Wahine Fashionista

Dec 19, 2017

Designer Amber Bridgman is the wahine behind KAHUWAI, a clothing line that explores identity and whakapapa through its unique Māori influence. Earlier this year, Amber shared her work with the world when she had the opportunity to participate in the Melbourne Fashion Festival. Kaituhi Alice Dimond spoke to Amber about her life, her work, and the designs that launched a successful career in the fashion industry.


Amber (seated) surrounded by models wearing her designs.

Amber Bridgman radiates warmth and strength, and this unique combination will capture your attention. At first you might be distracted by her stature and the striking garments she wears, but as you look further it is her mauri, her composed vitality, that will leave a lasting impression.

Amber (Kāi Tahu – Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha, Rabuvai, Kāti Atawhiua) has always been a lover of fashion, but it was only after she returned home to Dunedin 13 years ago to have twin baby boys that she decided to make a career out of it.

She had been working in television and film, and as there was very little work in the industry in Dunedin at that time, she began to look elsewhere.

“I decided I would need to tap into some of my other interests,” says Amber. “My mother is an amazing seamstress, so I was really fortunate that throughout life she has always made me beautiful couture clothes. Everything I wore matched, and everything was handmade. When you think about it now, that is really quite a rare thing.”

In Amber’s teenage years she began to create her own designs, with the help of her mother. “I would design dresses for school formals and Mum would help me make them. Actually, I would always start to make them and then Mum would finish them,” laughs Amber.

“Kāi Tahutaka is what we live and breathe, so that is what I am always producing. [My brand] is forever going through different stages, depending on where I am at with my babies.”
Amber Bridgman

Following her decision to make a career out of this passion, Amber decided she wanted to be qualified if she was going to be a professional artist. She returned to university and completed a degree in Traditional Māori Art. “I think it’s really cool to have that qualification being a toi artist, because it means I can rock both worlds,” says Amber.

Today, Amber is the successful designer and creator of the brand KAHUWAI. She still lives in Dunedin with her fiancé James York, a Kāi Tahu master carver, and their six tamariki. The KAHUWAI brand is a reflection of Amber, and is heavily influenced by her surroundings, whānau, and whakapapa. “Kāi Tahutaka is what we live and breathe, so that is what I am always producing,” says Amber. “[KAHUWAI] is forever going through different stages, depending on where I am at with my babies.”

Her children are a massive influence on her designs. In fact, it was the birth of her twin boys in 2004 that sparked the creation of KAHUWAI, when Amber discovered the baby clothes she found in stores didn’t suit her unique style.

“I began making their clothes and screen-printing them with Māori designs,” she recalls. Other parents at Kōhanga Reo quickly began to ask questions about the clothing, and KAHUWAI as a brand began.

Nowadays, KAHUWAI has clothes and jewellery for all ages, and is mostly sold online. All products are handmade by Amber, and nothing is mass produced. Even though this makes for hard work, Amber says that is the fun of it. “I find the work, especially weaving, very therapeutic.”

In March this year, Amber made her debut in the Australian fashion world at the Melbourne Fashion Festival. She showcased 10 outfits alongside First Nations and Aboriginal designers, as part of the Global Indigenous Runway show.


Amber’s designs on the runway at Melbourne Fashion Festival.

Amber’s designs told the story of Hine-nui-te-pō, and the mokomoko (two-tailed lizard) was featured throughout the collection. The collection also included piupiu skirts, pounamu, pouākai (Haast’s eagle) designs, and red military jackets made from silk, inspired by the jackets worn by Pākehā soldiers during land confiscations.

“Everything in that collection came from Dunedin,” says Amber. “That is the unique thing about my work; it is authentic, it is Kāi Tahu.”

The authentic Kāi Tahu flavour of Amber’s Melbourne Fashion Festival collection was inspired by her experience at Kura Reo Kāi Tahu, a week-long te reo Māori immersion wānanga at Arowhenua Marae.

“That was my first immersion experience of that length in a long time. I would do the mahi during the day, and then in the evenings I would stay up for hours thinking about what I had learned that day, drawing and designing. That was definitely a backbone to the collection.”

Attending the Melbourne Fashion Festival to showcase this collection was “a bit scary for a little girl from Stewart Island,” says Amber. Rakiura is the place she calls her tūrakawaewae.

“Stewart Island is a really special place for our whānau. We still have a house there on the back remote parts of the island.”


Beach shoot in Dunedin.

Despite Amber’s initial fears about heading to the big city of Melbourne, she says the indigenous designers at the festival made for a “beautiful cultural exchange”.

“I spent a lot of my time with an Aboriginal woman and we had these gorgeous conversations about all our traditional practices and the way we raise our families. It was about whanaungatanga,” she says.

“People see the photos and it looks so glamorous, but there was more to it than that.”

In between the fashion festivals, Amber has been doing wardrobe work with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Cirkopolis Circus, and various other productions in film and television. She also has a part-time role with Ngā Kete Mātauranga Pounamu, which is a southern Māori health provider, as a Stop Smoking coach. “The sad reality of [fashion design] is it is not consistent money, so I pick up things part-time,” says Amber.


Peacock-inspired design from KAHUWAI.

Amber’s broad skill set also means she sometimes teaches tikanga and te reo Māori, having always had a passion for the reo. “It is a waka that I am constantly on,” she says. “I have always been learning, but am still far from fluent. I am always trying to paddle my waka in that direction.”

At home, her whānau speak a combination of te reo and English, and she said she felt really proud when her two boys recently attended Kura Reo Rakatahi. “The reo we do speak at home was enough to get them through,” she says. “One of them actually said to me, ‘Thanks so much, Mum, for installing this into our life so that it is quite normalised.’ We live and breathe Te Ao Māori, so it is quite normal for them now, that is just our lifestyle.”

This complete immersion in Te Ao Māori has not always been the case for Amber, and she says when she was younger, she only really knew she was Māori because of occasional racist remarks from her school peers.

However, Amber says culture is part of everything she and her whānau do now – spending their weekends at waka ama, kapa haka, or wānaka. “It’s busy, but thank goodness, all the things we do kind of gel together. The combination balances out our crazy lives.”

This positive outlook is second nature to Amber, despite her acknowledgement that life has thrown her a few lemons at times. “It is like it is for everyone; but I like to think I have made a lemonade factory out of the lemons,” she says. “I am a big believer in love conquering all, and my biggest love and passion is for my family and kids.”