For WOW designer Mercy Brewer, featuring in a high-profile campaign for cult lingerie brand Lonely, at age 57, meant a rare chance to redefine the rigid standards of beauty that society imposes on women. It’s also been a shock to be suddenly cast into the limelight; the campaign has been featured in media around the world.
“It’s been amazing and it was a delight to work with Lonely,” she says. She’s been stunned at the positive response the campaign has received. “The reception of it globally has been outrageous.”
A private person, she admits she’s found the attention a little scary. “I always prefer to be more the Garbo than the Kardashian; I prefer to do my job and slink into the sunset, so it’s been quite an experience. I’m at war with myself. Obviously, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and I’m stoked, but it’s also ‘Arrrgh!’.
“But I’ve always had an affinity with fabrics and colours and I find it very easy to slip into a mood, which is what I really like about WOW costumes. I do get very involved with things on an emotional level, like I do with WOW too.”
Brewer is a Scottish-born model who began her career in London in 1984, becoming a part of the punk scene and working alongside Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Helena Christensen on the runways of London, Paris, and Milan. She later moved to New Zealand, and several years ago broke an 18-year retirement from the modelling scene to walk for Zambesi at New Zealand Fashion Week, in what was her first show in this country.
She’s still interested in fashion, enjoying the history and beauty of pre-loved items and op shopping. Her work for WOW is an extension of her love of beautiful creations. She has no formal background in art, saying she’s “just always adored and needed to make things”. It certainly wasn’t a serious career option for her growing up.
“My mum was a wonderful drawer and she was very proud of me,” she says. “I used to make clothes for my dolls, and whatever I was making my mum loved it all because she hadn’t had the opportunities herself. It wasn’t our background; our background was you work in a factory. It wasn’t something we could ever dream of doing as a career and it certainly wasn’t encouraged by other people.”
Brewer has found success at WOW both times she’s entered, with her ghoulish La Danse Macabre winning the First Time Entrant Award in 2012, and Goodbye Versaille Starring Madame Du Barry’s Monkey taking out third place in the Weta Workshop Costume and Film Section last year. Both are richly-decorated works full of movement and with especially strong characterisation. Brewer builds not just her garment but also the worlds in which they inhabit, using found objects, plush fabrics and secondhand items. One of her old coats with fur collar and cuffs was a significant inspiration for Goodbye Versaille and found a second life as parts of the monkey.
“Nothing in the house is safe,” she says. “I like making stories up. A backstory, a personality, a character, how would they deal with something? It just flavours the whole costume; everything about it is to do with a personality that I’ve thought about quite deeply.”
She adores her garments and the universe. “I love them,” she says. “They’re people, they’re personalities to me. They have pasts and they just have characters, they’re not inanimate.
“Some people might not get this, but if you look at a tarot card it has layers and layers of meaning the more you look, be it the colours, imagery or symbology that’s there. I like to have that in all my things. Sometimes it’s subconsciously that you’re doing it, but I can look at them when they’re finished and see it.”
Making her garments is the usual exercise in faith, struggle, and grit that all designers face, but Brewer thinks of something that WOW founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff once said, to help her through.
“That was: ‘Don’t think about what’s wrong with your garment. Think about what’s right with it’. That just keeps me going an awful lot.”
“WOW lets me express everything that I truly want to express,” she says. “I’ve got nothing else that I’m that much interested in. I just love it so much.
“When you’re old enough to know what you want to do in the future and where your passion is, and you’re told ‘No, it’s not practical,’ you don’t,” she says. “And then decades and decades later, you get a platform like WOW that will accept something you present. Maybe you don’t get in, maybe you do – but you make it and hope you get in and it’s accepted, and it doesn’t matter if you have no formal training or degrees. It doesn’t matter if you made it in the kitchen. And it gets in? That just means so very, very much.”
She’ll keep entering WOW – not every year, as she doesn’t want to be that strict, but when she has something she feels she needs to say. She treats it as “an indulgence”.
“It’s not something I think I’m going to do every year; it’s almost like that would be too much of a treat, spoiling yourself too much,” she says. “Some people want a good holiday or a car. I want to take and be given the time to just really concentrate on my little thing.
“WOW’s brought me more joy than anything else apart from my children. It’s everything to me.”