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01 February 2012
“I loved being a nun,” says ex-Opera Diva and now fashion designer, Nicola Waite.
“I’m actually not Catholic, but my favorite character to sing was Suor Angelica in Puccini’s opera by the same name. It is the most wonderful emotional role to perform, enhanced by the intimacy of wearing a nun’s habit - I loved dressing as a nun,” says Nicola Waite, former opera star and now creative designer and Managing Director of the Nicola Waite fashion label.
At 6 feet tall, a height Nicola reached she says when she was about 11 years old (leaving her no room to hide), this statuesque chestnut brunette has always been very “out there”. She will happily tell you she’s a size 16, has always loved fashion, but in all honestly found it hard to find clothes she loved that suited both her physique and character. It was in response to her desire to create clothes she selfishly wanted to wear, that Nicola launched her own label in 2000.
No matter what your age or style, or whether a size 8 or a size 22, one must always have the opportunity to feel great and enhanced by what one wears and maybe this is why Nicola has found a very successful niche in the fashion market, populated by a loyal and ‘growing’ (in number) fan base.
Nicola believes that you can create by combining exquisite cloth of varying colour and texture with clever cutting and embellishment, clothes that are stylish and make a statement and that work equally well across all sizes. (Nicola Waite brands cover the range of sizes 8-22)
Influenced by designers such as Ann Demeulemeester (one of Belgium’s Antwerp Six) and Yojhi Yamamoto, Nicola’s inspirations come through being interested in everything, from interior design, to architecture, to product design and of course looking in any shop with beautiful things of which clothes are a natural favourite. On her desk are scraps, diagonals and ribbons of fabric; handwritten notes reminding her of things she’s seen and that have impressed; pages torn from magazines, showing a room interior of grey resin and polished cement. Behind the expanse of her work-in-progress desk, ordered black folders arranged neatly against a white wall attest to another side of Nicola: the one with the commercial brain.
Nicola is not only the Creative Director of her business, she is also its Managing Director, freely admitting she loves using both sides of her brain – the practical and the creative – seven days a week and with the “control of the obsessed perfectionist”, which she freely admits is not always very healthy.
“I went to university when I was 16. I was out-going, young and worked hard at school. I wanted to do medicine but at the last moment decided to do Law and Commerce. My plan was to be an academic.” says Nicola.
It was a plan thwarted by her ability to sing.
“My singing teacher was Sister Mary Leo [a much decorated music teacher in New Zealand, who when she died in 1989 at 94 had been honoured by the Queen and made a Dame]. Sister Leo taught people such as [Dame] Kiri Te Kanawa. She was a tiny little thing who from the piano would fling out her arm, whacking me in the diaphragm to remind me to breath. She was terrifying but wonderfully inspiring, and fiercely loyal to me. I remember my parents speaking to her about the fact they felt I wasn’t practicing enough with my singing, which I probably wasn’t, and she stood up for me, saying that I was probably very busy with my school work.”
“At University I wasn’t really that involved in opera or music as such, but continued my singing lessons on the side. A friend of mine, who was studying music told me that she was going to an audition for a visiting American conductor who was casting Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. She was going to try out for the sweet girl role of Michaela. I was much more interested in the exciting Carmen,” says Nicola, putting her ‘go for it’ personality down to the influence of her father, who taught her never to be afraid, never fluff around, and just get on with it.
The Bizet gambit paid off, Nicola played the role of Carmen and was discovered. She was 17. Three years later, she found herself across the pond at Opera Australia and from there it was on to a 20-year career performing around the world.
“I never felt I put the work into my singing that I did with my university studied, or that I do now in my business. I loved working vocally on a role, understanding the intricacies of the character and her emotions, but I hated the rote learning of memorizing the part and the repetitive production rehearsals. It was so boring. Now, when I think about that, I was probably very frustrating to those trying to manage me, as I certainly did not fit in the box and at times did not have my work well enough prepared for those arduous production rehearsal periods. Her perfectionist nature often left her feeling that she could have always done better.
