Fashionistas first scoffed at Suzie Moncrieff's displays of bizarre bras and out-there attire, but 25 years on international designers are clamouring to be part of Wellington's annual World of WearableArt show.
The event Moncrieff founded in the late 1980s features mind-bending costumes that use materials from finest silk chiffon to rusty kitchen utensils.
AdvertisementModels clad in spiked armour made of stainless steel mesh vie for attention with rainbow-hued paper jellyfish as bungee-jumping acrobats bounce from the roof, in an experience more Cirque du Soleil than fashion show.
"It's art-based, not your average catwalk walk-up-and-down scenario," Moncrieff tells AFP. "We create an amazing sense of theatre to show off these incredible works of art that the designers have submitted."
Already an institution in her native New Zealand, with close links to the country's burgeoning film industry, Moncrieff plans to take her World of WearableArt (WOW) vision onto the global stage, with Asia the first target market.
But first, the 60-something artist says, she wants to dispel the notion that WOW is simply a fashion gala with a few more brightly painted frocks than the average shopping centre collection.
Moncrieff says WOW's mission is to "take the art off the wall and put it on the human body".
The designs -- "these are not dresses," she insists -- are treated as mobile sculptures and compete in seven categories.
Around the costumes -- 158 this year -- Moncrieff's team creates a two-hour stage show featuring elaborate sets, custom-made animation and about 2,000 performers.
The extravaganza runs for two weeks at an arena on the Wellington waterfront before the costumes are packed away at WOW's museum in the South Island.
"Wearable art's a really hard thing to explain, you take it off the wall, you put it on your body," she says.
"People often don't realise that it's this huge theatrical performance." Even in this country, they sometimes still think that it's walking down the catwalk, and that's not something the average male is going to be interested in going to see.
"But they come along and they're just blown away by what they see and end up telling their friends to go."
-- 'More glitter'--
Backstage, make-up designer Michele Perry oversees the finishing touches as her team works on dozens of dancers and circus performers in an assembly line of wigs, face paint and crystals, a process that takes three hours every night.
"Glam it up and when you're finished, put some more glitter on -- that's our motto," she jokes.
One of the performers will take the stage with a giant chrome slinky coiled around his body, while another wears a jewelled moose head, topped by huge red antlers fringed with gold filigree.
Backstage manager Leonie Trathen explains that many of the costume entries are not from professional designers.
Some, such as Gillian Saunders, have worked for up to two years on their creations. Saunders collected the plastic tags from bread loaves and fashioned them into three multi-coloured mini-skirts which feature in a 1960s-inspired routine.
"We owe it to the designers to get it right, so their works are displayed to their full potential," says Trathen, who has been involved in WOW for 23 years. "We also manage to have a lot of fun. You see the same people year after year. It's like a family."
-- Bizarre bras --
The sense of ambition is evident in the bizarre bras section, which is included in the show every other year.
While not part of the 2013 event, past entries have included brassieres made from dead hedgehogs, robot spiders, gas masks and cacti.
"It's the section where we encourage people who have never entered before to cut their teeth," Moncrieff says. "It's obviously a smaller piece to make and gives courage to those young designers who might think it (creating a full-scale outfit)is all too hard."
Past WOW entrants have gone on to careers with major fashion houses and in the film industry, particularly Wellington's Weta.
The Oscar-winning design studio, which worked on blockbusters such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Avatar" now sponsors its own category in Moncrieff's show.
-- 'I couldn't sew a straight line' --
It's a far cry from WOW's humble beginnings in a leaky tent in the South Island town of Nelson, where Moncrieff staged the first show in a bid to drum up business for a gallery that was exhibiting her sculptures.
"I couldn't sew a straight line," she admits, "I had no business training and no background in event management but I thought 'I can do this'."
While the public was enthusiastic from the outset, Moncrieff said the fashion world was sceptical.
"They were scratching their heads thinking 'who's this crazy woman with her wearable art'," she says. "But now we're celebrated by the world's fashion gurus.
Partnerships with organisations such as the Hong Kong Design Institute and the Fashion Design Council of India have raised WOW's international profile, with the majority of entries this year coming from overseas for the first time.
For Moncrieff, a long-held ambition was to take WOW to the world, with Asia a natural starting point because of existing ties with the region. A small sampler staged in Hong Kong last year was a sell-out.
A travelling retrospective of WOW costumes from the past 25 years has attracted 320,000 visitors in New Zealand over the past 12 months and Moncrieff says she hopes to take a similar exhibition on the road in late 2014.
"That's the beautiful thing about these designs, you don't need language to understand them," she adds.
"It crosses cultures. You can take it anywhere in the world and people will appreciate it."
World of WearableArt runs through October 6.
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