Hard News by Russell Brown

Fine work and history

In 1983, I came to work in a building that stood at the corner of Queen and Darby Streets in central Auckland. A Body Shop squats expensively there now, at the foot of one of the National bank towers. Back then, it was four rickety stories, no lift, and it was home to an odd bunch.

On the first floor there was the Denis Cohn Gallery, which was one of the city's most important art spaces at the time. Opposite Denis was an office held by Geoff Steven - now the apparently indestructible TVNZ executive, then a maker of art movies.

Upstairs was Snake Shirts, a t-shirt printing firm run by some amiable ex-hippies, now thirtysomething and trying to make a dollar, which they did for a while. There was Rip It Up magazine, where Murray Cammick had hired me into a job that pretty much changed my life. And there was a young (but older than me) fashion designer called Ngila Dickson.

I liked Ngila, and the way she referred to me as "Rascal", and she liked me. She was cool.

She was cutting clothes at one end of the loft let by Rip It Up, and trying to sell them from a pokey arcade shop at the corner of Queen and Victoria, where Whitcoull's is now. It was hard - there were designers back then (just like there were restaurants) but there wasn't much of an industry around it.

Eventually, Murray and a photographer called Max Thomson decided they should publish a fashion magazine, ChaCha, and they asked Ngila to edit it. She turned out to be a great editor.

I wrote a bit for ChaCha (as "Wayne Washington", which seemed like a Vanity Fair sort of a name), but its more profound influence on me came in 1991, when I came back from London and became editor of Planet magazine.

I was consciously aware of a local publishing heritage, running up to and including Ngila and Murray's magazine, although for most people it seemed to have disappeared into the black hole of the late eighties. Mark my words: today's street mags, with their large formats, quality photography and retail fashion ads, owe a lot to ChaCha. ChaCha was also a lot wittier than Pavement.

ChaCha foundered eventually, along with almost everything else in the building. The gallery closed, Snake went broke and somebody lost their house, Murray went to Grey Lynn and Geoff Steven discovered the joys of commerce. I missed all that - I was there for the best of times.

It can happen in a city that you and an old friend move in circles that don't quite intersect, and I haven't seen Ngila very often in the last few years. Anyway, she was busy: she went into costume design for the Pacific Renaissance productions out west. And then: she became costume designer for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I can't adequately explain the magnitude of the job or the quality of the work she directed - you really need to see the exhibition at Te Papa to see what makes it tick - but it is extraordinary.

And now, Ngila (along with Richard Taylor) has won a Bafta - Best costume design for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It's great: great to see fine work recognised, to see talent truly find its mark and to see someone you knew back when no one had any money do well on the world stage. I'm so pleased for her.