Kevin Berkahn has lost count of the number of wedding gowns he designed and made during his 52 years in business. He estimates he averaged about 500 a year. For every bride, he also dressed her bridesmaids and, on most occasions, the bride’s mother as well. Evening gowns and cocktail-wear in sumptuous fabrics were another Berkahn speciality. His output was prodigious.
The seeds for a fashion career were sown when Kevin was in his teens. Growing up on a Dannevirke farm, he enjoyed watching his mother sew and he was also inspired by a dressmaker cousin. Using Vogue patterns, he began sewing clothes for his sister and he made his first debutante’s dress when he was 17. "It was the first time I took the scissors to a piece of flimsy tulle," he recalls.
Shifting to Auckland, Kevin found work in a Takapuna boutique called Shoreline Originals where he designed and made clothes for stock. Before long, he was making bridal-wear to order. He opened his own shop in Milford, also on Auckland’s North Shore and, in 1960, not long after his 21st birthday, moved his business into the central city. There he had a shop and branched out into wholesale manufacturing.
Kevin entered the Gown of the Year contest in 1962. It was the first time one of his designs appeared on the catwalk. Called Fascination, the strapless gown, made in West Cumberland brocade, had a big bell skirt, a ruched front panel decorated with hand-made roses, and panier skirts on either side. Kevin says it was the most elaborate dress he ever made. For the full coat he designed to wear over the dress, he used 75 metres of tulle. The show’s organiser/compere Tam Cochrane wore another of his designs (not entered in the competition), a lavender satin sheath dress draped with shot silver and lilac chiffon.
In 1964, Kevin met and married Shirley West-Blair, the woman who was to be his life and business partner until her untimely death in 2013. For their wedding, Shirley, a Dior sample seamstress for Gus Fisher at El Jay, wore a dress designed by her husband-to-be. Kevin describes the dress as having a long flowing train and being made of French lace decorated with pearls, crystal drops and shards of mother-of-pearl.
A salon in Sydney’s Double Bay (run in tandem with the Auckland boutique) followed in 1973, selling special occasion clothes made in Auckland under the Kevin Berkahn label. The first of the business misfortunes that were to befall Kevin over the years occurred when the Australian woman he put in charge of the salon was discovered running a call-girl racket on the premises. "It did irreparable damage to the salon’s reputation," he says. "We had no alternative but to close. The Sydney department store David Jones bought all our stock."
In order to recoup his losses, Kevin worked for the next five years for an Australian fashion company, helping to revamp an out-of-date label, before returning to Auckland in 1984 to open Plums, an exclusive inner-city boutique that attracted society women and fashionable professionals.
The timing was perfect. Auckland in the 1980s was party central. Black-tie events were held on a regular basis and there was a big demand for the upmarket eveningwear in which Kevin Berkahn excelled. His glamorous creations earned him the nickname ‘The Dynasty designer’, a reference to the long-running 1980s’ television series noted for its stylish clothes. He was often asked to replicate garments from the show. "I received lots of requests for sequinned suits," he says. And he has fond memories of the 'Krystle Carrington shirt', named after one of the series’ leading ladies. "It was one of my best sellers - crepe, with padded shoulders and ruffles."
Opulent fabrics, imported by Kevin from France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, always played an important part in the Berkahn collections. Money was no object when it came to quality. He says the most expensive fabric he ever bought cost $1000 a metre. He used it for a dress he designed for a fashion show at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
In 1987, with Shirley managing Plums, Kevin opened a 4500 square foot megastore devoted entirely to bridal-wear and accessories. It was located at the Symonds St end of K Road. To celebrate the opening, the Berkahns staged a spectacular bridal fashion show at St Mary’s, the old church now attached to Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell. It took three days to decorate the church with flowers, there were 800 invited (paying) guests and proceeds went to the cathedral building fund. "We did 40 wedding sets, each one complete with bride, bridesmaids, flower girls, the lot," remembers Kevin. "It was like having 40 weddings at once. The show made headlines all over the country."
Some years later, disaster struck again. 39 wedding gowns destined for a bridal trade fair in New York plus 30 dresses on hold for local brides – total value $100,000 – were stolen from the store. Despite the business going into liquidation, Kevin honoured his obligation to his local clients. He remade every dress. One year on, Brides By Berkahn re-opened. It continued operating until 2011 when Kevin made the decision to finally shut up shop.
In his long career, Kevin Berkahn lent his support to hundreds of charity fashion shows and, for a number of years, he provided the evening gowns for the 21 national finalists in the Miss New Zealand contest. Years before New Zealand had a presence on the international fashion stage, Kevin was invited to participate in prestigious fashion events in London, Sydney and the United States. A co-founder of New Zealand Bride & Groom magazine, he published his memoirs in 1999, stage-managed numerous high profile wedding receptions and became the first New Zealand fashion designer to create a signature perfume.
In the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Kevin Berkahn was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to fashion.
Text by Cecilie Geary.
Last published November 2014.