When you have spent more than four decades living and breathing New Zealand’s fashion scene, it’s clear you know what makes a good thing last. Juliet Speedy talks to Margarita Robertson, the woman behind NOM*d and Plume.
Margarita Robertson is running against the modern fashion pack. She lives in a far-flung corner of the world, still manufactures all her clothes locally and refuses to follow fashion trends when designing her collections.
Margi is the creative director and founder of fashion label, NOM*d and retail store, Plume. Her four-decade-plus career is full of her non-conformist signature styles and still, at aged 65, she’s one of the best-known names in New Zealand fashion. The retail outlet of her business began in Dunedin in a converted garage in 1975 and her headquarters remain in the city today. She says, despite the unusual location for a fashion heavyweight, she’s part of one global community of like-minded people. “I am really happy to be basing our business life here – communication and travel are so easy and it doesn’t now matter where you are in the country or the world.”
Margi loves Dunedin. Her Russian-born mother, Zinovia, arrived in the hilly city and started working at various Dunedin clothing factories. There’s no question as to why Margi and her older sister (Elisabeth Findlay of Zambesi) are cut from the same cloth. Margi says her mum had a real love of clothing. She hoarded amazing fabrics often purchased as remnants. “If we were going to sew something for my Saturday night adventures, we could go through her big chest of fabrics and choose something that would suit. Everything was considered before cutting and, if I sewed something badly, she would make me unpick it and do it again!”
Incredibly, she still has a successful fashion business after 43 years, despite not being a mainstream brand or store. Despite her successes, she’s never wanted to leave the South Island. “The lifestyle, the isolation – in a good way, [it’s] so nice to come home to… the big sky, the nature, so much to love.” With both Plume retail stores based in the South Island (in Dunedin and Christchurch), she and her designers do think about the colder climate. “We are aware of the weather and what to wear… Often a great jacket or coat can be worn over a lighter look, which is perfect for indoors. I love jackets – they always feature in every collection.” The more summery items play into this, too. “Usually any of our slip dresses are designed to also look great over a tee, shirt or sweater. Layering is a recognised signature of NOM*d.”
Margi says they’re finding clients now are interested in garments that have longevity and are easy to wear without compromising their “outside-of-the-box” ideals. They have many dresses but also love the separates. “We are informed that not a lot of brands offer skirts, but we love skirts. They can be adapted in so many ways, depending on what you team up with them.” The access to cheap high street labels and shops hasn’t impacted on her business so much because she says NOM*d simply appeals to a more discerning market – “one that would never venture into those stores, there is a difference you know”. “Those stores are generally hugely influenced by trends; we like to think we create trends rather than follow.”
NOM*d’s designs are bought and sold the world over and Margi has spent plenty of time on the international fashion scene. But her designs have the dark noir-like influence of Dunedin. It’s a genre that Margi loves. She lists her favourite singers as Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, and says she and her design team are always looking to sub-cultures, movies and art as an influence.
At the time of this interview, Margi was enjoying a winter break in Wanaka. Relaxing and reading Vivienne
Westwood’s autobiography, she cites the 77-year-old British fashion designer as inspiration to the fact that she is still
working hard in her sixties. And she certainly doesn’t plan to quit or step back. “Oh dear, I am constantly asked this
question. At the moment I can reference people like Rei Kawakubo [Comme des Garçons] and Vivienne Westwood; they are both older than me and going strong because they have a strong and loyal team of creatives working alongside them. That’s my aim!”
The economic realities of today and the enormous growth of offshore manufacturing are daily issues for her and the
team. Margi cites the biggest change in the past year for the New Zealand industry has been the closure of two significant fabric wholesalers. “Making your garments offshore is definitely a more economic option I fear, however, I love the fact that we are still made in New Zealand and are child labour free.” She says that after 32 years of manufacturing here, she’s not looking to change. Margi says times have well and truly changed since she started out. “I would hate to be starting out now... access to fabrics, manufacturing, pricing are all really difficult now. We
had been fortunate to have been in retail initially and had made some great connections with like retailers so we were
able to access a ready market.”
With her Russian and Ukrainian background Margi remains beautiful and stylish, it’s hard to imagine her ever looking any other way. She keeps her energy up by drinking lots of water and eating Tamari almonds but has a love of good food and drink. “I love all sorts of food. If I’m eating cheese, I love goat cheese; if I’m drinking wine, I am partial to a rosé. Also, duck! When I am in Paris, I try to fit in at least one meal of duck. They do it so well over there.” Doing it well is something Margarita knows. Just this year she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the fashion industry. She is credited, among many other things, as helping define “The New Zealand Look”. Her label and look appeals across generations with both young aspiring creatives and octogenarians wearing her clothes. Her designs have also enjoyed a flourishing trade in Europe, the USA and Asia. Margi is undoubtedly an icon of the industry and it’s clear she’s got no plans to rest on her well-adorned heels yet.