When it’s suggested to Margi Robertson, designer behind cult New Zealand label Nom*d, that her label is youthful, she deduces that the assertion is that she is not. “It would freak me out if I thought we were only appealing to 60-year-olds,” laughs Robertson. “But what’s really incredible is that [the label] does appeal to 60-year-olds like me and to 15-year-olds. That’s quite cool.”
Founded in 1986, Nom*d is a lesson in longevity, having survived the notoriously difficult antipodean fashion industry. Robertson’s career in fashion began in 1975 when she opened a retail store (“a little garage, basically”) in Dunedin, a small city in New Zealand’s South Island. Inspired by her sister Liz Findlay, designer behind Zambesi, she decided to start her own label, but didn’t want to move to a larger city. “At that time, the manufacturing industry used to be really big here,” says Robertson. “We still had knitting mills and it seemed obvious that we should create knitwear.”
In 1999, Nom*d – along with fellow kiwi labels Zambesi, World and Karen Walker – did a group presentation at London Fashion Week with the government funding the trip in order to promote the local wool industry. It was also the label's first foray into woven fabrics. Critics were impressed and labelled the group ‘The New Zealand Four’, officially putting the tiny country on the international fashion map. What really struck onlookers was the sisters’ dark, deconstructed aesthetic. “For some reason, the whole of NZ got tagged with that style,” says Robertson.
Margi and Liz grew up surrounded by sewing machines, patterns and floors covered in fabric. Their mother, a Russian immigrant, was a sewing machinist and had worked in the clothing industry for most of her life. Her first job was at a work camp in Germany during World War II, sewing uniforms out of old clothes and blankets. “Some recognition really needs to be given to her for our sense of style,” says Robertson. “I think that’s really been our legacy.”
Starting a label together was never on the cards for the sisters, partly because Liz lives in Auckland and partly because they wanted their own creative freedom. “I like being slightly underground, little bit off the wall, you know?” says Robertson. “I quite like things to look a bit unfinished, a little bit lived in. Whereas I think that when you look at a Zambesi collection, it is very clean, very polished.”
Still, she says, the two labels compliment one another and it’s no mistake that many stores stock both of the designers. They also have three stores together, in Dunedin, Christchurch and in Gertrude Street, Melbourne.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is Nom*d’s global presence despite Robertson’s determination to stay in Dunedin. “I think in the early days there was always that question of, you know, it would be so much easier for everybody else if we lived in a bigger city,” she says. “But, no, we just made that decision to stay. I feel proud to still be here. There’s not the sort of big city pressure.”
The isolation helps explain a resistance towards market-driven trends. While many labels are increasingly looking to the international runway to compete, Nom*d proudly maintains its dark, androgynous style. “If we were following trends, we would be in the same box as our version of the high street stores here in New Zealand,” says Robertson. When a new designer joins our company, it is drilled into them that they must stay true to the label’s DNA, they really cannot be influenced by what other brands are doing. “We have all of our own archives that we look at,” she says. “It’s almost like referencing ourselves but bringing it into the future. We don’t really need to be looking at what Prada is doing.”
Recently, the label joined the ever-growing online retail market and launched an online store. “It’s something that I’ve tried to ignore for a long time,” says Robertson. “But I think that the reality is that it’s there and if you can’t beam ‘em join ‘em.”
Still, she believes that nothing can replace what a physical store offers – like trying on clothes and having a conversation with the staff. “You’re never going to be able to do that online,” she says. “Actually I shouldn’t have said that – maybe one day you will be able to pop into the computer screen. Who knows?”