Whenever Fifi Colston looks at Vena Immaculata, her 2011 WOW entry, she remembers cancer and earthquakes. Breast cancer, which struck three of her friends; and the worst of the Christchurch quakes, the one that killed 185 people and left the city devastated.

Fifi's drawing of Vena Immaculata

Fifi’s drawing of Vena Immaculata

Not the cheeriest subjects for a theatrical marriage of fashion and art, but Fifi’s life just bleeds into her work, and her garments start to absorb certain flavours and feelings. She can look at each one and remember what was happening in her life as she was making it.

Every summer for the past 20 years, Fifi, a professional artist with a vibrancy she once described as ‘all squawk and feathers’, has somehow slotted one and occasionally two WOW garments into her life. She has woven their creation into her freelance costume and art commissions, her TV presenter slots, speaking engagements, work on The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe films, novel writing, children’s books, illustrating, family life, a move to England to teach art to at-risk kids, and a move home again to Wellington, New Zealand.

She’s so knowledgeable that she’s become a kind of wearable art go-to person, producing an award-winning book for children and parcelling out advice at workshops and speaking engagements. She draws her WOW tips from experience: they include keeping your furry white cat away from your UV creation, storing and shipping garments in large cardboard fridge boxes, and shadowing the delivery areas of appliance stores on Thursday mornings, when they’re chucking those fridge boxes out and a quick designer can swoop in and scoop up what they need.

Fifi Colston presenting at WOW Designer Day

She’s had all but one garment accepted into the show, and picked up multiple prizes. ‘It’s become a discipline in a way,’ she says. ‘No matter how much I’ve got on, I’ll go, “I can’t not go to WOW”.’

Her summer of WOW usually starts between Christmas and February each year. It is a big effort, and not just for her. Friends and family are quite used to being invited around, plied with coffee and cake, and put to work, finding a place for their plates and cups on surfaces covered with bits of wire and fabric. They sit together and sew, discussing the problems of life.

‘It sounds kind of silly,’ she says, ‘but when I’m working on a particular piece there is always something going on.’

014833 Vena Immaculata Stage Hero-0

Vena Immaculata on stage in the 2011 WOW Awards Show

Vena Immaculata, for example, features a delicate frilly bouquet of a tumour attacking a stream of healthy red blood cells. While she was making it, the earthquake struck Christchurch, the home of her mother-in-law, who at the time had a cousin visiting from England. When Fifi and her husband got through to them and told them to come up to Wellington to stay, her mother-in-law said, ‘Oh no, we’re fine. We’ve got the camp cooker out. It’ll all be fine.’

Later, it became apparent that they and the city were not fine, and the shell-shocked pair arrived in Wellington. ‘It was the first time in my life I’d seen her discombobulated,’ Fifi says. They did not want to discuss what had happened, but Fifi made them tea and sat them on the couch, and said, ‘Do you want to help me with a bit of sewing?’ She put them to work on the large discs representing deep red blood cells, and as they all pushed needle and thread through layers of foam and Lycra, the refugees finally talked.

Vena Immaculata blood cells

Vena Immaculata blood cells

Then, as she sent Vena Immaculata off to WOW, she started on a care roster for a friend undergoing radiation treatment, one of a group of people doing the hospital run each morning, making meals and making sure her friend’s son got to school on time. Two of her friends’ treatments went well, and they remain clear today. But the third friend, a ‘very beautiful and talented photographer’, died from secondary lung cancer. She remembers her, and her mother-in-law’s flight from Christchurch, whenever she looks at Vena Immaculata today.

Fifi once said in an interview that during her writing her characters come alive and begin to take over. The same turns out to be true of her WOW garments: ‘Each piece has a definite personality.’ One of those is her 2010 creation Lady Curiosity, who sprang from her love of the novel Magpie Hall by New Zealand author Rachael King, with its intricate themes of Victorian gothic, taxidermy and tattooed ladies.

Magpie hall

‘It kind of stayed with me, as a good book should, and then I thought: This would make a great WOW piece.’ But out of every piece she’s done, it is the Lady who has given her the most trouble. Fifi describes her as ‘stroppy’.

Lady Curiosity on stage at the 2010 WOW Awards Show

Lady Curiosity on stage at the 2010 WOW Awards Show

To make the skin dress, she chose EVA foam, a material she uses a lot in costuming for its lightweight flexible versatility. She made the breastpiece from the
foam, moulding and gluing it over the top of a cut-down plastic dress form.  She used drawing pins underneath the foam to create nipples, and then spray-painted the dress and breastpiece to ready it for the pictures she wanted to apply on top.

