Three decades before she became a Dame, Denise L’Estrange-Corbet co-founded WORLD fashion label, with Francis Hooper, with just four hundred bucks to their names. Since its 1989 inception, the label has become one of Aotearoa’s most iconic brands, gracing catwalks across continents and the first ever fashion company to be endorsed by the United Nations. Dame Denise’s philanthropic philosophies have also seen her be made Ambassador for the Diabetes Foundation Auckland and the IHC Art Awards, while also lending her support to the likes of The Starship Foundation and the Leukaemia and Blood Cancer Foundation, among many more.
“WORLD is the most philanthropic fashion brand in New Zealand, and we have supported charities from day one—before it became fashionable to do so,” she says. “I have been doing it since school—I remember standing at Victoria Station in London collecting signatures to stop the culling of baby seals and sent the petition to Margaret Thatcher. My philosophy is that if one person did just one good thing for someone and left the world a better place than when they arrived, then how wonderful would that be? You can’t just throw money at charities, if you want to do something, you make time; if you don’t, you make excuses.”
While still a toddler, in 1963, the designer-to-be and her sister were whisked to London by their mother to escape the clutches of their abusive, alcoholic father.
“I went from a very white, idyllic, middle-class upbringing in Remuera, to abject poverty in the UK,” recalls Dame Denise. “After we sailed there, I never saw my father again, which broke me into unimaginable pieces. I felt I lost my childhood, having to grow up so quickly and take on responsibilities none of my friends had. Being from a solo parent family was very rare in those days, so I do take my hat off to my mother for her doing this, but we went from the pan into the fire—and what a fire it was. My upbringing has left me with triumphs and scars that will stay with me forever.”
How was your relationship with your mother?
“Our relationship is all or nothing—we speak, or we don’t speak for years on end. She has done things that I can never condone, and I have never held back in telling her this. I know a lot of this is because her mother was so twisted. Aged five, my mother and her four siblings were sent to a boarding school a million miles from home in the mountains in India, and didn’t return until they were 18. My grandmother did not even know how to hug a child, or even come up with a comforting word for her children or grandchildren. She was the devil.”
The designer talks fondly of a childhood teacher called Mrs Charlton who “looked like the Queen” with her “twin set and quaffed hair”.
“She smelt beautiful and was so strict, but I loved her,” continues Dame Denise. “She wore a cut crystal necklace that radiated prisms across her neck, which I loved to watch. She taught me the love the written word and her encouragement of me was incredible.”
Most importantly, Mrs Charlton told the young girl’s mother that she was “very clever”, praise she had never received before, especially not from her grandmother who “said that I was stupid”.
With such a traumatic upbringing, it’s little wonder that Dame Denise felt compelled to shine a light on issues surrounding mental health (she is also Ambassador for the Mental Health Foundation); I ask if she personally follows any kind of wellbeing routine.
“I did yoga for a matter of weeks,” she says. “There’s a lot of farting and smells, and that’s not for me, I kept laughing, so I gave that up! I have done other things, but again, I find anything that has me doing the same thing at the same time each week is just not me. I cannot do anything that entails keeping up a strict regime or is repetitive, I am far too fluid. I need constant change, almost daily, or I lose all interest. So, projects are great for me, as they are quick and over, and I can move on. I have the attention span of a gnat.”
One that hasn’t changed is Dame Denise’s love of fashion—and discovering Kensington store Biba in her teens, she tells Verve, “blew my mind”.
“I’d never seen a shop then or now that even comes close to rivalling it,” says the fashion boss. “Barbara Hulanicki [the store founder] was a genius. I do believe that some people are born so before their time. Her and David Bowie, even now, are ahead of their time—their foresight and vision are rare commodities.”
You’ve been at the forefront of New Zealand fashion for so long now, what has impressed you about its evolution during that time?
“It has grown so much since Francis and I started, and I do love seeing what the young designers are coming up with. It does make me sad whenever people copy what’s happening overseas, as if they do not believe we have talent here.”
Any idiot, she adds, can copy, but few can call themselves “true designers”, and when judging fashion events, she knows the winners “in an instant”, as their creations “scream from the racks, ‘Look at me!’”
I ask Dame Denise if she feels enough is being done within the industry to address issues such as sustainability, workers’ rights, and gender equality.
“They are all issues that people feel they should be getting involved in, and everyone jumps on this ‘caring’ bloody bandwagon to save their own arses,” she says. “But until the general public stops demanding and purchasing cheap clothing, the issues will never be fixed.”
In 2019, Dame Denise flirted with politics (she has previously also released her memoir, All That Glitters, and even tried her hand at acting, taking the lead in the play, Sitting Pretty), running for the Waitematā local board. It was, she admits, a brief stint, but one that taught her much about an entirely different world of which she previously had little insight.
“I found that some people will do anything to win, including lying, and that is not for me,” she says. “I shoot from the hip. I don’t play mind games or lie, so I was happy to let the person who triumphed over us minions carry on.”
How does the world of politics compare with that of entrepreneurship?
“I think that if all politicians had at some point in their career, run a business and employed people, then and only then would they understand what it is like.They have no idea what their restrictions are imposing on businesses, as they have no idea how they work, fundamentally. Entrepreneurship is stifled by government restrictions, and that is a tragedy. You have to jump through so many hoops, sometimes it’s almost not worth it.”
Of all her awards and accolades, the designer says that the three that stand out most are winning the Avant Garde section of the Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards in 1995 (“the award sits on my mantlepiece—it came with a $5,000 cheque which was crazy money to Francis and I back then!”); becoming the first ever female to be awarded an MNZM, formerly an MBE, by the Queen, for services to fashion, in 2002 (“I was so humbled by that”); and being made a Dame in 2018 (“it was so unexpected”).
“It just shows that it doesn’t matter where you are from, or what you have had thrown at you, you can choose to use it as a negative, or a positive,” she says. “Only you can make you who you are. You pick up the challenge and run with it, or not.”
Dame Denise admits that being too strong-willed can at times be to her detriment, but, with age, she has become more tolerant and less of “a firecracker”. She’s never been one for taking advice, choosing instead to “work on gut feeling”. “We each have to forge our own path,” she adds, “and that is learning from our mistakes and behaviours”.
I finish up by asking what she learnt from the truly awful year that was 2020.
“You cannot fight nature! It is bigger than all of us, no matter how important or intelligent some us think we are. Mother Nature has given us a very short, sharp reminder of who is boss, and how we have to respect, not abuse, what we have.”