Emma Knuckey was living on a Taranaki farm with her husband and children when she decided to send some of her fashion illustrations to the London designer Frederick Starke. He was a founder of the London Model House Group - an organisation that promoted the British ready-to-wear industry.
When Emma received an invite to meet some of London’s top fashion designers, she decided to leave immediately for England. The invitation made the newspaper: "Mrs G F Knuckey, a Waitara farmer’s wife, has been invited to study with the top flight fashion designers that comprise the Model House Group in London" (Weekly News, 1949).
With her two children enrolled in boarding school, Emma and her husband left New Zealand in early 1949. On her arrival in London, Emma met with the 14 ready-to-wear designers who made up the Model House Group. It was an exciting time. The ‘New Look’ silhouette was shaping post-war fashion, and British designers embraced the look that signalled the end of post war rationing. Emma studied technical pattern design with several of the Model House Group Designers.
"By just looking and listening she learned a great deal about the world of haute couture. Bit by bit she absorbed not only all the information that came her way, but also the very atmosphere of those exalted places." (NZ Draper and Allied Retailer, 22 June 1959).
Emma returned to New Zealand in 1950 with plans to settle her family in Auckland and start her own business. She wasn’t the first member of her family to work in the garment industry. Her grandmother owned a drapery store in New Plymouth and her mother was a talented seamstress. Emma’s talent for home sewing was fairly typical of a 1940s farmer’s wife but she had bigger plans - she was determined to become a designer.
Emma was 37 years old when she opened her salon, Gowns by Emma Knuckey, with her business partner Betty Clark. The salon and upstairs workroom were located on a corner site at 18 Darby Street. There were London influences in the outfitting of the salon - large mirrors, soft carpet and carefully placed lamps created a smart atmosphere.
Emma gained a reputation for beautifully cut garments, self described as "pure uncluttered design and line which would take the wearer anywhere from morning to dinner at night". She imported her fabric from Europe, very clear that her business was founded on the quality of the material, and the quality of the garment.
In 1958 Emma entered the Gown of the Year competition. In her 2003 publication about the competition, Claire Regnault describes the gown as "uncharacteristically theatric" - a combination of the decadence of fin de siècle Paris and 1940s Hollywood. The winning gown in 1958 was designed by Lea Draysey. Other entrants included Michael Mattar, Rosemarie Muller and Barbara Herrick, who had worked for Emma Knuckey Gowns in 1951.
In 1959, Emma and Betty closed their Darby Street salon in order to focus on the wholesale side of their business. Emma’s exclusive gowns and suits were stocked in many of the large department stores in New Zealand such as Milne & Choyce, Smith & Caughey's and Kirkcaldie & Stains.
They returned briefly to retail in the early 1970s with a new store in the Strand Arcade, not far from the label's first home in Darby Street. "We've done the round circle," Emma said in an interview with the Auckland Star (26 November 1970). She designed hot pants, flared trousers and miniskirts under a new youth label, Miss K, until she retired in 1974.
Text by Kelly Dix. Banner image of Emma Knuckey in her upstairs workroom in Darby Street, Auckland City in 1965. Image © Auckland Star, courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, PH-2013-5-2-52.
Last published March 2017.