Vanisa Dhiru’s career to date is stacked with impressive and worthy roles across advocacy, social responsibility, communications, executive leadership and beyond. The Manawatū-born Wellingtonian was also awarded a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to community and gender rights in the 2020 New Year Honours List – but these aren’t the only reasons she stands out.
Dhiru’s style signifier is her love of colour, and she’s often a bright spot in the capital’s corporate environment wearing head-to-toe pink or a sunshine-yellow suit. Here, she talks blazers, bold shades and embracing her culture through fashion.
What’s your definition of a good work wardrobe?
In my view, it includes clothes that are a blend of colour, perfect fit, and various textures. My clothes offer plenty of options with the ability to mix and match. I want versatility and the ability to be creative with my outfit choices. Durable fabrics are a must because I don’t want to be dry-cleaning all the time, but I have a steamer to help maintain these pieces.
How do you describe your personal style? And does it overlap with your professional style?
My personal style has been heavily influenced by my upbringing in our family businesses – a corner dairy and grocery store. Our front door was always open to customers, so we were always well-dressed and tidy. Growing up in that customer service environment made me feel like I should always be dressed and ready. As a result, my personal style has evolved into a tendency to be slightly overdressed most of the time, even when grocery shopping.
Throughout my career, whether in paid roles or volunteer work, I’ve engaged with communities, connected with people and organisations, and kept stakeholders happy. My outfits are professional and functional but, I like to think, approachable –because I have to be prepared to walk into a room ready and willing to engage in conversations with anyone and everyone.
You wear a lot of bright colours – can you tell us about the significance of this, and has your style always been this way?
Wellington is full of people wearing black and grey. The local stores, in my opinion, seem to cater predominantly to this monochromatic colour scheme, driving out consumer choice. I used to be among those who predominantly wore black, blending into the crowd. But the pivotal change in my style came when I started public speaking and attending lots of events for my work. About 10 years ago, I engaged personal styling business Wardrobe Flair which introduced me to the world of colour and how to incorporate shades I had never considered before – like pink and purple. They showed me what shape and fit to buy, and how to shop. Now I use colour to make a statement – and shop with the principle of “the brighter the colour, the better the outfit”!
I also noticed a change over the years in embracing my culture as my love of wearing colour evolved. I’m invited to a lot of evening and weekend events, often with diverse communities. I didn’t always love to wear saris, but now when I have the chance, I will. Ninety per cent of my saris are in bright, jewel-toned colours; Indian ethnic wear has a large range of colour choices generally, making it easier to infuse colour into my wardrobe.
What does an average workday look like for you?
It’s varied. Being a public speaker, serving on a few boards, and having to travel means I have got to be, and look, ready to go for anything. My day might start with an early breakfast catch-up, then I’ll head back home to get work done. After that, it could be an online meeting or a lunch. This could be followed by a catch-up with a client or colleague, either over the phone or in person. My day can include one or two events as a guest or speaker, panellist or MC. In between all of that, I'm juggling flights, emails, phone calls and, of course, grabbing a bite to eat. It's a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest!
Do you have a go-to item in your wardrobe that you associate with a good day at work?
I really love wearing a blazer for any work-related activity and have a range in different colours, lengths and styles. I pair them with dresses and skirts, and more recently pants – which I’ve only started wearing in the last year.
My mum helped me choose my first suit for job interviews after I finished university. For her, the idea of my brother and me working in an office job and wearing a suit was a big deal – a sign that we had “made it”. Whenever I wear a blazer now, it still gives me that feeling of heading out to meet people and get things done. My blazers have become more casual in style over time, but that sense of achievement is always there.
What are some of your current favourite fashion labels?
My favourite fashion labels at the moment are Trenery, Witchery and Cue. They all have plain bold basics I can pair up with something pre-loved, ethnic or purchased overseas. Most patterned clothing items, scarves, earrings or necklaces I own have a Southeast Asian look to them. A solid plain canvas is essential to making these pieces stand out. I like Isabella Anselmi heels because the heel height is sensible. I’ve got a range of different hand and laptop bags from Wanderers. Also, about 70 per cent of my Western wardrobe is pre-loved, mainly Ted Baker or Karen Millen. I buy and sell on Trade Me, Facebook and through Recycled Boutique every season.
What’s your approach to transitional dressing – like going from a meeting or work to an evening event or dinner party?
I either wear the same outfit for both but change my handbag or I do a complete change. For most evening events I attend I prefer to wear a sari or anarkali (a Southeast Asian gown with slim-fit pants).
Thankfully I live in town so it's easy to run home for a quick change. I’m also no stranger to getting ready in airport or hotel bathrooms. On a Sunday night, when others might do meal planning, I’m organising my outfits for the week based on travel and my calendar. On the back of our bedroom door I hang all the outfits for the week. I stick to either blues and greens, or pinks and purples, so I can use the same-coloured handbag and coat throughout the week to make life simpler, especially when travelling.
What’s your most beloved item of clothing?
I don't really have any standout favourites in my Western wardrobe. I've adopted a philosophy over the years of only buying clothing that I love. If it doesn't spark that love, it doesn't make its way into my closet; instead, I give it away or sell it quickly.
My favourite sari is the one I wore for my investiture at Government House. It’s a midnight blue banarasi silk sari with a silver border and motifs. It’s very similar to my mother’s wedding sari. It's the only sari I have that I’ve only worn once and not felt the need to wear it again.
Do you have any treasured accessories or jewellery?
In the Western jewellery box, I adore my Boh Runga Fantail earrings. Fantails are a bit brave and daring and a lot of what I speak on is about real issues society is facing today, so the earrings resonate.
In my Indian jewellery box, I have a beautiful choker and earrings set from the House of S in Durban, South Africa. It was bought for me by my partner, who went to high school with the owner. I don’t leave the house without my four aluminium bracelets. My mum gave them to me, they belonged to my grandma. They might have cost only a few rupees, but every time they make a sound I’m reminded of my heritage and the strong female ancestors behind me.