Southland’s fashion capital has crowned a new queen for 2023 – Dunedin-based Molly Marsh,
whose covetable designs were inspired by a tennis court in her hometown of Ettrick.
Words Josie Steenhart
Depending on your perspective, sensibilities and interests, the Southland town of Gore (population approx. 10,000) might be best known for trout-fishing, country music, a seriously great art museum (the Eastern Southland Gallery), moonshine, farming or – if you’re partial to a bit of fashion (or just a great night out) – the Hokonui Fashion Design Awards (HFDAs), which this August celebrated its 35th anniversary at a quickly sold-out Gore Town & Country Stadium.
The longest-running fashion design awards of their type in New Zealand, since 1988 the Hokonuis, as they’re colloquially known, have attracted both high calibre entries and top industry judges (think James Dobson of Jimmy D, Karen Walker, Juliette Hogan, WORLD’s Francis Hooper, Trelise Cooper, Kate Sylvester, Liz Findlay of Zambesi, Doris de Pont and NOM*d’s Margi Robertson) from around the country.
“[Winning was] totally unexpected and so super rewarding,” says this year’s overall winner, 20-year-old Dunedin-based Molly Marsh, whose collection of three tennis-inspired garments had this year’s judges calling game, set and match.
“Molly’s entry stood out in so many ways,” says Liam Bowden of celebrated Kiwi leatherware label Deadly Ponies.
“It was very well executed, the seaming and pleating in the dresses was very intricate. Her designs told a story and had a strong sense of identity. Molly’s entry felt fresh and put a smile on our faces.”
Of the event itself, Auckland-based Liam describes it as “such an amazing experience”.
“The whole community rallies together to create something world-class. It’s heartwarming to see so many people volunteer their time for something like this, and there’s a lot of great talent coming through.
“It was fun to get to know the other judges – I enjoyed the different design perspectives – and the gluttonous amount of cheese rolls we had.”
Molly, who is in her final year at Otago Polytechnic’s acclaimed fashion design school, centred her entry around playful – yet technically talented – nods to the tennis court on her family’s property in the tiny Otago town of Ettrick.
“[Ettrick] is the heart of Marsh’s Honey, a third generation family business my parents now operate,” she says.
“I was the only girl in my year group for the majority of my time at Millers Flat Primary School, which had a total roll of 30-ish pupils.”
In 2016, she moved to Dunedin “for boarding school, where I attended St Hilda’s Collegiate School”.
Staying on after high school (“I was lucky enough to be appointed head girl, which was a memorable and valuable experience”), Molly says “after living here for almost eight years, I’ve found it really special to reconnect, solidify and broaden my friendship circle”.
“It helps that Dunedin is such a student-orientated city, as people come from all over New Zealand to study here.”
The ambitious young designer works at Wānaka’s DEVáL Boutique “as one of the stylists there” during her semester breaks and also spent time interning at sought-after Auckland-based label Maggie Marilyn.
”I approached their team last year expressing that I wanted to gain work experience from a brand I absolutely adore and believe in,” she says of how the opportunity came about.
“Helping with the day-to-day runnings of their workroom, being surrounded by like-minded, knowledgeable, passionate and down-to-earth people and feeling as though I was a part of their team was an experience I will never forget.”
Of this year’s HFDA-winning designs, Molly says “dressing up in my mum’s old tennis whites and pretending to be Serena Williams on our homemade grass court is a nostalgic memory that was the starting point for this collection’s inspiration”.
The ‘tennis whites’ – two tops, a maxi pencil skirt, wide-leg trousers, a mini tunic dress and sporty visor – were cut and tailored from cotton drill into covetable (and commercially friendly) designs, but it was perhaps the finishing touches, not to mention the statement coat, that elevated Molly’s entry to the top award.
“The turf coat was quite literally made out of turf – a fabric the sewing machine was not familiar with,” she says with a laugh.
The statement neon-yellow carryall that accompanied her garments was crafted from a giant tennis ball Molly found at a pet store (“it was the only place I could find to purchase one”), while a second, standard-sized ball can be found adorning the back of the coat.
“The more you looked at her collection the more you saw the details in each piece,” judge Vicki Taylor of Taylor and The Shelter says of Molly’s entry, which took six months to complete.
“Her construction was really outstanding, all those little tucks were incredibly even and the inserted tennis ball was well executed. The finishing point was her attention to the details – the shoes, hats and accessories all fitted seamlessly into the overall effectiveness of her design. Molly’s balance and design aesthetic were on point and the colours were consistent throughout, each piece could stand alone or work together.”
Molly’s prize package, valued at more than $16,500, includes the chance to show her work at this year’s New Zealand Fashion Week in Auckland.
“Yes, some of the designs from this year’s Hokonui Fashion Show will be exhibited as part of NZFW, which I am lucky enough to be showing at and attending myself,” she says.
Beyond that, Molly, whose “ultimate dream” would be to have her own label, says her immediate plans are to return to Auckland later in the year, “for an internship with another gorgeous New Zealand designer, which I’m really looking forward to!”
“In the mix of that, I’ll be finishing my graduate collection, which will be showcased at the Otago Polytech Graduate Collections Show in November. And that will be a nice wee challenge!”
She describes the entry process for entering the HFDAs as easygoing, (“the OP fashion lecturers helped transport its students’ entries to Gore, which was super generous”), and says “the thrill of seeing your garments on a catwalk is a special experience for any designer.”
Molly’s advice for anyone thinking about entering an award like the Hokonuis?
“Knowing when to enhance a design but also knowing when to let it speak for itself is a hard thing to balance and understand, but is something to consider when entering.”