“Egalitarianism is part of New Zealand’s DNA and World of WearableArt celebrates this”
-Gisella Carr, Chief Executive, World of Wearable Art
As a former student of History of Art, since I relocated to Wellington I sometimes find myself missing and craving the world-class events of London where I used to live. So when the multi-discipline arena show, World of WearableArt, was prepping for its 29th season, I knew I had to see it. WOW is the largest and arguably most important arts event that Wellington has to offer and one that I couldn’t miss.
The show was brilliant and the success of WOW in fostering arts engagement, showcasing NZ art and putting Wellington on the map make it easy to see why WOW has become such an integral part of the New Zealand arts scene and a fixture on the Wellington calendar. I’m going to discuss this phenomenon with a little help from WOW Chief Exec Gisella Carr, whom I was lucky enough to interview.
What is World of WearableArt?
Started in Nelson in 1987 by sculptor and arts entrepreneur, Dame Suzie Moncrieff, WOW has now been running for 29 years. The annual show is a two hour spectacle displaying the creations of wearable art that are submitted every year by designers from all over the world as part of a competition. The designs are presented in themes, such as red, or glow in the dark, or Sci-Fi amongst a stage show featuring dance, theatrics and live music. Every year the show generates a great deal of hype and as I experienced the whirlwind of dance, music and action in the TSB area among 3500 other audience members, I understood why.
WOW is not just one show. Yes it is a ‘costume’ show and competition with models wearing the art but it is also much more than this: it is a living breathing exhibition of multiple art forms that takes avant garde to the masses and in doing so puts Wellington on the cultural map.
Wearable Art is Relateble
When I worked at the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at The Barbican in London back in 2014, I became fascinated by the power of fashion to bring art into direct contact with people’s lives. This show got a huge amount of traffic compared with more traditional visual art in the gallery. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why, perhaps celebrity culture is a factor, but there is something about clothing which is immediately understandable and appealing to a wider audience. Perhaps it is because everyone can imagine putting on the garment: we can automatically understand and connect with something wearable no matter how whacky it is! This is part of the power of WOW, Wearable Art is relatable.
Another important aspect of the accessibility to art provided by WOW was highlighted by Carr: “…the human body is a canvas and this galvanises designers’ interests. Over 50% of the designers are not from NZ, this language is understood even if not English speaking, it is inclusive” In this way, Wearable art is a form of expression that crosses boundaries of language and media, and that makes it relevant to people from all walks of life.
Performance is Accessible
Watching the show and seeing the art paraded, I was struck how well it would be suited to the gallery environment due to its detail and intricacy, but I also recognised just how important it is for the show to be a performance. People love a spectacle, just look at how huge Canadian giant Cirque du Soleil has become.
The numbers speak too; performing arts is the most widely attended art form in New Zealand with over two thirds of New Zealanders attending performances every 12 months (Creative NZ). The attendance rate for visual art is much lower. Why is this? A performance is an event, a one off special, you make an evening of it and it is presented for you to digest with ease. As Carr said “it’s a one off happening” that people want to be a part of. Would the same number of people see WOW if it was only an exhibition? I think probably not. WOW succeeds through performance, making art accessible to more than your regular visual art audience and this is undoubtedly an asset to the people of Wellington and to New Zealand.
Looking back to first principles, the whole point of WOW was to provide this access to art for all. When it began in 1987, founder Suzie Moncrief wanted to bring art ‘off the wall’ and turn the body into a canvas. Off the wall, meaning not just literally bringing art works out of the gallery and on to the stage, but also off the wall: something strange and different, surprising and new. This double meaning is important. WOW is a medium that allows art to be accessed and popular, but it is not banal. This for me, distills the essence of the brilliance of WOW… It welcomes people in but has no need to condescend or compromise.
This Year’s WOW – A Strong Inclusive Message
This year’s World of Wearable Art was unique in that it had a theatrical storyline following the tale of a young girl who is a ‘day dreamer’ a thinker and a creative. She is constantly being told (in song and dance) to stop dreaming and do something ‘useful’. We all have a creative side but some have been able to let it flourish more than others. World of Wearable Art and especially this year’s story encourages people to embrace their creative personality and inspires the audience to be bold. There is an artist in all of us and it is this us, that is so important. WOW is inclusive: a crucial component of its cultural and social contribution.
Gisella also pointed out that a key aspect of this year’s show was its strong statement about the achievements of women. The main character is portrayed by actors aged between 5 and 91. Females are portrayed as strong, high achieving characters, an important standpoint, especially coming from a male director in his 30s.
WOW Showcases the Arts of a Nation
Forty per cent of New Zealanders believe that their national art and culture in NZ is inferior to overseas (Creative NZ) NZ’s geographical remoteness makes it unsurprising that relatively few travelling exhibitions come to the country. This makes WOW all the more valuable to the city and to the nation. The world class competition attracts more than 300 design entries from over 40 countries, all eager to showcase their work in Wellington. Carr believes that designers are drawn to the competition due to the WOW’s track record of amazing quality and astonishing variety. The spectrum includes everything from a ship builder to a London Fashion Week designer. WOW is not only NZ home-grown; it is recognised and prioritised by designers from all over the world.
And it is not just the wearable art that is showcased. The performance, theatre dance and music foregrounds New Zealand talent across the board. The show is developed over twelve months: choreographers, artists designers and performers all work together and demonstrate NZ’s cutting edge credentials in the arts scene, ensuring that avant-garde excellence for everyone has a home in Wellington.
WOW places Wellington on the Cultural Map
As well as showcasing the best from New Zealand, as I have previously mentioned, World of WearableArt also imports high art from overseas and it attracts a global audience. Seventy per cent of audience members are from outside Wellington, and hundreds of those are from overseas. Many are Australian but they also travel from as far Ireland and Boston, particularly where the WOW travelling exhibition has made an impact.
This wide audience reach is important for Wellington not only because it embeds world class art here in the city, but is also estimated to have brought in over $25m to the Wellington economy in 2016 alone. It introduces Wellington to a huge number of visitors who might not otherwise have come to the city. And then there are those who come every year too. As Carr told me “WOW is now well established and it is a huge contributor to the economic well being of Wellington. WOW is the top contributor to Wellington’s economy out of any major sports or arts event” This is no small feat and well and truly establishes Wellington as an Arts destination.
According to Carr “People are fascinated by both the designs and the stage show and this provides them with a really wonderful visual performance.” I agree, I think audiences are attracted to WOW, to its glamour, its uniqueness, its accessibility and its spectacle. This huge audience size in such a small country makes Wellington a centre of global arts excellence and gives people a unique and specific reason to visit the city.
Wellington and World of WearableArt are synonymous. Despite being nurtured and grown in Nelson, it is Wellington where WOW has come into its own. It has flair, it has colour and class and we all know that Wellington could use a bit of brightening up every now and again! WOW is an inspirational celebration of global arts that is accessible to all; and at its heart and in its veins is Wellington, the windy city on the long white cloud where inspiration and innovation are ready to flourish.
Is Wellington a better place for hosting WOW? I would suggest almost certainly.
If you likes this post, you might like to check out more of my posts about Wellington:
Thanks for reading and come back soon!