Season after season, Zambesi proves it is one of the best labels in the southern hemisphere. Here, a profile of its menswear designer, Dayne Johnston, for Manuscript.

It’s very easy to label the aesthetic of New Zealand label Zambesi as androgynous, given some of the clothes fall into that Rick Owens-style of unconventionality that defies description. But at the same time, it’s easy to be mistaken. It’s true that a lot of what Zambesi creates is in a dark colour palette – often black – and that the silhouettes subvert traditional form, but far from Paris or New York, the little-label-that-could boasts an identity uniquely its own, stemming from over three decades of history.

The house’s menswear designer, Dayne Johnston, says that after he graduated from Wellington Polytechnic with a degree in fashion design, there was nowhere else he wanted to work but Zambesi, where he has been employed since 2003. In that time, the business has grown steadily in profile and size, and he works alongside its co-founder, Liz Findlay, who is responsible for the label’s womenswear offering. The working relationship – a fluid, open dialogue – is one that creates cohesiveness between the men’s and women’s collections, strengthening its collective aesthetic.

“I guess we’re known for black, and I can’t deny that we do a lot of it,” Mr Johnston explained following Zambesi’s presentation at Australian Fashion Week earlier this year, the label’s first in three years. “But I think there’s a sense of mystery to Zambesi. We’re always challenging ourselves and are always true to our ideas. There’s no compromise.” In a fast-moving contemporary fashion business, where ideas are diluted and aesthetics sacrificed for sales, Zambesi is focused on consistency. “It’s not about changing the style every season,” says Mr Johnston, “because one collection flows onto the next.”

For spring/summer, Mr Johnston was interested in exploring the possibilities of denim, but rather than creating a pair of classic five-pocket jeans, he used a lightweight stretch indigo denim as a base canvas, just as he would cotton or wool. In this way, the fabric took on an unexpected quality in dungarees and tailored suiting, contrasted with transparent shirting. “The way we work is very organic,” explains the designer. “We have an idea and it evolves as we go along.” This season’s collection, for example, was initially sparked by a vintage leather motorcycle one-piece suit Mr Johnston discovered at a small store in Paris, which sat on his desk in Auckland for the next few months.

It’s almost impossible to recognise the motorcycle suit in the resultant collection, and nor is there much leather, but as Mr Johnston explained, inspiration is never a direct reference. “We did a fitted motorcycle jacket, and some of the pants have knee coverings, and there’s a chest harness. You can’t see the motorcycle suit when you look at the collection, but I really studied its cut and pattern, and it’s present in a very cut-up way.” Tailoring, sometimes unconventional in the form of the motorcycle suit, forms the backbone of Mr Johnston’s menswear collections, and from the starting point of a suit or blazer, he works his way into softer pieces. The past few seasons saw a juxtaposition of sportswear and tailoring but, just as everyone else began tapping into the style, Mr Johnston shifted his focus to a more utilitarian style, which comes full circle to the history and aesthetic of Zambesi.

Launched officially in 1979 in Auckland by Ms Findlay and her husband Neville, Zambesi is one of the most established fashion labels in the Asia-Pacific region, and certainly one of the most consistent. Though the company now operates five retail stores and a network of wholesale accounts both in New Zealand, Australia and across the world, market whims and changes haven’t affected the ethos of the business. “I think the remoteness of this country can sometimes make you feel isolated, but mostly it motivates you because you have time to concentrate and develop your work without being sidetracked,” says Mr Johnston. “I get inspired by travel, how it shifts my energy, but being in Europe twice a year is enough.”

Mr Johnston makes the pilgrimage to Paris during the seasonal menswear collections to place orders from designers such as Raf Simons, Maison Martin Margiela and Rick Owens, which Zambesi stocks alongside its own products in its retail stores. In doing so, Zambesi has made its stores destinations for a very specific aesthetic, thus building a loyal clientele that helps it navigate growing competition from online retailers. But, of course, Zambesi remains the focus for Ms Findlay and Mr Johnston. “I started here because I was really passionate about the brand, and always admired what they’d done,” says Mr Johnston. “I’m so immersed in the house and we still do everything by hand, which makes it an honour to still be here because I respect the brand so much.”

Portrait: Rene Vaile