Tom Belford visits Papillon’s Dale Cooley for a crash course in women’s fashion.

From time to time the BayBuzz team gets the advice … you need to make BayBuzz more ‘woman-friendly’ … you need more content for women.

Except for the fact that such comments come exclusively from women, I’d tend to regard them as sexist. Women, I think to myself, are just as interested as men in dams, education policy, amalgamation and museum politics. ‘We’ gave them the vote, after all.

Dale Cooley

But bowing to the pressure, I’ve been giving the advice some thought. Perhaps nothing would better illustrate BayBuzz’s responsiveness and versatility than beginning a regular feature on fashion.

Let me be precise … women’s fashion.

Because all blokes know there is no such thing as men’s fashion. Our section of the clothes closet is measured in centimetres; theirs is measured in metres. And do you think we’re envious? No way!

Now the hard part is figuring out what to write about women’s fashion that would be true to the BayBuzz brand. That means saying something provocative, insightful, a bit edgy … in other words, not doing what Hawke’s Bay Today would do.

I began by trying to think of fashion story titles that would be true to BayBuzz. I came up with ideas like:

  • Who is Hawke’s Bay’s best-dressed female councillor?
  • Picking your ensemble for the Board of Inquiry
  • Leave green to the greenies
  • Dressing to turn heads at the hui
  • Buying cyanobacteria-resistant swimwear

Unfortunately, my wife vetoed all these great ideas, mocking my inner femininity. “Do some serious first-hand research,” she said. “You can’t just Google and look at magazines. Go to a shop!”

Great idea … a surefire way to get story inspirations, right from the coalface of fashion retailing.

So I drew up some questions and off I went to Papillon in Havelock North, a shop I had seen more than once on our credit card.

Dale Cooley, who seemed shocked to see an un-attended man enter her premises, greeted me. I pretended not to notice she’d picked up her mobile phone as a precaution.

However I explained my predicament and she graciously agreed to give me a crash course in women’s fashion.

What is ‘fashionable’?

I began with what I thought would be a simple question: “Dale, if you were to look at a woman and say to yourself – Wow, she’s fashionable! – what would you be meaning by that?”

I expected something like hot brand, trendy colour, right length, matching shoes.

Instead, her answer was almost metaphysical.

“Not necessarily what’s the latest trend, or what’s in the latest magazine. She’s wearing something that suits her body, suits her age … she’s comfortable in what she’s wearing … she’s moving with the times, but not clinging to something she’s liked in the past, and not copying. Even if she’s wearing a tee shirt, she’s wearing it her way.”

Wow, I thought, dressing is self-actualising. No wonder it takes me less than two minutes to get dressed in the morning. I never realized that most of a woman’s dressing time was simply visualizing.

I asked, “Do you think this means anything to the man in her life?” “No!” was the emphatic answer. “She’s doing it because it makes her feel good. She puts on something she feels good in and it’s like an armour … you can get out there and do anything.”

It got a bit more complicated as Dale explained further. Certainly younger women dress to be attractive to the opposite sex, said Dale, but as they get older, they wear what they feel good in, what makes them feel like an individual. They become more conscious of what other women might be wearing and thinking. Women do compete through fashion … it’s their “plumage”.

I wondered how often a woman needs to refresh her armour or plumage. In my googling I had read about ‘SS14’ in London. Dale explained there was a six-month fashion cycle, but that didn’t mean a woman needed to start over each time. “One or two new pieces are enough.” I made a note to mention that to my wife. The interview was already paying off.

How fashionable are Hawke’s Bay women?

Dale has visited some of the fashion centres of the world, and regards New York women as the most fashion conscious … “very focused on appearing to be put together, which isn’t the same as being fashionable.” With that distinction, I realized I was getting even more out of my depth.

Still, I couldn’t resist asking, if New York was ten on the fashion scale, where was Hawke’s Bay? “Way, way down … five” she reluctantly offered (I had the feeling she was trying to be generous). She couldn’t resist giving local men a ‘One’ rating. No high-end men’s shop has ever survived in Havelock North, she noted.

But she rallied to the defense of New Zealand women. “It’s our lifestyle. We’re just more casual and laid back, especially here in Hawke’s Bay. After all, what is a woman doing on an average day … taking kids to school, going to pilates, having a coffee with friends, doing some grocery shopping. What we put on in the morning needs to work for all the things we do in the rest of the day.”

