Dame Suzie Moncrieff
World of WearableArt (WOW) founder
Dame Suzie Moncrieff, founder of epic arts event “World of WearableArt” (WOW), talks to Metropol’s Céline Gibson.
The years roll back as Dame Suzie recalls the show’s premier launch, at Wakefield’s William Higgins Gallery, in 1987, as a night of mud, gumboots and umbrellas.
“That first show was born in one of Nelson’s worst rain storms. We had a catwalk from the veranda to the garden, then down poured the rain.
“Any proceeds I had hoped to make from ticket sales to fund the gallery flew out the window as I hastily ordered a marquee for the audience.”
Dame Suzie also recalls the euphoria of that night, the 200 people who had come to see for themselves what this new art genre was actually about.
“Both artists and the audience were captured by the idea of art adorning the body in wildly wonderful ways, and were fascinated by the concept of wearable art. And those who entered and attended the show wanted more.”
Her early efforts to pitch the concept of WOW to prominent Nelson businesses is another strong memory for Dame Suzie. “Everyone I saw had trouble understanding it – ‘You take art off the wall and do what with it?’.”
Thanks to the generosity of Nelson cafe proprietor and arts supporter, the late Eelco Boswijk, who wrote Dame Suzie a cheque for $1000, the first WOW took to the stage.
Moving WOW to Wellington, after 17 years in Nelson, was a difficult decision, but Dame Suzie knew that if the show was to grow, access to a larger population, and larger corporate sponsorship, was necessary.
Wellington City Council was hugely supportive and the first Wellington WOW saw 28,261 tickets sold, equating to a 61 percent increase in sales from the previous year in Nelson. The WOW Show audience continues to grow year-on-year, reaching 64,000 last year.
Dame Suzie says WOW’s success comes from not being an elitist event. “Anyone from any background can enter,” and WOW continues to provide a platform to encourage creativity.
“For me, the joy and energy of wearable art is that it enables designers to see the body as a blank canvas on to which they can develop any idea that appeals. The garments do not have to be commercially viable, they don’t have to take themselves seriously. They only have to be wearable.”
Last year, after 35 years of ownership, Dame Suzie and her sister, Heather Palmer, co-owner of WOW, sold it to STILL, a New Zealand venture capital and private equity company.
“It was a tough decision to make,” she says. “The Covid-19 years were extremely challenging. During that period, I realised it was time to step back – time for a reset for WOW. “STILL are the perfect kaitiaki to foster WOW’s development. I admire their vision and strong commitment to the arts, culture, and community wellbeing. WOW is in good hands.”
Though no longer owner, Dame Suzie remains part of the WOW family in her roles as ambassador, and resident judge. She has had a sneak preview of this year’s show, and says it is going to be amazing. “That’s the magic of WOW – each year brings a whole new show.”
The trail Dame Suzie has blazed is the stuff of legends. Today, WOW attracts entrants from over 40 countries, over 830,000 people have attended a WOW show, over 10,500 people have worked on a WOW show, and almost 5000 finalist garments have been showcased on stage.
Dame Suzie’s advice for any artist struggling to have their voice heard is worth noting: “I started with nothing, but had a dream. It takes a strong vision, passion, and hard work. Set yourself goals, commit to them and never give up.”