The first year Peter Wakeman entered WOW, he cut things a bit fine getting his entry in on time. So competition director Heather Palmer gave him a call.
‘Are you still doing your garment?’ she asked.
He said, ‘You mean the frock?’
‘Uh, yes,’ she responded. ‘Oh yeah,’ Peter said. ‘I’ve done a dress. I hope you like it.’
Peter never took art at school. He certainly didn’t study fashion or design. But when he packed Chica Under Glass in bubble wrap, loaded her into the back of his car, and dropped her off at WOW headquarters in Nelson, New Zealand, the hot-pink confection drew gasps of admiration from her unpackers.
She was so impressive and came so completely out of the blue that Heather called Peter late one Sunday night to ask him if he was a sculptor.
‘I had to try not to laugh,’ he says.
In fact, he was working as a commercial cleaner in his hometown of Motueka, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. Completely self-taught, he had spent 320 hours and over seven months making Chica – the equivalent of nearly two months’ full-time work. Though he’d scribbled some diagrams down and sketched out his ideas on the edges of the newspaper at the kitchen table, most of the concept for her was in his head – he just started at the bottom, he says, and worked his way up. It was only later that he found out that the bottom of a frock is called the hem.
Chica, a highly structured piece that contrasts the playful bounce of a party dress with the strictures of fibreglass, is somewhere between a shapely woman and a sleek car.
In the 2013 show, she won the Avant Garde Section and came runner-up to the overall Supreme Award, gaining Peter $12,000 in prizes. He entered another slightly asymmetrical fibreglass beauty, Veniece in Glass Blind, in 2014.
All this from a man who says he can’t draw and learned skills in draughting, woodwork and fibreglass while working in construction and boat building.
Peter and his wife Teresa live in a coral-pink art deco house in Motueka, which is full of retro goodies. Peter makes his pieces in a single garage next to the house, playing Sublime, Pearl Jam, or Lou Reed on his stereo. He keeps the garage door at a maximum half-mast to hide his creations from any other WOW designers who might be doing drive-bys, looking for clues. ‘If I saw a suspicious car driving back and forth I’d probably go and sort them out’ he says. Their own cars are relegated to the driveway.
To make the base for Chica, who sits away from the model’s body to protect her skin from the needles of fibreglass, he found half a female mannequin on online auction site Trade Me. He spent hours chipping away or building it up with masking tape, plaster of Paris and polystyrene to get it into the shape he wanted. That mannequin, forever dubbed Tortured Dolly, is now lying on her side on a stack of stuff in the corner of his garage. Chica, however, has been touring the world.
Peter first thought about entering WOW after seeing a David Carson garment at Nelson Airport, full of saw blades and possum fur. He hadn’t heard about WOW prior to that, but loved the thought of being able to design something for himself, answerable to nothing and no one but his own imagination. ‘To me it’s a very individual thing,’ Peter says, ‘which is what I like. My space doing my thing.’
Initially, he simply wanted his frock to make it through selection and into the Wellington show. But then he and his family arrived at the venue and heard a bit of buzz about his dress from others. And then they saw Chica on the official WOW calendar.
‘It was January, baby,’ Peter says. They started feeling a frisson of anticipation, wondering if they’d managed the unthinkable. After all, there are only 12 months in a year, as their daughter pointed out. And she was January. That must mean something.
When Peter Wakeman was announced first as the winner of the Avant Garde Section and then the runner-up to show champion, they all started crying – screaming, Teresa says. All the blokes in the audience were standing up and clapping for his frock too, Peter says, with not a small touch of pride. Teresa says they were ‘very green – very naive’ when he started, new not just to the show, and not just to wearable art, but the entire concept of art itself.
‘For me, it was: “What the hell are you doing?'” she says. When his daughters asked what he was up to, he just said, ‘I’m building a bloody frock in the garage for that WOW thing’ . ‘They said, “Oh yeah, good on you Dad”; they didn’t really pay me too much attention,’ he says. Even their daughters’ friends were confused by the whole thing, Teresa says. ‘They said: “Pete? Your dad? Making a frock?” I mean, look at him,’ she says, fondly.
‘Don’t be like that, love,’ he says. ‘You know I can do anything.’
‘He’s the typical Kiwi bloke in the shed,’ Teresa says. ‘He’s a classic.’
She was Peter’s model for the first try-on before final sanding and painting, and was initially put off by the plywood, screws and sickly pale green of Chica’s base. However, she obligingly stood in their lounge, getting scratched by fibreglass and secretly rolling her eyes as Peter worked.
‘It’s an ugly process,’ Teresa says. ‘But the end result is gob-smacking.’
Peter always said he’d do a series of three frocks, and then do something else for a bit before tackling WOW again. With two under his belt, the third is on the way.
When the kids are grown up and we’ve nearly got the last one out of the bloody house I’d like to do this sort of stuff for a living,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in abstract funky furniture and visual art.’
Teresa has a long list of ideas for him, including a spa pool in their backyard and flock of flamingos – perhaps sporting the very shade of bubblegum pink that started it all. Indeed, Chica’s stunning colour was her idea in the first place, she says. But with three girls he usually grumbles about pink: ‘Not bloody pink. I’m sick of the sight of pink.’ So she was hesitant to bring it up. But when she did, he agreed it was the perfect shade. ‘The first coat went on, and when Pete came home it was the most excited I’ve ever seen him,’ she says.
He then added a round of glitter and, for the finishing touch, borrowed a pair of sky-high sparkly shoes from his daughter. Then he packed Chica up, put her in the boot, and drove her around the bay to Nelson.
– By Naomi Arnold
Peter won the Supreme Award at the 2015 World of WearableArt Awards show in Wellington. See him talking about his winning garment, ‘Diva’s Dreamscape’, below.