SOUTHSIDE ARTS FESTIVAL

: Cult Couture 2011

Last night’s fashion awards at the Waka-shaped Pacific Centre kicked-started two weeks of arts events in South Auckland. For such a sprawling city (it is bigger than London, though infinitely less dense) a festival is the perfect ploy to splatter the suburbia with pinpoint dots and announce “THINGS HAPPEN HERE!“ Before you know it, all sorts of titbits and morsels are tumbling from the woodwork. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving a flavour of some of Auckland’s more exciting stuff (and perhaps some of the fluff).

Cult Couture is billed as something of an entertainment spectacular; fusing together music, art and high-fashion. Whilst it did indeed contain all of these elements, I was amused by the suggestion that they fused. In reality the effect was highly surreal and had more in common with a variety show than a catwalk event. That said, any evening that bills together a host who variously performs numbers from the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Chicago with a rugby shirt-clad men’s choir that follows a pitch-perfect rendition of Gloria in Excelsis Deo with a native Haka display (delivered just as convincingly) deserves some credit.

I had an inkling that the evening was going to be odd from the outset when, as means of an introduction, three performers took to the stage dressed head-to-tow in Georgian splendour. The trio proceeded to mime the construction of a black T-shirt (an obviously machine-woven, synthetic-cotton number) on a wooden spinning wheel. They were eventually chased into the wings by a backstage crew member brandishing a disco ball on a stick like a nu-rave shaman exorcising the stage of history’s shadow (for anyone who hasn’t heard the joke about New Zealand: apparently it is permanently lodged 20 years behind the rest of the western world).

There was no such evidence of this fabled gulf in the designer’s entries. I saw as much flair and modernity in the Kiwi’s sartorial interests as anything of European equivalence. It is perhaps more notable that most of the garments lacked the “quintessential Aotearoa” that the organisers were so bent on promoting.

The real treasure tonight was found during On The Streets, a category  led by Tamsin Smith’s aptly titled Modern Smuggler: a men’s tailored jacket and trouser piece made from a heavy grey felt and embroidered with silver stars, seared upon navy breast panels. The jacket was lined with a frosty blue/silver material, resplendent in further cosmological patterning. Deidre Morgan’s Retrospect – an ochre smock and cap (think Angelina Jolie á la The Changeling) with scorched-red trimming – had verve enough to make one misty-eyed about the 70s.

In the end the night belonged to two people: Kiri Nathan, the young darling of New Zealand’s fashion industry, who picked up two of tonight’s category awards for her elegant numbers, and the supreme winner Lindah Lepon whose design confidently straddled the tentative line of high-concept and “that-might-just-catch-on” credibility. Bushygaga was a strikingly simple appliquéd nude bodice beneath a plump eye-catching coat of spines that, now I think about it, more than slightly resembles the country’s native kiwi bird. Perhaps New Zealand’s flavour did reveal itself after all.

Southside is taking place against a city backdrop awash with colour. Flags hang in shop windows and bunting is strung between lampposts and pylons. It’s a concerted transformation, total in its realisation and global in perspective. The colours are the hues of countries; the flags the emblems of nations. This display – a metropolitan peacock fanning its tail feathers – has been assembled to celebrate the Rugby World Cup currently being played here. I am interested to see how much attention the arts can command under the glare of this large-scale tournament. Presently only one object appears to be stocking the fervour of this city’s residents and it is unquestionably egg-shaped.

All is not as conclusive as it may first appear. Walking past one of Auckland’s bookshops a few weeks ago I observed a rugby-themed display being installed. I asked one of the booksellers whether they were expecting a sudden influx of trade from overseas rugby supporters. The answer shot dead all of my squalid assumptions about sports fans. The last time New Zealand played host to an international rugby tournament book sales rocketed. And the category that saw the most growth? Poetry.

After last night’s mixed-successes the verdict is wavering on whether fashion can cast an equal crossover appeal.