Kristine Crabb is the founder and designer of Miss Crabb, a cult New Zealand fashion brand known for its cleverly cut silk gowns and subtly subversive aesthetic. Her clothes are worn by accomplished, interesting women (and sometimes men!), who appreciate intelligent design and luxurious fabrics. She lives in a combined workroom-and-home space in Auckland with her three children, aged 6, 9 and 10.
I was really uninspired last year. I just hated everything and got quite depressed and I wanted to fall in love with the work again. Over the last three years, I had been enjoying life more, being lazy, spending more time with my friends, but hadn’t been that engaged with my work. Now I’m ready to delve back in and get refreshed and re-inspired. It’s been going really well.
I started having kids really early in my career. I’d only had my shop two years when I met their dad and got pregnant, and it was in the middle of a recession. It was challenging, but it made me a way better designer, a better parent, a better businessperson, and ultimately a better person. Looking back, I’m glad I went through it.
Once I’m in the zone of being obsessed with fashion and business again, I want to take Miss Crabb to the Northern hemisphere, because it’s really different to anything else I’ve seen around the world. That’s what I set out to do: something different to fashion, more universal, like an art project.
I’m from Matamata, in the Waikato. My family are farmers. It’s very beautiful there. I think it informs my aesthetic. My mum has four sisters and in the 50s and 60s, nana would make them all a new dress every month for dances. Nana was really creative, too — she had a hat shop in town, before she was married. They had all these dressmaking patterns, which I’m still obsessed with and collect.
I used to make clothes by hand, as a child, and I’d make jewellery and accessories with my friends and my mum. I started sewing on Mum’s sewing machine as a teenager — reworking vintage and being a rebel. I made ball dresses in the 90s for my friends.
One of my best friends’ big sister said, ‘Wow, she could be a clothes designer!’ It had never crossed my mind. But then I won a fashion competition and thought, maybe I could? I started to realise I was creative-minded and drawn to art and music and popular culture.
I went to fashion school in Whanganui, which was a wonderful time of experimentation. They’d ask ‘who’s your market?’ and I’d have no idea. When you don’t have money and aren’t a consumer yourself, you do wonder where you fit in. Ironically, I think that’s why my pieces are so universal — they don’t fit into a demographic.
After I graduated, I moved to Auckland, only knowing a few people. It was quite crazy. I was under so much financial pressure and didn’t have much support to start my business. I didn’t have a mentor or anything like that. I just got tiny little loans from everywhere. There was never enough money, but it was just enough to keep going. I’d come up with some good designs and it would spur me on. In the fashion industry, you’d do a new collection every six months or even every three months, but the way we work is quite different. If we make a dress that we love and it sells well, we’ll do it again the next season — and it will sell even better. We have customers say, ‘I’ve got five of these dresses from eight years ago — what other colours are you doing?’
In response to this, we now do the ‘Neoclassica’ collection, which is an edit of all our favourite, signature Miss Crabb styles, contemporary and from the archive, in new fabrics and colours twice a year. The Miss Crabb mainline is all new styles, which might flow into Neoclassica or be edited. And we have Dreams Top Rock, our special order service, which is mostly for brides and bridesmaids, balls and parties, and people treating themselves, which is so luxurious and cool. Above the Auckland store is Heaven, our consultation room, and it’s a simple, quite lovely process. It’s pretty affordable — you can get a beautiful dress for under NZ$2000, sometimes even $1000 — and it reflects my kind of bride. As well as white and cream, we’ve made red or gold or black wedding dresses. I often see orders going out and get obsessed with the customers. I’m like, who are these cool people?
I want to offer more specialised wedding pieces, do beautiful headwear — we’ve got these white pill-box fezes — and I want to get wedding suits going on, too. Everything is made in New Zealand, by some of the same people I started out with in 2004. My patterns are really efficient — I try to use every part of the fabric — and the finishing’s all very simple and minimal and beautiful. I can’t be bothered with trims, so it doesn’t have much of that stuff. All the detail is in the way it’s formed. When I first opened the shop, I had this idea of what people would like, but I decided to just do what I wanted. I made a robe in 2004 and it went really well, so I started doing other patterns that were geometric shapes, like wearable sculpture. Luckily, my idea was quite common sense: it’s classic and fluid and suits so many different types of people and different settings.
It took about five years to build a following and after eight years, it really started to take off. In that time, I was always about to shut down. (I still feel like that!) But we’ve always had such strong word of mouth, wonderful support from media and customers and fans. Our designs are so recognisable, and people feel transformed when they wear them. It’s a subverted sexiness.
Sizing is such a funny thing for people and I’ve never liked that reality of the business. We came up with a deliberately vague numerical system (0 to 4) which is NZ 6 to 14, basically, but sizing differs, depending on how things are worn, and when you’re making drapey styles, they’re supposed to fit bigger.
We’ve had this workroom studio space for three years. It’s just around the corner from the shop on Ponsonby Road, which so, so great! Me and the kids moved in a few months ago temporarily, to help with my work and life balance and it was the best thing we could have done. It’s had the best impact on my work and the business and our lives generally. If the kids are home sick, I can keep working, which is amazing, and they can hang out here after school, and I can keep doing a bit of admin. Every second Friday, they go to their dad’s place for a week. He’s a painter and lives in his studio, too, so they’re little studio kids, which they love. When we first split up, it was really hard. Looking back, I used to drink because I missed them so much and also because I could go out more. I still miss them heaps when they’re at their dad’s, but it’s gotten easier, over the last 18 months.
I’m inspired by my daughter’s choice of colours and her type of femininity. She just gets Miss Crabb. Our new cards and swing tags are art works, which she did a few years ago. They say “Miss Crabb is the best”. It’s very, very cool. She’s kind of like a woodland-fairy medieval princess, even now that she’s 10, but she’s got this really progressive idea of the world, and I’m definitely inspired by that. She was home sick the other day and did a watercolour painting on her top. Just having an idea and doing it — that’s what I need to do. Don’t overthink. She said, ‘I was just thinking about rain, and the feeling of rainbows’.
My son said, ‘You should do stained glass windows clothes’. Genius, you know? Then when I’m looking at fabrics or colours, later I’ll realise my choices were informed by the ‘stained glass windows’ comment.
When you’re a kid, you would have funny ideas like that, that didn’t make any sense, but looking back, it was a creative idea that you couldn’t articulate so well at the time. Conceptual symbolism.
My designs involve a lot of problem solving and I never know when inspiration is going to be good, which can be stressful. Why have I tried to make this art project into a business, when I don’t know when I’m going to get a good idea?! And I don’t know if it’s good until it starts selling. But you kind of know in your heart. You’ll be like, this is cool. I like it.