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Five Minutes with Kate Sylvester

We spent five minutes chatting to fashion designer Kate Sylvester about her work.


For most of us, Kate Sylvester needs no introduction. The eponymous label she and her partner, Wayne Conway, started from humble beginnings in the early nineties has earned a place as one of our leading fashion lights.


Wayne and Kate met at Wellington Polytechnic where Kate was a student of fashion and Wayne studied graphic design. “It’s now the Massey Design degree but there were no degrees back then,” says Kate.


Their fashion label, Sister, was born in 1993. The pair had very little money, so Kate sewed every piece of their first range herself. As a friend of the couple, well-known writer Stacey Gregg tells in ‘Happy Birthday Kate Sylvester!’ for Viva: “They were losing money hand over fist and it was decided that if things didn’t pick up they would pull the plug. Hacked off with the whole thing, Wayne designed a T-shirt that summed up his mood. It was a photo print of a cool girl raising her middle finger with a line underneath that read: Sister — you know you want it.” The tees took off, and the rest, as they say, is history.


The name change came when Sister went into Australia and streetwear label Stussy Sista saw ‘Sister’ as being too similar a name to their own and took legal action. According to Gregg: “Kate didn’t want to call the brand Kate Sylvester. In her mind she was Kate Sylvester — the clothes were something else. Wayne and I talked her round. The argument was simple. All the biggest labels in the world were real names: Chanel, Gucci, Givenchy. Wayne designed a new label and Kate Sylvester was born.”


Kate Sylvester, the label, is always designed around a concept and can be inspired by art, music or books. “A strong concept or story is central to all of our collections,” says Kate. “Everything we design has a beautiful, eccentric, whimical quality to it. I like to design beautiful pieces, and, as I’m a woman designing for women, it’s important for me to create garments that are easy to live in.”


Fabric is an integral part of Kate’s design process. Lace is one of the cornerstones of a Kate Sylvester collection which is balanced with leather and more masculine silhouettes and suiting. “I love the balance of masculine and feminine. For example, today I’m wearing an absolutely beautiful lace dress with trainers.”


As a busy working mum to twins Tom and Ike, 15, and Cosmo, 14, Kate also draws inspiration from her home-life. It’s part of the inspiration for the swan on the KS logo and some of the KS homewares. “I’ve always loved swans and where we live in Westmere we overlook an estuary where they fly. It’s beautiful. They’re a very pretty part of Kate Sylvester.”


The latest collection is called ‘a Muse’ and is inspired by Picasso’s muses. “The women I referenced for this collection are beautiful, stylish and a little bit bohemian with distinct and different personalities,” says Kate.


Indeed, the clever design and high quality fabrics have won the label many ardent fans, establishing Kate and Wayne as New Zealand fashion royalty. It’s about quality. It’s about style. It’s about beauty. And it’s about eccentricity. “I love that our pieces transcend the years and I love seeing women wearing a piece that’s five, 10 or even 15 years old. That is such a great part of my job,” says Kate.


Words: Jenna Moore
Photography: Olivia Hemus