For the first time, the 53 countries of the Commonwealth have come together to showcase a wealth of design and craft. The Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, created and managed by Eco-Age and developed in partnership with Swarovski, The Woolmark Company and MATCHESFASHION.COM with the support of the Commonwealth Fashion Council and the British Fashion Council, celebrates the talent, power and potential of artisans and designers and encourages new partnerships, trade networks and sustainability.

The project has been created to help mark the occasion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit being held in London in April 2018. Designers, including Karen Walker representing New Zealand, and Stella McCartney and Burberry for the United Kingdom, have partnered with artisans to create one-of-a-kind looks that were showcased at a special reception at Buckingham Palace in London during Fashion Week this evening. The reception was hosted by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

There were over 300 guests in attendance from the worlds of fashion, politics and the arts including Anna Wintour and Naomi Campbell. Karen Walker has partnered with craftswomen from the Cook Islands, the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās based in Māngere in Auckland, to create a gown that combines her chic-meets-eccentric handwriting with traditional Cook Islands tivaivai. Karen Walker and 73-year-old Māmā Tukua Turia, the lead artisan from the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās were in attendance at Buckingham Palace as their collaboration was unveiled amongst 30 other dresses.

Karen says, “Being part of such a significant project has been a really special experience for me and seeing all the designs together at Buckingham Palace, alongside my new lifelong friend Tukua, was the icing on the cake. This collaboration is one of my career highlights and I’m so proud to have represented New Zealand and worked with Tukua’s beautiful tivaivai skills in this way.”

Tivaivai are central to Cook Islands culture. Whilst they are, in essence, bed coverings, they are actually much more than that. They are a manifestation of love and honour and are gifted to family and community to mark special occasions. They take several months to make and are seldom sold. They are the paramount form of gifting and women say, “You are not a woman without tivaivai.”. They are love in a physical form and to be gifted a tivaivai is to be literally wrapped in the love of the person (or people) who made it for you.

The Karen Walker x Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās tivaivai dress is a formal, strapless gown with a complex bow and pleated bodice and six metres of fabric gathered and tucked into a full-length skirt that drapes across the floor. It’s crafted in dusty pink Italian wool flannel and is covered in claret-coloured embroidered flowers. The silhouette and graphics suggest a tall tree surrounded by flowers.

“There’s such a freshness to the collaboration” Karen says, “and what grew throughout the project was an enormous sense of awe, working with this team of artisans on a completely handcrafted piece, using skills that have been lovingly passed from generation to generation. For me, it was even more about sharing in the history, culture and meaning of tivaivai than it was about creating a dress. It’s been a very special project for us.”

73-year-old Māmā Tukua Turia, the lead artisan from the Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās, echoes the sentiment. For Tukua, who was born in Aitutaki, one of the 15 Cook Islands, creating tivaivai is intrinsic to what it is to be a Cook Islands woman. “Every design tells a story,” Tukua says, “And as I’m working I feel like I am in a forest of all the beautiful flowers and leaf shapes that are so symbolic of my home.”

The opportunity to present Cook Islands craft and culture to the world has been “An empowering experience” Tukua says, not just for herself but for her whole team. The Māmās who worked on this project are 60, 68, 73, 75, and 91. Whilst working on this project, the tight-knit group of talented women split their time between the home of one of their members in Māngere and Karen’s design room in Grey Lynn, singing, laughing and talking about life together as they embroidered an array of flowers in claret thread onto the dusty-pink wool-flannel using 12 different kinds of tivaivai stitches.

The atmosphere has been one of heartfelt community. “I’ve loved getting to know Karen and her team,” Tukua says, “Sewing tivaivai is all about enjoying time with the ladies, working together, singing together and learning from eachother and it was a real pleasure to have the Karen Walker team join us.”

The final result, the Karen Walker x Kūki ‘Airani Creative Māmās tivaivai dress, along with the 30 other dresses created for this project, was celebrated during London Fashion Week at a reception at Buckingham Palace this evening. Next, the dresses will move to a public exhibition at Australia House on February 21st, and other locations in London where the exhibition will be open to the public in the run up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in April 2018.

Source: Commonwealth Fashion Exchange