Eden Hore, fashion impressario

Jane Malthus reports on high-country farmer Eden Hore whose collection of 1970s designer fashion became a tourist attraction in Central Otago.

There’s something about the open spaces, rolling hills, and big skies of Central Otago that attracts people who want to explore, to escape, or to envision, imagine, and innovate. Eden Hore was such a person. Considered a bit odd by many other locals, he was a cattle farmer and a fashion impresario.

As part of its fiftieth anniversary, the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt is exhibiting Eden Hore: High Fashion, High Country, curated by Te Papa’s Claire Regnault. Twenty-four exquisite 1970s high-fashion dresses by some well-known and some almost-forgotten New Zealand designers grace one gallery, while images of some of them, taken by Derek Henderson in the landscapes of Central Otago, flash up on screens next door.

Chosen from the more than 220 dresses and ensembles collected and preserved by Eden Hore are evening dresses designed by Kevin Berkahn, Pat Hewitt, and Vinka Lucas; hand-spun, hand-dyed, hand-woven, and hand-beaded woollen creations by Pauline Kingston and Beverley Horne; Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards winners by Eleanor Joel, Maritza Tschepp, and June Mercer; a coat by John West; and two Australian Gowns of the Year by Pauline Kingston (1970) and Jo Dunlap (1976).

New Zealand fashion-design and material history is on show here, telling stories of a time when elegant couture evening wear still had currency, when women wore hostess dresses for dinner parties. The exhibition also reveals broader narratives concerning homegrown and imported textiles, technological developments in synthetic fibres, local responses to and interpretations of Paris couture, and the huge talent and learning-on-the-job experiences of New Zealand fashion designers before the rise of tertiary fashion-design education.

The 1970s was also the era of hippies, feminists, and punks, who wouldn’t be seen dead in such glamour. Because fashion is so fickle and because something of a revolution happened in that decade, Hore’s brand of 1970s style went far out of vogue. These garments would probably no longer exist if he had not collected and housed them in a converted tractor shed on his property five kilometres out of Naseby.

So, who was Eden Hore and how did he come to acquire so many stunning examples of 1970s New Zealand designer fashion? His foray into fashion—while running a successful high-country sheep and beef farm north of Naseby in Central Otago—is a fascinating story, which interweaves strands of New Zealand social history, popular culture, and entrepreneurship with Central Otago’s iconic ‘empty’ landscapes (as recently seen in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog) and the desire to attract tourists.

Vinka Lucas, Lurex evening gown, Poolburn Dam, Central Otago, 2019. Photo: Derek Henderson.

Hore (1919–97) was raised in the Kyeburn and Naseby areas of Central Otago, on the edge of the Maniatoto Plain. He worked as a musterer and shepherd in the district, including on Glenshee Station, prior to serving in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War II. From 1945, he worked on his family’s farm, then purchased Glenshee in 1948, developing it as a sheep and cattle farm. His success in this became part of New Zealand farming history with a 1973 television documentary about the largest single sale of cattle in the South Island.

Over a number of years, Hore developed other attractions to entertain visitors, some of whom came specifically to see his farming practices. He wasn’t alone in this. Other ‘big-sky thinkers’ from the Maniatoto included Joe Brown, the Miss New Zealand show franchise holder (1960–73 and 1979–86); Ernest and Hannah Hayes of Hayes Engineering, who created and marketed labour-saving agricultural devices; Bob Turnbull from Ophir, inventor of the Hamilton jet boat; and John Hore Grenell, country singer and music-festival developer.

John Hore Grenell and Joe Brown are integral to the story of Eden Hore’s collecting of avant-garde fashion. When Brown organised a talent show as part of Naseby’s 1963 centennial, John Hore (as he was known then) came third, and was signed up by Brown to sing at his Miss New Zealand shows around the country. Eden Hore—as part of the extended family, and who loved driving cars and listening to music—became his chauffeur and support person for a time, and was thrown into the world of beauty contests and the designer eveningwear their contestants wore. His collection developed slowly at first, with garments that showcased wool and hides, but he was soon captivated by the textile beauty and design flair of ‘high and exotic’ fashion, as he put it. In the beginning, he thought his few garments could interest the wives of men who came to see the farm.

