Kerry Funnell – Lush in lace and leather

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Kerry Funnell likes to describe herself as an ‘all round frock tart’. Even on her tax return. To date, no one from the IRD has queried it, so she’s happy it describes her occupation accurately. (She’s not one to take herself too seriously.)

Kerry has spent more than 25 years studying, working, creating and teaching in fashion design, tailoring and costume design. She loves to surround herself with fabrics and textures, feathers, lace and all fripperies – yet is well known for her classic, elegant bespoke garments. In her long career she has created costumes for films, and sewed items as random as socks, trampoline mats and large canvas tents. Her eyes dance when she talks about what she is working on – and it’s hard to miss the enthusiasm and passion she has for her work.

Growing up on a farm in Dannevirke, she says her mum was ultra-creative and quite mischievous.  “Both parents had a real zest for life, always bringing new experiences and projects to the house and we were surrounded by humour and new ideas.” The oldest of three girls, she began making dolls’ clothes on an old Singer sewing machine when she was just five.

Her formal training was in Wellington, where she studied fashion design. “We were the last students to learn ‘old school’ tailoring and even though it was a big workload, I’m really grateful I learned that,” she says.

On an OE to the United States with her sister, she found herself down to her last $20 and working in a grain processor. “That’s where I decided I wanted to work in film, although it took a while to get there,” she says.

Home from travelling, she got a job in the boning room at the freezing works, then went to Auckland to sell fabric in a Barker & Pollock store in K Rd. “I met another Kerry who made leather gear for motorcyclists and drag queens, and I started to sew costumes for them. I’d spend all my wages on fabric and come home each weekend and sew.”

Glorious turning point

A stint at Norswear (‘socks that never die’) as a trainee designer taught her a lot about working with knit fabrics and knitwear patternmaking. But getting a job designing costumes for the Xena Warrior Princess series was the major turning point in her design career.

“That was a glorious job,” she says. “They asked me to make a fully boned corset at the interview. It took me hours, but I got the job.”

The costumes were fantasy rather than fashion, and she fell in love with the leathers and trims, and the designs that were so lush compared to fashion garments. Sewing methods that were authentic to the setting were demanded, such as lashing seams together with waxed linen thread, or meticulously stitching by hand.

In the 1990s she moved to Tauranga to raise her children, Charlotte and George, and that’s when her bespoke ‘made to measure’ fashion design business started.

Kerry has entered the Wearable Arts Awards four times, and had her designs accepted twice. One entry was purchased for the WOW collection. She loves altering vintage garments, and seeing the old production methods – “it’s a great way to collect techniques,” she says.

She has earned her stripes in the New Zealand fashion scene, winning categories year after year in the Westfield Style Pasifika competitions 2003-2006 and coming runner up to the supreme winner in 2006.

Highlighting beauty

Fashion is still a key driver, and Kerry loves the constant striving for new and innovative design, especially where it involves taking vintage garments or inspiration, and making them contemporary.  “I love good fit and beautiful finish. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s so satisfying to create garments that highlight their beauty.”

The interest in costume design has continued, and she’s had several years of popping down to Wellington to work on films for several months at a time. “You get to work with great materials and some really talented people – leather workers and lace makers.  There isn’t the restraint of fashion, where you have to think about price point, practicality, how will it wash etc.”

She’s been able to develop this side of her work locally with the Tarnished Frocks and Divas show, in Tauranga.

“It’s such a measure of fantasy and imagination, theatre rather than fashion. Each piece is crafted especially for the model, and it’s a thrill when it all comes together. We have to create a relationship between the model and the garment to give them a story in their mind. This drives the way they walk, hold their hands, move their bodies and fit the story.”

Some of Kerry’s designs at last year’s Tarnished Frocks and Divas. Photos courtesy of Tarnished Frocks and Divas Trust, Natalie McDowell; Hair and Wig Creations by Ado; Makeup Designer Sophie Garth

Kerry’s ability to tune into what works for women has helped create a very successful design and tailoring business. She’s inspired by music, books, TEDX talks – her themes come from life, rather than the mainstream fashion season’s ‘look’. She’s very open-minded about the future, as she likes to explore new opportunities when they come along. Meanwhile she’s quietly building a fashion collection, piece by piece.

Kerry’s zest for life shows through when she talks about her work and her family. It may have started on the farm in Dannevirke, but it flourishes through fashion in the Funnell household in Tauranga.