Raising a glass with Avis Higgs

Saturday 21 September 2013 is a significant date in the history of the museum, marking our renaissance as MTG Hawke’s Bay and the opening of our redeveloped building and exciting new exhibition spaces. This special day is also one that we share with Avis Higgs, one of Australasia’s most renowned textile designers and one that is dear to us here at MTG. Born on 21 September 1918, the Saturday of our opening day was also Avis Higgs’ 95th birthday.

We were thrilled that Avis was able to join us at our preview event on the Friday night and share in the re-opening of the museum where we house a large number of her designs, fabric samples, garments and paintings. These wonderful items have found a home here at the museum since the touring exhibition Avis Higgs: joie de vivre, curated by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins in 2000.

Image 1_DLJ and AvisDouglas Lloyd Jenkins and Avis Higgs at the opening of MTG Hawke’s Bay. Image kindly supplied by Linda Tyler, Director of the Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland.

Avis Higgs was born in Wellington of joint Australian and New Zealand parentage and grew up in a family that shared a passion for art. Her own creativity was developed when Avis enrolled at the Art School of Wellington Technical College in February 1936.

As a young design graduate, Avis secured a full-time position at National Distributors Ltd. in Taranaki Street, Wellington where she undertook lettering and occasional poster design. It was also here that Avis learnt the principles of screen-printing, a technique which would later become important in her design work.

In 1941 Avis was appointed head designer for Silk & Textile Printers Ltd (STP) in Sydney. This company had been looking to hire an Australasian designer that could produce original designs at a time when inspiration from Europe was largely off-limits. During this period Avis Higgs was creating wonderfully innovative textile design inspired by her Sydney environment, including plant and marine life and trips to Bondi beach.

In 1948 Avis headed back home to Wellington and was soon plotting her next adventure in London. To save money Avis took up a position designing cinema advertisements and at night she designed textiles in order to build up her portfolio. Once again, Avis turned to her surroundings for inspiration creating designs based on native plants, flowers, and taonga held at the National Museum.

Avis Higgs arrived in England in July 1951. Despite a downturn in the textile industry at this time, her designs were well received by those who saw them. Unfortunately, Avis Higgs’ career in England was cut short due to a car accident and she returned to New Zealand in 1952.

Throughout the following decades Avis Higgs was an active member of the arts community, widely exhibited and received numerous awards. In 2006 Avis Higgs was awarded the Governor-General’s Art Award for her contribution to New Zealand art and a retrospective of her work was held at the Academy of Fine Arts.

MTG Hawke’s Bay recognises Avis Higgs’ contribution to design history and have represented her work in the exhibition Decorate: Design stories from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. This exhibition will feature a printed rayon dress by Avis Higgs and a bag from Laurie Foon’s 2005/6 ‘Black Swan’ summer collection which incorporates Avis Higgs’ ‘Duckpond’ print designed in 1949.

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Dress (detail), c1945, Avis Higgs, (b.1918), gifted by Mrs Avis Higgs, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2004/23/61

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Handbag, 2005-6, Laurie Foon and Carleen Schollum for Starfish (estab. 1993, closed 2013), textile design by Avis Higgs (b.1918), purchase, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2005/47

Lizzie Wratislav
Curator Design Collections
November 2013


Dawn of Remembrance

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Colonel John McCrae

Commemorating those citizens who have died for their country has become a national tradition throughout the world. Before 1914, nations had never before seen war on an industrial scale. Men who had readily signed up for the armed services believing that they would not see battle because the “War” would be over by Christmas instead watched for four years as their friends, relatives and fellow citizens died in Turkey, France and the Middle East.

Looking back to the landings at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 it is amazing the speed at which that date became a day of remembrance for the ANZAC nations, New Zealand and Australia. Badges and fundraising days were organised throughout New Zealand within weeks of the outbreak of war. Napier played a significant part in public support for those men serving overseas.


Early ANZAC and Gallipoli remembrance buttons used for fundraising in New Zealand. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tāū-rangi, [42089; 42165]

As the war continued and the casualty lists posted in newspapers showed the extent of war losses, New Zealanders recognised that Gallipoli would become a rallying point for national identity. A memorial day fund drive had begun even before it was known that the battle at Gallipoli would end in evacuation and defeat. What mattered most was that men under arms overseas were supported and that those at home who had lost a loved one were taken care of.