Clothes were not the only thing Hore collected. Fancy Jim Beam bottles, travel memorabilia, deer antlers, souvenir teaspoons, Franklin dolls, and miniature animals were all on show for visitors. But he was no mere hoarder. When it came to fashion, Hore had specific criteria and made discerning choices. He wanted elegant, eye-catching, statement-making garments.

Vinka Lucas, evening dress and cape, Bannockburn Sluicings, Central Otago, 2019. Photo: Derek Henderson.

He did favour certain designers. He and Kevin Berkahn met through the Miss New Zealand shows and Hore joked that he was Berkahn’s best customer, owning at least thirty of his designs. Most were purchased off the peg, but occasionally Hore would commission one from a fabric he had fallen for. In that, he and Berkahn were alike. Berkahn would get carried away when commercial travellers came to his studio with their suitcases of samples, leaving his wife Shirley to balance the books later. Nicknamed ‘Eden from Dunedin’ by Berkahn, Hore’s best-known purchase was of the three ensembles Berkahn paraded at a fashion show arranged for the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. One of these resurrected the nineteenth-century opera-cloak tradition, pairing a voluminous, green velvet cape edged with white feathers with a white chiffon full-circle empire-line dress. Berkahn priced it at $3,000 as he didn’t want to sell (today’s equivalent would be $40,000), but Hore presented him with the cash.

I’m not sure Hore ever met Vinka Lucas, but the Zagreb-trained, Auckland-based designer also loved spectacular fabrics. Her husband David ran the textile-importing arm of their bridal and eveningwear business, so she had easy access to many Swiss, Italian, and French velvets, brocades, and embroidered laces. Hore purchased some of his Vinka Lucas designs—which she marketed under various labels, such as Marée de Maru, After Five, and Vinka Lucas—from Margaret Farry-Williams’s Dunedin boutique Vanity Walk. He would assess what the shop had on show, and sometimes his housekeeper/land girl of the time, Alma, would try them on. He’d purchase as many as five dresses at a time. Some of his Vinka Lucas dresses still carry their swing tags.

Alma did model training at Farry-Williams’s modelling school, also called Vanity Walk, and she and other local young women would model Hore’s growing collection at fundraising shows throughout the country, for the Plunket Society for example, and at fashion shows held in the large garden at Glenshee. Hore had developed a rose garden and lawn, complete with a modernist fountain and pool, and held garden parties in the summer. He may have borrowed the idea from Alexandra-based designer Pat Hewitt, who had shown her own designs in her garden for some time. Hewitt and Hore also collaborated in making dresses. She would design and create clothes from fabrics he had purchased in New Zealand or on one of his many overseas trips, taken to escape the Central Otago winters. Some of these clothes were for sale at the fashion shows.

Rosalie Gwilliam, embroidered cape and pants, Mt Buster Road, Naseby, Central Otago, 2019. Photo: Derek Henderson.

With his collections, parties, and shows, Hore wanted to raise Naseby’s profile and attract visitors. Naseby was off the main highway, so needed enticements to lure tourists. Now it is known for its cycling trails and year-round curling opportunities, as well as its gold-mining history, but, in the 1970s, these had not yet been developed. Hore’s impresario tendencies also included flying Howard Morrison and Eddie Low down for concerts; buying a projector and creating movie nights after the local cinema closed; and developing a farmyard experience with lambs, fawns, calves, peacocks, and the miniature horses, bison, and yaks he imported. In 1976–7, Glenshee had more than 4,000 visitors.

Hore’s big-sky thinking added colour and flair to Naseby, attracting tourists in droves. But it takes characters to sustain such entrepreneurship. After his death, things became quieter at Glenshee. Hore had left the place to relatives John and Margaret Steele, who kept the tractor shed and its contents. Visitors still came in buses, from time to time, to see the fashion and other collections, until bouts of ill health interrupted and they decided to downsize. Hore’s apparel collection is now owned by the Central Otago District Council, which is applying equally big-sky thinking to its future potential. Plans—subject to funding, of course—include having a ‘tractor shed’ on wheels with augmented-reality experiences of the fashion, and other opportunities for designers and students to learn from and be inspired by the fabulous 1970s fashion and textiles.

Eden Hore: High Fashion/High Country was presented at the Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt (3 December 2021–20 March 2022).

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