WOW: Kickstarting Creative Careers

Emperor Hidden Moth and His Minions by Dylan Mulder 2014
Digital Stealth Gods by Dylan Mulder 2016
Dylan Mulder
Stephen Blackburn
Ahead of the World of WearableArt event next month, we take a look at some of the creative career opportunities that are born out of this “platform of opportunity.”

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From small beginnings in 1987, what began as a promotion for an art gallery in Nelson became what we now know as WOW, one of the most significant arts events in the New Zealand calendar.

At the core of WOW is an annual international design competition that each year attracts entries from more than 40 countries. The rules of the competition mean that anything that is wearable can find a place on stage, as long as it is original, innovative and well-made. This means that WOW attracts some of the most creative people from around the world, working at the cutting edge of fashion, art, design, costume and theatre.

Each year WOW showcases the best of the competition with the WOW Awards Show in Wellington, which this year takes place from 21 September – 8 October.

“The scale of the thing has become so big,” says Head of Production, Stephen Blackburn. Joining the WOW team earlier this year in February, Stephen is already working on the conceptual design for the 2018 show, and putting together the team for the 2019 show. “The show doesn’t stop,” he says.

From a core team of 10 in the quiet time, the staff swells to 350 at show time and offers a raft of weird and wonderful job opportunities, that despite the often short term contract nature of the work, keeps people coming back year after year.

2017 marks Pip Horrell’s 10th year with WOW as a volunteer dresser. Now living in Sydney, she comes back every year to do the show.  Starting as a volunteer in 2006, Jaysell Gopal moved to being a Merchandise Assistant the following year, and is now the Merchandise Coordinator for the show.

What keeps them coming back? “I think it’s the community culture that’s grown up around WOW,” says Stephen. “It’s a very rare opportunity to work on something of this scale, and it does open up opportunities for bigger scale work.”

Stephen explains that roles like ‘runner’ (being available to fetch things at the last minute) and ‘timer’ (literally watching the clock to ensure everything is in place for a precise entrance) are great opporunities for young stage managers starting out.  He covered the range of wardrobe roles involved in the show that manage not only the competition garments, but also the character costumes that populate each scene. He spoke about the actors and child actors and chaperones and models and dancers and musicians and soloists – and that was before he got started on the number and variety of technical roles involved in a theatrical production of this size!

Speaking about the piece-meal nature of this type of work in New Zealand, Stephen says, “It’s very difficult because of the size of population to make a living as an artist, but so many people keep doing it, and I’m always really impressed by that.”

Looking at WOW from the perspective of a competition entrant, Wellington-based industrial designer Dylan Mulder described it as a “platform of opportunity.” Developing skills and techniques with modern technology and translating them into a garment for the competition, Dylan says is an opportunity to share with the world what he’s learnt that year or convey what he’s thinking about at the moment.

A WOW veteran, Dylan has won five awards in the last four years, including the prestigious Cirque du Soleil Award last year for his entry “Digital Stealth Gods.” This award saw him travel to Montreal earlier this year for a four week internship with the world renowned theatrical circus troupe.

Describing his experience at Cirque du Soleil headquarters, Dylan says, “It was so incredibly rich with talent. They were really happy to share and not hold anything back. Their openess to sharing was utopian!”

Dylan says Cirque du Soleil were really interested in exploring digital ways of doing things, and that he spent time exploring a virtual reality relationship with them where they could design together from remote locations. “When someone gets good in New Zealand, they leave, because there’s not enough jobs here. We’ve got such great creativity that has punch internationally, and using VR, I believe we can outsource our digital talent internationally and we should capitalize on this.” Dylan is currently in discussion with Cirque du Soleil about onoing employment with them.

Further illustrating his point about the opportunity that can come from WOW as a designer, Dylan explains that his prescence on the WOW stage caught the eye of Air New Zealand, who approached him recently to create a garment that took inspiration from some of the different domestic destinations that they serviced.  

WOW hits Wellington, 21 September - 8 October

For ticketing information, visit the World of Wearable Art website  

Written by

Christine Mackintosh

25 Aug 2017

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