Aha. Back to my wife visualizing in the closet.

I tried a trick question. Is there such a thing as being ‘casually fashionable’, I asked. “Nice tee shirt and trousers, not track pants,” she answered cautiously. Then “No polar fleece jackets,” she blurted out. “Unless you’re walking the dog.” And, “If she’s wearing sneakers, they should be a fashion sneaker, not something from Rebel Sports.”

Reluctantly, Dale conceded a woman could make a fashion statement reflecting ‘inner disheveled’. It just wouldn’t be her.

Hot brands

Now we’re getting somewhere I thought … some concrete do’s and don’ts. This is what I’d want from my fashion guide. I asked about ‘hot’ brands.

One example Dale gave for ‘hot’ in Hawke’s Bay was fair trade, organic cotton. And the brand best representing that in her opinion is kowtow, a New Zealand label (carried by Papillon) that’s apparently selling strongly overseas as well.

“Well-priced. Easy to care for. Customers like the feel. And they feel they are doing something good.”

[When I proudly gave this tip to my wife, I discovered I was unfashionably late … unbeknownst to me, kowtow has invaded our household already.]

I moved on to shoes. Even I – who have bought one pair of shoes since arriving in New Zealand nine years ago – know how passionate women are about their shoes … they can never have enough. Personally, I reserve that feeling for barbequed ribs and fried squid.

Dale’s pick of hot shoe brand is Kathryn Wilson, a ten-year-old award-winning brand (along with the newer Miss Wilson line). Another home-made NZ brand; the real Kathryn is a Massey graduate. For her, a ‘stylish’ woman is defined by “confidence, simplicity, happiness, courage and integrity”.

I asked if New Zealand has originated any major fashion trend. “Not really; we’re more of a follower.” And as much as fashion plays with colour, “New Zealand is a black country.” But we do great things with it.

How might a Hawke’s Bay woman keep abreast of fashion trends, I asked. Dale said she would probably be looking at overseas fashion online and reading the New Zealand Fashion Quarterly and/or Simply You.

So I bought a copy of Simply You at the New World check-out line. I thought there was something fundamentally incongruous about buying a flash fashion magazine – the 15th Anniversary edition, no less – along with the cod and broccoli. But that’s another story.

One look at the cover and I thought, “I’ve never seen a woman in Hawke’s Bay wear anything like that!” Talk about aspirational advertising.

Kathryn Wilson Shoes

The magazine’s ‘Style Team’ (would BayBuzz need a style team, I fretted) gave their brand picks: Mi Piace heels, Sable & Minx jacket, dresses by Paula Ryan and Clover Canyon, Louis Vuitton necklace, and a clutch by Deadly Ponies. Can’t wait to display my fashion nous at the next Hawke’s Bay charity auction!

I plowed through 274 pages of fashion and cosmetics (is that a different column?) advertising and advice … that’s 4.3 times the size of BayBuzz (would I need to add pages to cover fashion?).

I have to admit, the photography and the women fashions were gorgeous. One ad that caught my eye had a model ‘voicing’ one simple copy line: “My SUCKERINERER always gives me a lift.” The copy meant nothing to me; the photo made me … linger. I think I got the point.

Amidst the visual feast, I did notice a statement by the aforementioned Kathryn Wilson in response to the question: “What do you wish you had purchased at age 15 to keep forever?” She replied: “…purchase quality pieces that will last you for years, rather than filling your wardrobe with multiple versions of the same thing that are made cheaply … start collecting quality items you will keep for years rather than things you will throw away.”

Spoken like a true Kiwi I thought. Even a bloke would ‘get’ that.

Should BayBuzz do fashion?

My Fashion 101 ended. Dale could not have been a better tutor, especially considering the caliber of student she had to deal with.

I did pick up a few ideas for how BayBuzz might uniquely cover fashion.

But I and the rest of our ‘style team’ would like to hear from you. Is there a ‘BayBuzz way’ to treat fashion? Assuming we can find better writers than me for the topic, what can we usefully say to Hawke’s Bay’s fashion-conscious women? Email your advice to:

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