Fifi got her botanical illustrations from a website of printable vintage images, and the cabinet illustrations from a book about New Zealand trademarks. Using knowledge she’d gained from design school in pre-computer days, she hand-lettered words onto the Lady’s flanks – Memento mori is a Latin phrase that translates as ‘Remember you must die’.

Lady Curiosity detail

Lady Curiosity detail

Lady’s tattoos come from all over, including from friends and the designs of famous American tattooist Sailor Jerry. The heart tattoo in the middle of the garment’s breast belongs to a writer she knows. ‘It seemed appropriate that the story should begin with one author and end with another.’

Fifi's drawing

Fifi’s drawing

She then created sheets of tattoos and illustrations in Photoshop, printed them onto craft transfer paper and cut them all out, a fiddly process that was less straight-forward than she thought – the transfers curled up at the edges and some fell off.

‘In the end I was so infuriated with them that I used varnish to set them in place only to find I had used gloss rather than matt,’ she says. Like many WOW designers at that point in the process, she nearly wept. ‘It wasn’t what I’d envisaged at all,’ she says. ‘I had no choice but to carry on with the gloss because I was running out of time and money. When I saw her onstage I was so glad – she came gloriously alive with that shiny skin.’

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Fifi made the cabinet in Lady’s bustle with Styrofoam, wood-look laminate and acrylic mirrors to create the mirror-box illusion beloved of magicians – the Lady looks hollow and middleless, full only of curiosities in jars.

Lady Curiosity in Progress

Lady Curiosity in Progress

‘I had so much fun with $2 Shop plastic animals, cutting and gluing different bits of them together and painting them to look like scientific collections from a Victorian era,’ she says. She coloured them to look like they were made of old and dusty glass, and at the last minute installed a lightbulb so people could see them. She trimmed the whole garment with a red velvet curtain and topped it off with fringing to create a circus feel.

Her Lady won third place in the Avant Garde Section, but making it brought Fifi to her knees. ‘In the end, I thought, If I can get this out of the door I never want to see it again,’ she says. But it’s been Lady Curiosity who has popped up in shows and exhibitions ever since, living on as a 3D interpretation of the novel Fifi read and loved – even though every time she looks at it she thinks, Oh, God.

Some designers take their materials and want to see what they can create from them; for Fifi, the idea and story behind each garment means everything, and she hunts down the materials afterwards. Over the years, she says, her family has seen her cry over not winning, drop into depths of misery, and moan, ‘I’m never making anything again’. The next day, she’s up in the morning, determined: ‘Right. I’m going to crack this one’. But sometimes art pales in comparison to life.

Fifi in her Wellington studio

Fifi in her Wellington studio

When the 2014 WOW show was on, her father, a former jet fighter pilot, was dying. During the opening night a nurse from the hospice called her and said, ‘If you want to gather family now, this is a good time’. But he was 400 kilometres away in Taupo, in the centre of the North Island.

The following night, awards night, Fifi’s sister sat with him in the hospice while Fifi watched the show with her phone tucked down her bra, waiting for the call that he had died. Suddenly the hours she’d put into her piece, the finger she’d ruined from stitching, the tug of competitive instinct, meant nothing.

‘It was a time where I thought, actually, none of this matters. I just did what I did and it looks great and that’s wonderful. And I thought, If I did have to get up on the stage I think I’d find that quite difficult right now.’

Luckily she didn’t have to, she says with a laugh. The garment she’d spent months on didn’t place. Her father died the following morning, on her parents’ sixty-second wedding anniversary.

‘You cannot enter WOW with the goal of winning,’ she says. ‘If you do, the minute you start to create your garment you’re in the wrong place: a quicksand of greed, pride, envy and disappointment. It’s fabulous to get the acknowledgement and the accolades and the money; the money’s always fabulous. But I don’t think that’s why any of us enter,’ she says. ‘You’ve gotta start from wanting to express something and make something, just for the joy of it.’

It occurred to her, as she reflected on life, death and art in the days following her father’s funeral, that her wearable art pieces were a little like him. He had become a shell of the man he had once been, growing old and developing Parkinson’s. The disease eventually stole the mobility of his face and left a mask behind. She saw a corollary there. For the casual viewer, art might seem nothing more than surface decoration, the depths of its meaning remaining unplumbed. But for the artists, and particularly for Fifi, there is always a rich story underneath, deftly woven into every nuance, fold and stitch.

  • Written by Naomi Arnold, featured in World of WearableArt: 30 Designers tell their stories
  • Photo credits: World of WearableArt and Fifi Colston

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