Tendencies that she admits make it difficult for her to ever feel totally satisfied with what she does, and delegate to others. I feel happy when I have control of all aspects of my business but there are only 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week. Nicola attributes much of her personal happiness and ability to feel confident in business to her extremely supportive partner of 15 years, - Vasilis Karbouris, a man who lets her be her obsessive self, and who is happy share in many aspects of her personal and business life.
She also has a great team at the studio, and in her retail stores. This, she is so grateful for as there is so much to do - making sure the garments are finished exactly the way she wants them; inspiring and imparting new ideas to staff; assessing customers’ needs and meeting those; marketing the range and the stores; managing and trouble shooting the production process; fabric buying; research; and making sure the retail staff are supported with materials and encouragement to maximize their many talents……
Nicola Waite grew up in New Zealand with a younger sister, who now works in her Auckland store. Both girls are adopted and could not be more different from one another, says Nicola, explaining her sister’s patience and tolerance in tones of awed reverence.
“My father is a paraplegic, paralyzed from the nipple line down, through a diving accident when he was 20. He met our mother who was a nurse in the hospital in which he recuperated. They’re in their late seventies and early eighties now, and Dad is the longest surviving paraplegic in this part of the world,” explains Nicola, who acknowledges this accolade is due in no small part to her mother’s dedication and loving care.
“Dad had been an electrician before his accident, but as fate would have it was approached by Rotary to head up as its Managing Director an assembling company which employed only disabled people who were remunerated in the same way as their able bodied counterparts. He took it forward to become the largest assembling company in the country, working for many brands including the likes of Fisher & Paykel, but he decided at 40 to leave the cut throat nature of the business world as such and went on to work with disabled causes, being on the parliamentary advisory board responsible for the Disabled Access Act in NZ, which later Australia followed. He also saw the introduction of disabled children into normal kindergartens with able bodied kids.
“My father refuses to listen to or heed conspiracy theories and has never had a negative thought or come at something from a negative angle in his life. He is an inspiration to me – as also is my Mum for her selflessness and elegance. Then there is the wonderful Nelson Mandela….”
The long and the short of it, as Nicola would phrase it, is that inspiration and motivation are life’s mainstays.
In 1997 Nicola returned to Australia from overseas. The move was for a number of reasons: she wanted her son, Oscar, (now a budding young Industrial Designer – on his way to work in Munich), to be closer to his father, and she had been asked to perform in Australia’s first Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Adelaide. (Nicola had performed the same roles in Frankfurt a year earlier)
So how on earth does opera singing relate to fashion design?
“My Mum taught me to sew when I was 9 years old and I later went on to design my own concert gowns, so I guess I soon understood what shapes and lines would make me look good. I had also been making costume jewellery on the side for a couple of years while living in Europe, selling it through various outlets in London and Amsterdam where I had been living and Australia when I was visiting to sing. On my return to Australia to live I decided that for fun and an exciting challenge, I wanted to put a small fashion collection together. I thought it through and used part of my fee from the Adelaide Wagner Ring Cycle job to bankroll the process. I went to see the costume department at Opera Australia was introduced to a freelance patternmaker, and from there, just got going,” explains Nicola, about her fashion beginnings. She also admits, that it felt very odd returning to Australia where she had grown up as a singer, and although it seemed easy to travel from Europe to sing in Australasia, it seemed far further to return to Europe to perform. There was really no intention to change careers – it just happened. The Nicola Waite brand took off, and the making of a collection allowed little time to be a devoted operatic artist.
Success in business is often measured by numbers of units sold, by the bottom line, but, as Nicola will tell you, when it is a creative business that is one tiny part of the story.
“One could design a season of failsafe pieces, the garments that one has seen sell well and I guess on paper it will look like a successful business,” says Nicola. “But if I did the same season after season, it would very soon turn to custard. My motivation for work and for what I do is about being excited in seeing and finding what inspires me and that can be in anything anywhere. By stepping outside the square, and by trying other ideas and listening to customer feedback, I get inspired and it is this that I love about my job.
“If I woke up and didn’t feel this excitement in creating a new collection, I’d know it was time to stop.”
More than 10 years on from her first collection – for which Nicola received $80,000 worth of orders, double her initial outlay – the philosophy remains solid.