There are many worlds of WOW. Over the past 30 years, Dame Suzie Moncrieff’s vision has grown into a diverse, interconnected universe.
There’s the museum in Nelson, where some of the best garments in the show’s history are always available for a close-up look at their incredible construction.
There’s the touring exhibition, currently at Seattle’s EMP Museum, but which in the past has also entranced audiences across New Zealand, at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and at the Perc Tucker Museum in Townsville, Australia.
There are WOW’s five books, which offer creatives an inspiring insight into the passion and dedication of the show’s designers, a gifted group of people now numbering in their thousands.
But at the heart of all these things is WOW’s annual awards competition – and the person who guides that long, complex process is competition director Heather Palmer.
Sister to Dame Suzie, Palmer has been on board with WOW since the beginning, and is also a shareholder in WOW and a member of the board of directors. Her daily role is to encourage both existing and new designers, promoting the competition to design schools and universities around the world. Working closely with Dame Suzie and the competition coordinator Rachel Keir-Smith, the work includes travelling frequently, offering lectures and Skype workshops to inspire new designers to enter.
“We’re always looking at new ways to promote the competition,” she says. “Strategically, we have always believed you can’t stand still in this world; you’ve always got to be exploring new opportunities and finding ways that provide our designers with networking opportunities, so they can interact with each other and exchange ideas.”
Indeed, WOW has a very strong designer engagement and education programme. “A big part of our role is being at the end of the phone or email when the designers need a bit of encouragement,” she says.
“I try to help inspire our designers as well, and give them the courage to enter if they need it. I am a bit like their mentor, and many of them have become lifelong friends.”
After the entries are in, she has the privilege of being the voice or advocate for the designers at judging, telling the stories that inspired the garments’ creation and explaining the materials and technology used. The integrity of the judging process is very important. The three person judging panel, which includes Dame Suzie and two guest judges from the fashion and art worlds, has only the garment worn by a model and Palmer’s explanations to go by. It’s no small task; there are several hundred entries every year and Palmer spends hours reading all the supporting material. She says the creative innovation and ingenuity of the designers, never ceases to amaze her.
Technology has changed things; one year there might be a lot of garments made of 3D printed materials. But something like wool will still be reinterpreted over and over again. “This year we’ve had some incredibly sculptural garments using knitted and crocheted wool,” she says. “That’s one thing I love about WOW; seeing the use of old materials in a very new and inventive way.”
She continues to be the voice for the designers and their garments in the leadup to the show, making sure the official photos are styled correctly, ensuring that each garment is a perfect fit and that the models are well-matched to them. “I look at the garments through the eyes of the designers and help to bring them to life in a way that honours their inspiration and what they want to convey,” she says. During the rehearsal periods leading up to the show, she spends time in Wellington, assisting with fittings and briefing the choreographer on the garment inspiration.
“I love that side of it; it really excites me.”
Another “hugely rewarding” part of her job is watching the faces of the designers on the night the awards are announced, when they see their garment onstage, under lights, set to music and theatre, for the first time.
“It’s incredible; they’ve worked so hard and some have travelled halfway around the world to be there in that audience,” she says. “We take great care of the garments and have a passionate and dedicated team of technicians who care for these works of art during the show period to make sure that each night they are presented in pristine condition.
“I still enjoy it. People say ‘Oh, after 28 years don’t you want to do anything else?’ I say ‘No, it’s a real honour working at WOW. It’s a rare thing, but I’ve never lost my passion.”