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Flamboyance in the basement

Tucked away in boxes in the basement of Susan Holmes’ home are award-winning designs that once took centre stage. Susan spoke with Sophie Rishworth about her days designing for World of Wearable Art (WOW).

Hold it like a baby with two hands.”

The careful instructions on how to handle Susan Holmes’ fashion pieces are a clue to their auspicious past.

Susan is a textile designer and fabric artist, and one of the most awarded World of Wearable Art (WOW) designers in New Zealand. Her basement in Gaddums Hill is a treasure trove from her 30 years in the fashion industry.

Today the mannequins and boxes of costumes jostle for space but provide much excitement for her grandchildren.

Susan, who is 80 next month, moved here about five years ago from Auckland to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren.

“I dragged myself down here like a bedraggled sausage,” says Susan who was recuperating at the time from a second hip replacement operation.

“I was looking for an old lady place on the flats. But when I realised I could drive up to my front door here I bought it,” she says of her Gaddums Hill sanctuary.

In September Susan will be a guest speaker at the U3A monthly meeting, where her costumes will also get an outing. There is also an exhibition of her dresses booked in for 2023 at Tairawhiti Museum.

In a book published five years ago, WOW competition director Heather Palmer describes Susan as an ambassador for the annual event.

The book is called Susan Holmes Fabric Artist and was written by Cerys Dallaway-Davidson.

“Over the last two decades Susan has been (and still is) an inspiration and mentor to many budding Wearable-art designers,” said Ms Palmer.

“She is open to helping people to realise their designs and has a wonderful way of explaining different techniques and construction ideas.

“Susan is a very valued and loved member of the WOW family with the longest relationship as an entrant since 1988, every year surprising us and wowing the audience with her magnificent works of wearable art.”

During the ’80s and ’90s Susan’s flamboyant designs were also finalists in the B&H (Benson & Hedges) Awards and at WOW, which she entered every year from 1991 until 2016.

“It took me over really. I loved going down to Nelson (where WOW started and ran for many years). They treated me like family after they got to know me.”

There were even trips to Bangkok and Singapore where her Dragon Fish design won international acclaim, and she had to make a second one so the costume could travel as well.

But before fashion, Susan was a teacher.

In the ’60s she attended Otago University, where she hung out in the Dunedin literary and art scene of the time.

She left university with a Masters of Home Science, then taught food chemistry and nutrition at the university.

“Then I went overseas, came back and did some relief teaching.”

One day, Susan discovered stamping designs on to material, cut some potatoes in half and made some potato stamps.

“Never went back from that moment.”

She taught herself to sew, how to print, dye and make the garments.

Six weeks later she was supporting herself making hand-dyed and designed silk scarves and garments.

For 20 years Susan and her designs were a staple of the Browns Mill craft centre in Auckland.

The financial crash at the end of the ’80s put an end to that but was quickly replaced with her textile design in the world of wearable art.

She has taught textile design in Australia, held workshops in New Zealand, and even did a stint working with the costumes for the hit television show Zena Warrior Princess.

Her art is very physical, with innovative ways underpinning her whole career.

Susan was always on the look-out for structure for her outfits.

Wicker baskets were cut in half for shoulders, handbags turned into head pieces, and to get that spray-on effect she turned a vacuum cleaner into a spray painter by reversing the flow of air and attaching a jar of paint.

She “retired” from textile designing five years ago.

“It’s too physical and I found that I’d really done my lot with WOW.

“I couldn’t win it any longer and that was a bit annoying.

“I sort of became an old timer. The technical youngies were coming on and I was no longer able to hold my own.”

But she has started drawing again, something that started during lockdown.

“My daughter Sally gave me the challenge. She said ‘let’s draw every day’.

“We really did egg each other on. She was wonderful to think of that idea, because I would have just been wishy washy.”

Today, Susan fills her days with swimming, grandchildren, family dinners, and her beloved bookclub.

Tucked away in boxes in the basement of Susan Holmes’ home are award-winning designs that once took centre stage. Susan spoke with Sophie Rishworth about her days designing for World of Wearable Art (WOW).

Hold it like a baby with two hands.”

