Dayne Johnston is one of New Zealand’s most respected fashion designers. Until recently, he was the menswear designer at pivotal Aotearoa brand Zambesi – a position he held for 20 years. Over those two decades, he helped to shape the label – and as a result, the wider New Zealand fashion scene.

In June this year, Johnston announced he was stepping down from his role in favour of a change of both job and city – he moved to Wellington from Auckland and has just started with pioneering label Kowtow as its new head designer.

He’s working at Kowtow’s HQ alongside creative director Marilou Dadat, who came on board originally as the label’s head designer in 2018. Kowtow was founded in Wellington in 2006 by Gosia Piatek, whose focus from the beginning has been on sustainable clothing made from 100 per cent certified organic cotton that can be traced from seed to garment.

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Now just two weeks into his role, Johnston chats to Broadsheet about the transition, why it felt right and what Wellington restaurants he’s booking into for dinner.

What a big shift finishing up at Zambesi after so many years! How was all of that for you, winding up there and preparing for the move?
It was major but also very exciting, an end of an era and a shift onto something completely new. Moving, packing and relocating cities was a lot to think about and I just let each day present itself and tried not to stress or get too overwhelmed. I unfortunately got Covid the week before I was supposed to move to Wellington which delayed things, however I am here now and into the second week of my new role at Kowtow.

What prompted the shift?
An opportunity presented itself and I knew I was ready for a new challenge, everything felt like it effortlessly fell into place. I studied fashion design at Wellington Polytechnic in the mid-’90s and to come full circle back here and be based in Pōneke again felt very appealing for me.

What is your role now at Kowtow? And what will it involve?
My role is head designer and I will be working very closely with the creative director Marilou Dadat. I am leading the design process which begins with research and fabric development. I will be overseeing the technical process of the designs and I collaborate with a large team of creatives.

What do you admire about the brand?
I admire Kowtow’s circular design principles. Everything is considered, including reducing waste, making products that last and also regenerating the natural environment at every point of the process. I admire the structure that has been put in place by Marilou and the incredible team I am working with.

Any plans you can share at this stage?
We work in advance and at present are working on a collection for the beginning of 2025.

What’s a key thing you learned from your time at Zambesi that you think you’ll take with you to Kowtow?
Over the years, I have learned to trust my intuition, be quietly confident with making decisions and, if unsure, talk it through and ask questions. Designing is an instinctive process that requires patience to find the perfect balance of function and creativity.

Any favourite Wellington spots that you’re looking forward to being closer to now?
I am still discovering the city and everything feels so fresh and new. I am living on Cuba Street and I walk my dog around the waterfront; he loves the beach at Oriental Parade. Food-wise, I adore Moore Wilsons which is located right opposite Kowtow HQ. I have a friend visiting from Auckland this weekend and we have booked two restaurants: Ortega Fish Shack in Mount Victoria and Margot in Newtown. For drinks, I love Ascot and Puffin, both located on Ghuznee Street. I have also been addicted to The Greek Food Truck since arriving in town, owned by my friends Sophie and George. My favourite on the menu is the chicken souvlaki – it is divine.