We chat to WOW competition coordinator Rachel Keir-Smith, 27, who discovers new designer talent from around the world.

How did you get into this job?

I grew up in Wellington and studied art history at the University of Auckland. I did start art school; painting was my best subject in college. However, I think I became more interested in the art that other people were making, rather than focusing on my own practice. After graduating from university, I completed an internship in paintings conservation at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. This was my original career dream and it still flickers dimly in the back of my mind.

When I first started at WOW, I worked as a wardrobe technician – caring for the collection, cataloguing entries, repairing garments, and handling designers’ queries for the online entry process. I’ve been in the competition department for two years now, working closely with competition director Heather Palmer.

What do you do day-to-day?

I’m really lucky that my role is so varied and exciting. I curate the monthly designer newsletter, I’m the moderator for our WOW designer forum, and I have coordinated various WOW publications including World of WearableArt: 30 Designers Tell Their Stories. It is so important to WOW that our designer community feels inspired, celebrated and connected. I also organise designer events such as Designers’ Day, and I’m the point of contact for the designers who win our internship prizes. This year I initiated a journal-style blog series for our 2015 winners, Joanna Peacock and Tess Tavener Hanks, to narrate and document their respective internship experiences at Weta Workshop and Cirque du Soleil.

There are also some fantastic travel opportunities available to me because of the close relationships WOW has with universities both overseas and in New Zealand. Last year, Heather and I went to Shanghai, Kaohsiung and Hong Kong to present WOW to students at Donghua University, Shih Chien University and Hong Kong Design Institute. This international contact has inspired me to learn Mandarin.

How do you identify those artists you want to invite to enter WOW?

I do a lot of research online and receive many links in emails from my colleagues saying, “Have you seen what this person is doing? They should enter WOW!” I follow university graduate shows closely and read art and design publications. We’re always looking for processes and materials that we’ve never seen entered into WOW before; that delightful and surprising creativity, innovation and experimentation that can be found in any industry, and from all kinds of people. The more unexpected, the better!

Last year, I invited Maria Tsopanaki and Dimitiri Mavinis of London fashion studio Erevos Aether to enter WOW. Maria and Dimitri have designed clothes for Lady Gaga, Jessie J, Kylie Jenner, Carrie Underwood, Skunk Anansie and the Black Eyed Peas to wear on stage, in their videos or on fashion shoots. When I’m approaching artists and designers, I try to identify the elements of common ethos between their work and WOW, like a natural theatrical link. Or if we have a section theme that complements a designer’s work already, I’ll try and make this connection.

It’s not hard to get people excited about entering WOW. I love to hear people say, “I can’t believe I haven’t heard about this before” – and you know you’ve introduced them to a whole new world.

Often you realise that they’ve been looking for something like this, and when you introduce it to them it can be quite a profound moment. I think about that quite often. I’ve always known what WOW is – I feel like it’s been in my consciousness as long as I can remember. But what would it be like to encounter this concept for the first time? How bizarre and amazing that would be!

It must be very rewarding for you to introduce them to a new community at the bottom of the world.

Yes, I think that’s another important aspect to my job – facilitating and enhancing that sense of community. It can be a little isolating working as an independent artist. It’s great when designers come to the show, meet the other designers and it’s this whole new world for them. I’m continually trying to figure out ways to help them interact and activate that sharing of information and support. Our WOW Facebook designer forum is buzzing in the build up to the show season and that’s currently the main place for designers to communicate beyond the Awards show.

What are the benefits of entering WOW?

The WOW competition gives designers so many opportunities to showcase their work. The garments are viewed by a panel of highly regarded judges; the finalists appear on stage in a world-class production to an audience of over 55,000; there are opportunities for garments to go on exhibition and significant international media interest.

The success of our designers is WOW’s success, so we’re constantly looking for new opportunities to promote their talent. We use the STQRY app at the World of WearableArt™ and Classic Cars Museum in Nelson and as part of our international exhibition, to illustrate what the designers are doing beyond wearable art. We promote links to their websites and articles about other projects they’re working on to help increase awareness of their skills.

You must be surrounded by inspiration every day – do you ever have ideas for garments of your own?

Definitely! If I were ever to leave WOW I would give it a go. I feel like I am collecting quite a strong toolkit of ideas from seeing so many entries.

What does that toolkit contain? What are some of the secrets to a great garment?

My WOW entry would be meticulously well made on both the inside and the outside, and it would withstand close scrutiny. It would be comfortable and extremely safe for the model to wear. The surface would have lots of lovely details and have an irresistible tactile quality that would make people want to touch it. It would have a great silhouette, with major stage impact in its size and scale and light activation. It would make you say “WOW”!

What’s been your favourite piece so far?

I have many favourite garments; but one I love most from last year’s show is Templa Mentis, by Daniella Sasvari. The craftsmanship is astounding. It has a beautifully hand-painted front panel that I was drawn to the minute I first saw it. Templa Mentis has a classic ‘WOW’ feel about it, and demonstrates meticulous craftsmanship, matched with a striking silhouette. It’s wonderful to see garments created through handmade, artisan processes, entered alongside garments created through 3D printing and other modern fabrication technologies.