Come To The Dark Side – Pedestrian Chats To NOM*d’s Margi Robertson

Fashion runs in Margi Robertson’s blood. Her older sister Liz heads directional Auckland label Zambesi, her Mother was a seamstress and since 1986 Robertson’s Dunedin based label NOM*d has provided New Zealanders of a darker inclination with a cerebral local option. We recently caught up with Margi to discuss her changing role in the New Zealand fashion scene, her creative inspiration and squeezing smiles out of those stoic Belgians and Japanese.

Considering its population, there seems to a disproportionately high number of creatives coming from New Zealand – why do you think this is? I think our small population allows creativity to grow, people are not restricted so much with formalization and conformity. There is not so much pressure about what other people may think of you or your ideas.

What are your wardrobe staples? Definitely a pair of skinnies, our pants which are half leggings half pants, they can be worn by themselves or under another garment; a t-shirt preferably one of our stenciled ones, they are iconic and can be customized or worn as is. Then of course there is the Vest. We produce one every season in varying lengths and styles, often referenced from a jacket or coat, and the sleeves are then removed.

NOM*d has existed for over two decades, how have you seen your place in New Zealand fashion change over those years? We started in 1986 concentrating on just knitwear, and that continued until 1998 when we were given the opportunity to present our collection on a runway at London Fashion Week. Its was important to us that the whole silhouette was NOM*d, so we starting working with woven material styled off ideas from uniforms. The concept was wearability and comfort. There was also the idea of androgyny. And a slightly underground feel. We are very much about evolution as there was no pre-conceived plan for growth. Little bit of a snowball into a snowman. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know at the beginning about this part, I probably would have freaked out and never taken the risks! All I knew was that I loved fashion and wanted to share that passion with others.

What do you attribute NOM*d’s longevity to? The commitment to evolve, we are always looking to interpret our ideas in a new way, we have a band of loyal followers who do not want to be mainstream, but feel good about their style. They do not need to be the centre of attention either, just happy that their individuality and uniqueness is portrayed in the way they dress.

What has been your proudest achievement over the years? Being chosen to be one of the New Zealand Four for London Fashion Week in 1998! Because we were not a hugely recognized brand in New Zealand it was quite humbling. And as a result of that exposure – successfully achieving consistent sales in Japan. Since going there in the 80’s I was blown away by the uniqueness of their stores and the creative way in which people dressed. In those days also they very influenced by their own traditional dress as in one size fits all, sombre colours and the workwear uniforms.

And you most surreal moment? Seeing one of our dresses on an amazing looking girl in Paris! She bought it in New York! She was an American jewellery designer.

How did your upbringing and family affect your appreciation of fashion? And now that you’re a Mother do your sons share that love that you had when you were young? We were a refugee family and I was the first child to be born in New Zealand. My parents came with my two older siblings and had another three after me. Money was tight, but my Mother never compromised on her own style or ours. Sewing was her source of income and she was always sewing for her daughters. We were definitely the most stylish kids at primary school, there was never any conformity. As a mother now, I am proud to say that Sam our firstborn is heavily involved in designing the graphics on our tee shirts, and he definitely has his own style of dress. Geordie our younger son, also loves clothes, takes a different approach but is very aware of the best brands and their presence in the market. He would have a leaning more towards the business side of things but so far he is exploring the world in his own time. There is no pressure for either of them to take over the business but they are welcome to be part of it when and if they decide. Frankie our granddaughter is six, she’s totally into clothes, but not quite the dark side yet! She’s even made a couple of pieces and created a t-shirt print!

What’s it like living in contemporary Dunedin? What attracts you to the city and how does it influence your design? Dunedin is home. Even though it’s small in population it has a great history that it is very proud of. It’s a university city and hosts many creatives. Music and art are important as are subcultures such as surfing, skateboarding.

Your sister Liz runs Zambesi, do you critique each others work or help each others creative process in any way? We have always worked well together, and been each others best customers. When we did knitwear only, we did bounce ideas off each other, however these days we work quite separately, we live in different cities so that’s easy. Because we like a lot of the same things, there can be some crossover in ideas, but each of us interprets things in a different way. The collections sit well together and there’s certainly no conflict none that I know about anyway. I liken Zambesi to an Empire, we are more like a small Independent State. I am very proud to be Liz’s sister, she has achieved great things for New Zealand Fashion.

You mentioned it before but Nom D along with Zambesi, Karen Walker and World were heralded as the New Zealand Four during London Fashion Week in 1999 – do you share an affinity with those other labels? We have stocked all labels in our store, Plume at one time or another, however currently we just stock Zambesi. I think Karen Walker is to be commended on her international presence, she was always totally committed to growing her name and company and I applaud her growth.

You mentioned before that utilitarianism and wearability is the number one focus in your designs, yet much of your work is deconstructed – how do you balance the two? We don’t merely copy a uniform we re-interpret ideas from it, often the deconstruction is the starting point.

Your label definitely shares an affinity with the Belgians and Japanese have you ever met Rei Kawakubo or Ann Demeulemeester or designers from those countries? I have been in their company, having bought from both designers for our retail stores. They are not terribly approachable but they are often there in their showrooms during sales; I have managed to get a smile but no conversation. They both like black, and they both have an identifiable trademark to their designs. I would like to think that NOM*d has that recognisable factor as well.

Lastly, New Zealand seems to have a well defined sartorial aesthetic – even more so than Australia. In fashion circles at least the stereotype is monochromatic, deconstructed, dark and directional. Do your designs reflect the tastes of New Zealanders or do New Zealanders, and young designers, embrace the aesthetic you promoted? I think the generalization of New Zealand style is grossly incorrect, there are more designers here doing colourful and carefully constructed garments than the dark stuff. We really have been fortunate to appeal to a small group of consumers who do appreciate our particular aesthetic, but it’s certainly not everyone. I find it quite interesting in airports and the like to spot the possible NOM*d person, its a good game to pass the time but there aren’t very many!