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Style endures: Barbara Brinsley’s 80-year love affair with fashion

Style endures: Barbara Brinsley’s 80-year love affair with fashion

Style endures: Barbara Brinsley’s 80-year love affair with fashion

When it comes to clothing, Barbara Brinsley learnt the value of quality at a young age. Growing up on a sheep farm in rural Southland, the clothes on your back had to withstand the rugged elements and tough climate.

She learnt to sew from her mother, and went on to learn dressmaking before embarking on her career as a nurse. For her, making clothes was a normal part of life, she would find patterns for herself, make clothes for her children and even suits for her late husband.

At 82-years-old, Brinsley’s love for clothing has not waned. Alongside her career as a nurse, she’s had a long love affair with fashion. In fact, she’s become an icon in the local fashion scene, admired for her style and envied for her designer collection. In 2003, at the age of 65, she was scouted as a model for the iD Dunedin Fashion Week runway and went on to model for WORLD at the New Zealand Fashion Week. For her, style is intertwined in her life. “It’s just a natural part of my being. Today’s clothing has changed but the basis is still there for me, my sense of dress and the way I was taught.”

The fashion industry has changed drastically since Brinsley was young. Most people don’t make clothes themselves and with that vanishing skill, our connection to clothing has changed. “When you make things yourself you have a greater appreciation,” she explains. Looking at the industry today, she says there’s a lot we can learn about the way clothing used to be made. “I see clothing as something that lasts and has a purpose. I think of the style of Harris Tweed and the wonderful cloth. It doesn’t wear out. It just endures,” she says.

Having seen the fashion industry evolve and sustainability move to the forefront, Brinsley is glad to see designers and consumers embracing a recycling mentality, one that she’s always had. “Recycling in the clothing world has been going on for some time. In my trips to the UK 30 or 40 years ago, I would find wonderful recycled fashion shops,” she recalls. “In today’s world, what needs to be looked at is the recycling of things and it is certainly evident in the clothing industry. It’s wonderful to think that the garment you wear was picked up from a secondhand shop.”

She also admires the way young designers have embraced technology when faced with the challenges of the past year. With travel halted, the 2020 iD International Emerging Designer Awards were reimagined as a virtual show, with designers from around the world sending in videos presenting their designs. “It was a real challenge but to think outside the square as they did, it was very creatively done,” says Brinsley, who modelled for iD again in 2020.

Like many other industries, the fashion industry has been flung into crisis, with retail shops closing up and thousands of workers losing their jobs. As we all navigate through this incredibly difficult time, now is the time to hold on to our sense of resilience, says Brinsley. “I was widowed just before I was 50 and in a sense, I’ve learned to manage my life well. I know in today’s world, it’s hard to do it on your own, but if we all pull together, we will come through it.”

When looking at where the fashion industry is headed, she admits she doesn’t have a clear answer, but that perhaps we can find it by pausing for a moment to take it all in. “It’s making us stop in our tracks and realise what’s under our noses,” she says. This moment of stasis is an opportunity to pay attention to what’s in front of us, be it reusing old materials in new ways or embracing a second-hand mentality, she says. “We need to stop and look and be aware of what is around us. To seize the moment and look at where the fashion industry is going. To absorb it and then we can become creative and adventurous again.”

Photography by Sean Waller

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