The careful instructions on how to handle Susan Holmes’ fashion pieces are a clue to their auspicious past.

Susan is a textile designer and fabric artist, and one of the most awarded World of Wearable Art (WOW) designers in New Zealand. Her basement in Gaddums Hill is a treasure trove from her 30 years in the fashion industry.

Today the mannequins and boxes of costumes jostle for space but provide much excitement for her grandchildren.

Susan, who is 80 next month, moved here about five years ago from Auckland to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren.

“I dragged myself down here like a bedraggled sausage,” says Susan who was recuperating at the time from a second hip replacement operation.

“I was looking for an old lady place on the flats. But when I realised I could drive up to my front door here I bought it,” she says of her Gaddums Hill sanctuary.

In September Susan will be a guest speaker at the U3A monthly meeting, where her costumes will also get an outing. There is also an exhibition of her dresses booked in for 2023 at Tairawhiti Museum.

In a book published five years ago, WOW competition director Heather Palmer describes Susan as an ambassador for the annual event.

The book is called Susan Holmes Fabric Artist and was written by Cerys Dallaway-Davidson.

“Over the last two decades Susan has been (and still is) an inspiration and mentor to many budding Wearable-art designers,” said Ms Palmer.

“She is open to helping people to realise their designs and has a wonderful way of explaining different techniques and construction ideas.

“Susan is a very valued and loved member of the WOW family with the longest relationship as an entrant since 1988, every year surprising us and wowing the audience with her magnificent works of wearable art.”

During the ’80s and ’90s Susan’s flamboyant designs were also finalists in the B&H (Benson & Hedges) Awards and at WOW, which she entered every year from 1991 until 2016.

“It took me over really. I loved going down to Nelson (where WOW started and ran for many years). They treated me like family after they got to know me.”

There were even trips to Bangkok and Singapore where her Dragon Fish design won international acclaim, and she had to make a second one so the costume could travel as well.

But before fashion, Susan was a teacher.

In the ’60s she attended Otago University, where she hung out in the Dunedin literary and art scene of the time.

She left university with a Masters of Home Science, then taught food chemistry and nutrition at the university.

“Then I went overseas, came back and did some relief teaching.”

One day, Susan discovered stamping designs on to material, cut some potatoes in half and made some potato stamps.

“Never went back from that moment.”

She taught herself to sew, how to print, dye and make the garments.

Six weeks later she was supporting herself making hand-dyed and designed silk scarves and garments.

For 20 years Susan and her designs were a staple of the Browns Mill craft centre in Auckland.

The financial crash at the end of the ’80s put an end to that but was quickly replaced with her textile design in the world of wearable art.

She has taught textile design in Australia, held workshops in New Zealand, and even did a stint working with the costumes for the hit television show Zena Warrior Princess.

Her art is very physical, with innovative ways underpinning her whole career.

Susan was always on the look-out for structure for her outfits.

Wicker baskets were cut in half for shoulders, handbags turned into head pieces, and to get that spray-on effect she turned a vacuum cleaner into a spray painter by reversing the flow of air and attaching a jar of paint.

She “retired” from textile designing five years ago.

“It’s too physical and I found that I’d really done my lot with WOW.

“I couldn’t win it any longer and that was a bit annoying.

“I sort of became an old timer. The technical youngies were coming on and I was no longer able to hold my own.”

But she has started drawing again, something that started during lockdown.

“My daughter Sally gave me the challenge. She said ‘let’s draw every day’.

“We really did egg each other on. She was wonderful to think of that idea, because I would have just been wishy washy.”

Today, Susan fills her days with swimming, grandchildren, family dinners, and her beloved bookclub.

FASHION FAMOUS: Fabric artist and designer Susan Holmes took two-and-a-half weeks to make this piece “Montana Duck” for a special 25th jubilee celebration of a wine Montana Wines brought back. Susan used the colours on the bottle to design a duck-like creature. “But I wanted it to be very elegant, not a wacky duck-like dress, but an art piece that was elegant and beautiful.” The silk was hand-dyed, hand-printed, with applique, and a wicker basket cut in half for the shoulders. Picture by Liam Clayton