Like many little girls, designer Tamsin Cooper took ballet lessons and dreamed of becoming a dancer.
“I honestly believed I was going to go to Britain and train at the Royal Academy,” she says.
Sadly, it never happened. But, much to her delight, her latest project lets her revisit that childhood world of fantasy and fabulousness. Last year the Royal New Zealand Ballet invited Tamsin to design a range of accessories that would appeal to its supporters – everyone from budding ballerinas through to the more traditional older audiences who regularly attend performances.
Tamsin has a reputation for feminine, romantic work – sumptuous, hand-embroidered silk velvet coats are her signature pieces – and her designs are a perfect match for tulle and tutus.
“I was so excited going to Wellington for the first meeting,” she says.
“The ballet is housed in the St James Theatre and when you go through those doors you enter a different world. You can even see the company dancers rehearsing. I was beside myself.”
The new range – each item detailed with a tiny pair of hand-embroidered pink ballet shoes – includes brooches, hair ties, compact mirrors, shoulder and evening bags, necklaces and a silk shoe bag.
“There are several items under $30 so it is very reasonably priced,” she says. “We are conscious of the recession and we wanted to provide something for everyone.” The range will be available through the RNZB’s website and at all performances, as well as in selected Tamsin Cooper outlets.
“We are really in a sponsorship role – we have provided the designs and product. It is not a money-making exercise for us at all. The real benefit for us is not financial; it’s the opportunity to be associated with such an amazing, creative institution.”
RNZB general manager Amanda Skoog says: “For some time I have been thinking about how the ballet could benefit from new partnerships – a commercial venture that reflects our brand. Tamsin is the perfect fit.”
The range will be launched at the opening of La Sylphide and more pieces will be added for the Peter Pan production later this year.
Tamsin launched her business in 2003 from her Arrowtown home when her son Hugo, now six, was a baby. Textiles and design run in the family: her father David and sister Emily run Silkbody, a company making fine silk clothing.
Tamsin started with a small range of silk wallets and purses. Then, while on a trip to Vietnam, she became enchanted with needlework.
“I realised there was all this fantastic embroidery talent there in the villages,” she says.
These days she and husband Luke Calder, a designer, run the company from two townhouses, living in the front one and working in the back. Supported by a staff of just three, they supply Tamsin Cooper clothes and accessories to more than 100 outlets around the country.
Each year the couple visits Vietnam to source new materials, check on their suppliers and keep in touch with the people who have helped them build up their business on this side of the world. Most of their products are sewn in Hanoi, then embroidered and embellished by workers in villages in the north.
“People often ask questions about manufacturing in Asia,” she says. “I’m very aware of our responsibilities.”
She was thrilled when, on their last visit, a village elder told her the business she was sending their way was making a huge difference to the lives of local women. Instead of being forced to travel to the city for work, they were able to stay at home, supporting their families while preserving traditional skills.
The company is also involved with the New Zealand Vietnam Health Trust, an aid organisation set up after the war by a group of New Zealand doctors.
Tamsin has become resigned to people asking about her much-publicised trademark battle with Kiwi designer Trelise Cooper. She describes the experience, which ended when Trelise withdrew all legal proceedings, as “humbling” and says it demonstrated the strength of human kindness.
“I had people from all over the country sending me letters, poems, artwork.“
On their townhouse porch a pair of floral gumboots takes pride of place. “A woman in the North Island sent me those. It was just amazing.”
Now mum to a new baby son, Louis, born in April, Tamsin is relishing the chance to be involved with New Zealand Ballet. “I live in a house surrounded by boys so it is especially nice to share a little part of the romance of the ballet world,” she says. “I understand little girls’ dreams. It’s just great to be part of such a lovely project.”
Story: Suzanne Mahaffie
Photographs: Daniel Allen