Kat Tua: A young Maori designer is turning fashion heads.

Kat Toua Photo / Nola-Jean Judkins-Toua

At first, Auckland fashion designer Kat Tua found it “terrifying” to bring her Maori heritage into her creative work.

Now Maori-inspired menswear label MANAAKI is sold on international luxury fashion site Mr. Porter.

When Kat began working in retail in the early 2000s, fashion was “all about rockin’ and rolling,” she says.

“When I started in fashion, I left my culture at the door. It wasn’t something you did… I never put those two things together in my entire life.

But as a creative person you’re always looking for inspiration and that’s what inspired me the most. So I was like ‘I’ve got to go with it’ because I just love it. It’s the right thing to do.”

In the year In 2020, after 12 years as an in-house designer for Sydney fashion brands, Kat had a “light bulb moment” and suddenly quit her job.

“I really had to do my own thing. I obviously have a lot to say and a lot to know.

Australian actor Murray Bartlett in Tahi Flared Leather Pants by New Zealand fashion brand MANAAKI. Photo / Daniel Jack Lyons / Mr. Porter

I think I got to the point where I said, “I can’t make clothes for anyone else, I have to make them for myself.”

As a single working mom, giving up her day job was a big deal, Kat says, even though she was sure everything would come together…and it did.

For years, she found herself on a daily rollercoaster, picking up her son after work, then once “answering emails” until 10pm when he went to bed.

“It’s a shame [the fashion industry tends not to be supportive of working mothers]. It’s an industry run by women, you’d think there’d be more support for something like this.

A year after striking out on her own – and briefly following an Uber driver – Kat has launched her new menswear brand, MANAAKI, for the MR PORTER FUTURES mentoring program.

Her selection means she “learnt all aspects of the fashion business” and will work closely with Mr Porter’s in-house design team to develop her range before their buying team gives feedback.

“They know what sells on their site, so it’s worth listening to them and their advice.”

Manaaki’s original collection – now on Mr Porter’s site – was created in New Zealand in the 1970s, particularly by Maori and Pacific Island acts such as the Polynesian Panthers and the vibe at Bob Marley’s historic Auckland concert in 1979, Kath says.

Her retro-inspired design reimagines what “style icon” Marley would wear if she were around today.

But beyond his style, Kat also admires the Jamaican musician’s unique ability to bring diverse groups of people together.

Jamaican musician Bob Marley visiting Aotearoa in 1979 Photo/Leader Cammic

“It’s a very diverse group of Pakeha, Maori, gang members, punk… all brought together for music.

Although the price was higher than Kat originally wanted, she says, Mr. Porter convinced buyers that the creativity in Manaaki swimwear should be reflected in their prices.

“You color these prints by hand [they said]. You may charge more for those because one is not the only one who buys a print from a publishing house and it is based on a trend. It’s a very special, special thing.

“So they helped me secure a lot of price increases. Besides being a small brand, I want to be able to survive.

MANAAKI’S NEXT COLLECTION, Simple lifeIt will come out this April or May, Kat says.

“It’s inspired by men who work in the office but long for the great outdoors.”

As part of Manaaki’s current contract with Mr Porter, all clothes are currently manufactured in Europe, but she plans to bring production to Aotearoa in the future.

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