Fashion designer and cultural ambassador Kiri Nathan has made her name sailing unchartered waters.
The determined mother-of-five returned to the marae to learn traditional Māori raranga (weaving) and the making of korowai (cloaks) at the feet of her elders. She used that knowledge to build an internationally-acclaimed high-end fashion brand with a distinctly Māori essence and aesthetic, unlike anything else in the world.
Her stunning contemporary designs have secured coveted runway appearances at international Fashion Weeks, and her creations are owned by some of the biggest names in the world – from Barack Obama to the Duchess of Sussex.
And now, Kiri’s supporting other Māori designers to tether their dreams to her waka and follow in her slipstream.
KIRI NATHAN (KN) is a whanau-owned business. Kiri is Ngāpuhi and Waikato Tainui and her husband, and co-founder of the KN label, Jason Nathan is Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua.
Jason, a self-taught carver, creates KN Pounamu Jewellery. The label also produces lifestyle and bespoke womenswear, and contemporary handwoven garments. It is inspired by Te Ao Māori. Clients include corporates, Government and the entertainment industry, as well as individuals who seek an authentic connection to the land, people and culture of Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Kiri’s determination to succeed was evident when she was a young, ambitious single mother studying fashion. Her first test came when her tutors failed a black silk dress incorporating Māori design in woven braid trims. Believing in her creations, Kiri entered the design in the New Zealand Creative Youth Awards and won the Womenswear section, and the Overall Supreme Award.
Kiri and Jason have five tamariki, and three mokopuna. Kiri says she teaches her whānau and those she mentors to believe in their abilities.
Kiri started her label in 2010, and she and Jason launched their first collections in 2012. She has shown at New Zealand Fashion Week and Guangzhou Fashion Week China and was the first New Zealand fashion label to be invited by the British Council & British Fashion Council to London Fashion Week International Showcase.
KN was also the first New Zealand fashion label to work with Walt Disney Pictures. The Kiwi designer and the entertainment giant collaborated for the red carpet reveal of “MOANA”, which led to the acquisition of a KN handwoven kākahu for the Walt Disney museum. The white handwoven contemporary korowai in white feather, was worn by the voice of Moana, Auli’I Cravalho, at the film’s London Premier.
New Zealand Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy requested Kiri weave two contemporary kākahu, which will be used to cloak women in all future Dame Investiture ceremonies.
Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, has acquired 13 KN pieces for the New Zealand National Collection.
Kiri has paid forward significant support she received early in her career by creating a brand under which Māori designers can collectively take their work to the world.
The Kāhui Fashion Collective was founded in 2017, introducing the competitive world of fashion to the Māori values of kaitiakitanga (guardianship), manaakitanga (caring for others), kotahitanga (unity), and whanaungatanga (shared connection). Through the collective, Kiri has taken dozens of Māori designers in to China, supporting their growth with exposure to the world’s largest fabric markets and high-level introductions to buyers and distributors.
Kiri says: “This initiative was created to form the first community of Māori fashion designers, championing tautoko (support) of each other’s growth and success. It is an example of how fellow designers can thrive in collaborative spaces, working together to create significant noise in national and international markets, while still maintaining their individual voices.
“Although strong individual brands exist and thrive within the Kāhui Fashion Collective, the ethos is for the success of many. Ka ara ake tētahi, ka ara ake te katoa - one lifts, we all lift.”
One of those selected for the collective, Mitchell Vincent, says this: "I’m so grateful to Kiri for the opportunity to travel and experience China, the knowledge she has handed down, from arranging appointments with manufacturers and future production, to collecting contacts and sourcing agents. Kiri opened my eyes to the international textiles and manufacturing market and helped me see that the world truly is my oyster".
As a result of her mahi establishing and running the fashion collective, all of which was done voluntarily, Kiri has now been invited by NZTE to form the first Māori Fashion Coalition. The focus is on China, where the emerging designers now have established networks.
Beyond the collective, Kiri devotes significant time to volunteer positions.
Kiri is on the advisory board for SUPERdiverse Women, where she heads the mentoring programme for the network of women from minority groups. She is also on the board of ‘I have a dream’ charitable trust, supporting the education and growth of more than 1500 decile 1 children in Northland.
Kiri has initiated the Kāhui Mentorship programme dedicated to developing Indigenous Fashion Designers into examples of cultural and business excellence, she has previously mentored young women through The Moko Foundation and I Have A Dream Charitable Trust, but also contracts and trains women, in particular stay-at-home mothers, from underserved communities, who want part-time work. She provides guidance and on-the-job training, to enable women to be the sole caregivers and constant in their children’s daily activities. This creates a pathway to economic freedom – something Kiri strived for herself as a young mother. Her goal – as a designer, mentor, employer and grandmother - is to create indigenous self-determination and sustainability for economic development and social well-being.