaivai skills in this way.”

Behind the scenes with Karen Walker and the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās, creating a gown that combines her chic-meets-eccentric handwriting with traditional Cook Islands tivaivai.

Tivaivai are central to Cook Islands culture. Whilst they are, in essence, bed coverings, they are actually much more than that. They are a manifestation of love and honour and are gifted to family and community to mark special occasions. They take several months to make and are seldom sold. They are the paramount form of gifting and women say, “You are not a woman without tivaivai.”. They are love in a physical form and to be gifted a tivaivai is to be literally wrapped in the love of the person (or people) who made it for you.

The Karen Walker x Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās tivaivai dress is a formal, strapless gown with a complex bow and pleated bodice and six metres of fabric gathered and tucked into a full-length skirt that drapes across the floor.

The Duchess of Cambridge views the finished design with Karen Walker and Māmā Tukua Turia. Photograph POOL:Reuters

Traditionally tivaivai are made in a patchwork style, or using appliqué and often embellished with embroidery, but during the design process for the gown, Turia and Walker decided that, due to the nature of the wool annel, the design would work better if the graphics were embroidered directly onto it rather than appliquéd.

“What grew throughout the project was an enormous sense of awe, working with this team of artisans on a completely handcrafted piece, using skills that have been lovingly passed from generation to generation. For me, it was even more about sharing in the history, culture and meaning of tivaivai than it was about creating a dress. It’s been a very special project for us,” Walker adds.

The opportunity to present Cook Islands craft and culture to the world has been “An empowering experience” Tukua says. The Māmās who worked on this project are 60, 68, 73, 75, and 91. Whilst working on this project, the tight-knit group of talented women split their time between the home of one of their members in Māngere and Karen’s design room in Grey Lynn. 

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