Business Hub: Kiwis need to find a way to live with Covid-19, NZ Fashion Week owner says

This country’s fashion industry should eventually take control of NZ Fashion Week, the event’s new owner Feroz Ali tells Jane Phare. But first, he says, New Zealand needs to figure out a better way to live with Covid-19.

New Zealand Fashion Week owner Feroz Ali was in an MIQ hotel in Rotorua when he first got an inkling that the event might be in trouble. A single community case of Covid-19 had shown up in Auckland.

The Canada-based businessman, who also owns the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design campuses in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, had flown in from Vancouver in August and was put on a bus to Rotorua. The plan was that he would catch the end of the week-long event, run by Dame Pieter Stewart, and stay to talk to the team to understand what those in the industry might want in the future.

This year’s Fashion Week was meant to celebrate Stewart’s 20-year legacy, after Ali bought the event from her in April this year. But by the time Ali left MIQ, Auckland was in lockdown, Fashion Week was cancelled and nearly a year’s worth of work was on hold. Preparations at the Auckland Town Hall stopped and a Keith Hay home, about to be trucked in to provide extra space, was turned around.

On a Zoom call from Vancouver, Ali is surprisingly philosophical. He describes the cancellation and Auckland’s level 4 lockdown as “a bit unsettling”. Was the cancellation a blow? Has it cost him?

“It’s cost me all my hair,” he jokes. And then, carefully, “there’s always a cost for rescheduling an event.”

Later he admits the cancellation was “very, very gut wrenching”, not only for himself but for the Fashion Week team and designers who had worked so hard for so long. But the show will go on, probably early next year. In fact all shows must go on, Ali says, not just All Blacks matches.

“Every industry in New Zealand matters. Don’t give it a biased approach, have one approach so that the supply chain of industries is maintained.”

From his home he watched the spectacle of New York Fashion Week and the Met Gala which went ahead last month in a city that has learned to live with the coronavirus. In this country, as well as Fashion Week being cancelled, so was the World of WearableArt (WOW) in Wellington and iD Dunedin Fashion Week.

Ali says New Zealand would do well to look to the rest of the world, to work out a way to live with what he describes as “an evolving crisis”.

“I think we’ve got to somehow figure out how to live with this thing and make sure that businesses and events and communities and students and schools and families somehow can function with this virus. It’s not going away.”

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced vaccine passports would be mandatory for high-risk settings including large gatherings, events and festivals, and that they might also be used at hospitality venues like bars and restaurants in the future.

Feroz says Canada is a good case study for living with Covid-19. Last month it achieved the biggest turnout in history for its federal election.

“So if you can run an election with 36 million people in Canada and you can still function in society, New Zealand with five million people and sharks round the islands can figure out how to make its economy thrive, and people should not lose their civil liberties with this really harsh level 4 lockdown,” he argues.

In British Columbia, more than 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated and the province is open for business, even though it is still getting daily Covid cases.

“Vancouver is committed to a vaccine passport society, actually the rest of the world has.”

Now locals need to show their BC Vaccine Card and a form of ID before they go into a restaurant, bar or a gym, and all indoor events of more than 50 people including sports matches, weddings, funerals, movie theatres, university lectures, concerts, parties and conferences. The entire economy is open, Ali says, and the vaccine-card policy is driving people to get vaccinated.

Canada still has its share of anti-vaxxers. “It will take a while for them to be persuaded. And maybe they will never do it.”

And there will always be those who view the vaccine card as a privacy breach, or an overreach by the government.

“Every one of us have a passport or a driver’s licence. No one questions the veracity of that. So now the vaccine passport is playing a similar role where they’re saying if you want to travel and you want a functional society, you must be vaccinated.”

Time to pass the baton

Ali’s background is in banking and tertiary education management in Canada and New Zealand, including a role as divisional chief executive for Academic Colleges Group (ACG), which was later sold to a private equity group.

He began buying private education tertiary schools, starting with New Zealand Fashion Tech and later the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. He’s added a jewellery school which offers degrees in jewellery design.

Now he has combined six schools under the Whitecliffe brand, teaching 1500 students a year, 97 per cent of whom are domestic. It was this connection within the industries that made him pay attention when he met Stewart at a fashion show at Whitecliffe.

Stewart was ready to pass the baton to the next generation and Ali could see a synergy between the two of them. He won’t be picking up the baton directly – his lack of fashion sense wouldn’t allow it, he says – but he’ll be leading a team who will.

He’s forming an advisory board of “the current, the past and the future”, which will include Stewart. Fashion Week needs her experience, her brains, her knowledge of how the event functions. Her input over the past 20 years has been nothing short of remarkable, he says.

And he’ll be listening to the industry with an open mind. Already he has some thoughts, such as making the event more accessible to consumers, not just the buyers, the designers and the media.

Driving back from MIQ in Rotorua, he noticed Trelise Cooper’s boutique in Tirau. “She’s a great designer and is a great brand. But she’s in that [rural] community selling her garments. That means there’s an appreciation for New Zealand design. So why can’t we make the event more accessible to the community and our Kiwis?”

Ali’s warming up now, talking about the possibility of a series of events leading up to a grand finale that then goes offshore to Melbourne Fashion Week, or Vancouver or New York. Why not connect the dots, he suggests, by partnering with WOW and iD in Dunedin, running three events in a row.

He talks about taking New Zealand fashion and design, including jewellery, to the world. He saw indigenous British Columbia fashion designers feature in New York Fashion Week and the Met Gala. That makes him think globally. What about Māori and Pasifika designers, and emerging and established Kiwi designers?

“We should be able to showcase them in the Vancouver Fashion Week. If a BC indigenous designer can showcase in New York, I don’t see why a New Zealand emerging designer can’t do that in New York.”

But that takes money and resources. For the 2022 Fashion Week, Ali is looking to set up an endowment fund or sponsorship to help that happen. He’d eventually like to see parts of New Zealand Fashion Week taken offshore, partnering with NZ Trade and Enterprise. And he’s considering a virtual approach, online streaming to consumers who can’t make it to Fashion Week or come to New Zealand.

“I want to invite the world to New Zealand, like they used to come before, the buyers and their stakeholders. And when the borders do open up, I will certainly be trying to convince as many people to come in attend the event so that they can see what New Zealand’s about.”

Eventually, Ali would like to see a body such as the Fashion Council of New Zealand or Auckland Unlimited, Auckland’s economic and cultural agency, owning Fashion Week.

“My end goal is not to be the owner of New Zealand Fashion week. Honestly, I think NZ Fashion Week belongs to the industry.”

He’s not in it to make money, he says.

“Unless you land massive sponsors and attract international audiences, this is not a business or an organisation where you do this to make money. You do this so that you bring people together, you give them a platform to debate, share ideas and celebrate success.”

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