New entries for WOW’s 2016 show were paraded in strict privacy at WOW headquarters in Nelson this month, as judges made the first of their decisions about which garments will be taking out the big awards this year.

The judging process took part over a gruelling three days and involved full hair and makeup sessions for the models as they showed off each garment at its very best, both in person and during comprehensive photographic sessions. 

It was also a chance for backstage wardrobe technicians to get to know the pieces and was the first look at the new garments for the show’s artistic directors Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams and director of choreography Tor Columbus, who will be ensuring the garments combine seamlessly with their stage and show design.

The models take care to think about how to interpret and present each garment to the judges, and often return to the show year after year – indeed, some have been involved with WOW for half its life, and the garments they wear during the show and at events become special to them. Wellingtonian Lucy Aitchison, who has modelled award-winning works such as Peter Wakeman’s 2014 Supreme Award Runner Up and Avant Garde winner Chica Under Glass, says her life would not be the same without it.

“I just can’t let it go,” she says.

Aitchison, 28, is in WOW’s books and on posters around the world when the exhibition travels, though she also works as a freelance graphic designer. She says WOW has been a creative outlet for her over the past 11 years. “When I was working in an office it was definitely a saviour,” she says. “That’s why I have to do it every year, or I go crazy.

“I always really look forward to it. Not knowing what you’re going to see is so exciting – every year it’s something different. Even though it’s a tiring process – long days and hard work – the excitement of seeing what’s new overrides that.”

Tor Columbus says the judging weekend gives her a chance to get to know the garments and how they slot into the show. Columbus started with WOW as a dancer, before later assisting the show director and choreographing sections herself. This year, she’s working with principal choreographer Ross McCormack to put the show together.

“It helps me get an idea of numbers of garments for sections so we can start to think about how we’re going to organise them for each track. It also helps me get my head around what’s on stage at the same time,” she says. Some sections, such as Bizarre Bra, require quite specific choreography, whereas others might need simply a straight walk. Columbus says it’s also important to ensure the garments are complementary and create a pleasing scene onstage.

“You might have all these black garments go on stage at the same time, or do you mix it up?”

WOW also gives an opportunity to those starting out on theatre work behind the scenes. Nelsonian Kayla Jolly, 24, was a checkout manager at Countdown and had been assisting at a local salon for years before starting the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology certificate in professional hairdressing. She was selected to work with WOW behind the scenes at the judging weekend this year, and she says she enjoys learning about hair and makeup artistry concepts and creating polished, beautiful, simple work for the show that was quick and easy to fix backstage. She stayed on after her work was done, soaking up the bustling atmosphere.

“I felt like I was learning just by watching, and I love to learn new things,” she says. “It’s been an amazing experience being a part of WOW.”