Taumarunui, the epitome of a sleepy rural community, is not a place many would pick to have a top-class fashion boutique. But Michael Mattar designed dresses in his hometown for more than 50 years.
At the height of his fame in the 1960s women would travel from Auckland and Wellington to be fitted for exquisite cocktail gowns. The designer produced classically elegant dresses with a touch of Hollywood glamour and earned himself a respected place in the country's fashion history.
His interest in fashion started when he was 10 years old. "I just used to love going to the movies in the Taumarunui Hall and admiring what people were wearing in the films," he told the New Zealand Herald in 1990.
He wanted to study fashion design but in the 1950s there were no fashion schools in New Zealand. Instead, he experimented by making outfits for his sisters, Zeph and Adele. "They used to wear the outfits I'd made in Taumarunui," he said. "People would ask them where they got them from and that's how people started coming to me for dresses."
In 1962 Michael came second place in the eveningwear section of the Golden Shears Awards, which were held at the Auckland Town Hall.
In 1968, Michael won two Golden Rose trophies at the Benson & Hedges Fashion Design Awards. A gold wool dress won the formal evening wear section and also the NZ Wool Board’s trophy, a silver candelabrum, for the best wool garment. His secpnd entry, black velvet evening culottes, lined and sashed in cyclamen-rose silk, won the trophy for creative design. A back-fastening cape of black velvet, edged with jet beading, is worn with the culottes.
He always had a passion for the classic line of fashion. "I've never followed trends and I don't like to dress down at any time," he said.
Michael found women's fashion today "too laid-back". "It's too easy to put on a pair of slacks and a boob tube. People have got to be brave and dress up. I'm all for femininity. I like to celebrate womanhood."
Illness prevented Michael from attending the opening of Auckland Museum's After Six Before Eight cocktail dress exhibition in 2003. Two of his signature little black dresses were included: a 1961 silk cocktail number and a 1969 silk crepe and lace cocktail mini-dress.
Text by Arnold Pickmere for The New Zealand Herald. Banner image © Ann Percy.
Last published November 2014.