NORTH & SOUTH Magazine Page 26 JUNE 2016 -
Like Kate Winslet's film character, Tilly, whose style transforms an Outback town, Hamilton dressmaker Deborah Parker has magic at her fingertips.
IN 1967, HER MOTHER DECIDED THE FAMILY SHOULD MOVE TO NEW ZEALAND. "IT WAS TROPICAL AND HAD BUTTER."
When Deborah Parker was seven and sailing across the Atlantic on one of several trips with her nomadic mother, she caught a glimpse of her destiny. A dazzling young woman swept down the staircase of the ocean liner, pausing to be admired. She wore a form-fitting dress, a fur stole and diamond earrings. For a child from a working-class Scottish family, the effect was mesmerising. "I saw the world I wanted," she says.
Until then, Parker's world had been confined to state houses. Her mother, a fastidious hard-working Scot, sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet; her father was a boilermaker at the Glasgow docks. But there was a feisty gene in her lineage. "Mum always said I took after her mother's side, which had a wild streak. My great grandmother made sacks and took in sailors. She wasn't a gypsy, but she was certainly bohemian."
In 1967, her mother decided the family should move to New Zealand. "It was tropical and had butter." Parker later took up hairdressing, following the path of two of her three brothers. In the evenings, she made her own clothing, using the Elna machine on which her mother had taught her to sew.
If life had taken a traditional trajectory, she would have settled down and had kids. But her grandmother's genes had other plans. She went to Australia, where she worked on a prawn trawler for a year, then to London, where she met husband Bevan.
The couple set up flat and Parker trawled for work. She opened a stall at Camden Market, selling vintage frocks. "London was all punk and tartan then," she says. "Everyone had spiked hair and platform shoes. I was known as the Kiwi with the flowery frocks. I sold one dress."
Her next job was in a transgender shop where men could buy - or dress up in - women's clothing.
"We would measure them, do their makeup and wigs, and fit them with corsets. They could then go to a club above the shop and mingle with other men before they put on their trousers and went back to work."
The experience emboldened her and she suggested to Bevan they move to Munich, where he could be a full-time artist while she launched a hair salon with her brother. There, she discovered German women wore the dresses she loved.
Back in New Zealand and settled in Hamilton, she spotted a small art-deco building with the sign "Christine's Clothing Alterations - For Sale." It was a light bulb moment. She wrangled the numbers with her bank manager, painted the workshop blue, papered the walls with Butterick patterns, and changed the name to Feisty Needle. She also launched her dress range, Bridget Bonnar - named after her other Scottish grandmother.
Like Tilly, played by Kate Winslet in last year's sumptuous movie The Dressmaker, Parker transforms her customers. Larger women are encouraged to wear dresses that follow and flatter their curves. "Sometimes customers say, 'I used to wear dresses when I had a figure.' I say, 'You still have a figure.'''
Flowered frocks continue to dominate. A bridal dress has a cream and burgundy floral skirt overlaid with rich taupe lace. In the alterations part of the business, dated clothes are given a refresh; grandfather's shirts turned into pillows. While her mother once railed against her fashion choices - "She used to walk behind me when I wore 1930s op-shop dresses with a big bow in the front, and a pencil skirt with a slit" - she later came to love her daughter's clothes. "I think, deep down, she was really proud of what I did."