One of the first remembrance ribbons commemorating the sacrifices made by men of the armed forces. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tāū-rangi, [74631]

In London, the day known as the First Anniversary of the Landing at Gallipoli was commemorated with a memorial service held at Westminster Abbey. Such was the esteem held for New Zealand and Australian soldiers that the service was attended by King George V, Queen Mary, and General Sir William Birdwood, commander of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli. The itinerary for the day included a march by the Australian and New Zealand troops and a lunch at the Hotel Cecil. Sermons were delivered and church bells were rung in appreciation.

Programme of sports events for troops stationed at Tel-El-Kebir on the first anniversary of the landing of ANZAC forces at Gallipoli. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tāū-rangi, [70873].

However, not all ceremonies were so solemn an occasion. Those troops evacuated from Gallipoli had been sent to Egypt to rest and replenish their ranks. At Tel-El-Kebir outside of Cairo, New Zealand troops held a military sports day in memory of the first landing at ANZAC Cove. Events included a tug-of-war, tent pitching, stretcher-bearer’s race and, peculiarly enough, a bomb throwing competition. As the camp contained a high proportion of Australian troops, it is easy to see that friendly competition would have taken place between the two national sides, ensuring the bond that was set in the heat of battle was made permanent at a more peaceful time.

Evan Greensides
Collections Assistant
April 2013

vinka’s bridal wonderland

I have just returned from a flying visit to Te Papa, where I was speaking about one of my favourite designers from our fashionable past – the fabulous Vinka Lucas.  My talk was part of the programme for Te Papa’s exhibition Unveiled – 200 years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and it lifted the lid on the bridal wonderland that Vinka, and her former husband David Lucas, developed in the 1960s.

The focus of my talk was the innovation and big-thinking that made Vinka’s Maree de Maru boutique such a key destination for New Zealand brides. In contrast with the contemporary bridal industry, in which women largely expect to be provided with finished garments, Vinka established her business at a time when her core clientele wanted to sew their own gowns. To meet this market without compromising her vision as a designer, Vinka developed a comprehensive range of services that ranged from fully finished couture gowns through to customised mail-order patterns, fabrics and trims.  With David Lucas working hard to cook up new marketing schemes and opportunities to promote Vinka’s designs, Maree de Maru soon become a high profile bridal business. 

One of the things I spoke about at Te Papa was the pattern service that Vinka offered via Maree de Maru and a network of fabric stores the couple developed known as the United Bridal Salons. Using this service, brides across New Zealand could select a gown from a comprehensive catalogue of Vinka’s designs, purchase a customised paper pattern and specified material from a member of the United Bridal Salons network, and then get to work making their dream gown.  

Vinka's designs were available to brides across New Zealand via publications such as 'Maree de Maru Marriages' and 'New Zealand Bride'.

Fabrics obviously became a key part of this process, and Vinka and David made considerable efforts to ensure that their business had a secure supply of exclusive fabrics.  However, when Vinka required extra special fabric for a key showpiece gown, she often went beyond the existing supply chain and commissioned customised fabrics. It was these unique gowns that were on display in the Maree de Maru salon, and appeared in private showings and bridal parades, inspiring brides across New Zealand.

Vinka's romantic gown and headpiece first appeared on the pages of 'New Zealand Bride' - a magazine run by David Lucas

The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust textile collection is lucky enough to include one of these rare examples of a custom-printed Maree de Maru wedding dress, donated to the collection by Vinka herself in 2009. 

Vinka's gown is now in the collection of Hawke's Bay Museum's Trust / Ruawharo Ta-u-rangi (2009/36). The beadwork was retrospectively added by the designer many years later.

The fabric of this gown was printed by a Bronwen Mooney – a screenprinter who completed several key commissions for Vinka.  Various sources I have come across have led me to understand that Mooney worked in Hawke’s Bay for a period of time, and I wonder also if she might be a textile printer that also collaborated with Taumarunui designer Michael Mattar.  I would very much like to find out more about Mooney as a textile designer, as her work would have such a good fit with the strong New Zealand textile design and fashion collection held here at HBMAG.

Vinka's design was brought to life by custom screen printing by Brownen Mooney

This talk was a lovely excuse to delve back into the wonderful world of Vinka Lucas, and find out a little more about a designer who has made such a big contribution to New Zealand fashion history.

Lucy Hammonds, March 2012

Images appear with the permission of Vinka Design