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Sophie Ham

 

World of WearableArt starts next week, so we sat down with Head and Co-Designer of Costume Sophie Ham to discuss op-shopping, low quality shank buttons and laundry logistics for a cast of hundreds.

Interview & photography: Zack Holmes

Racks of second hand clothing is labelled ready for fitting.

Racks of second hand clothing is labelled ready for fitting.

Usually based in Auckland, Sophie relocates to Wellington for three months of the year to work on the WOW Awards Show—something she has been doing since 2011. Now in its 31st season, the 2019 performance includes 115 finalists from 22 countries and regions while Sophie and her team are tasked with creating all the costumes that adorn the dancers and performers onstage; it’s a lot of work. The 30 dancers alone require five outfits each, then there are the band, aerialists and countless other cast members who all need to be dressed to impress (and, incidentally, move around a lot).

Sophie has worked with top theatre and dance companies including New Zealand Opera, Auckland Theatre Company, Indian Ink Theatre Company and the Touch Compass Dance Company.

Sophie has worked with top theatre and dance companies including New Zealand Opera, Auckland Theatre Company, Indian Ink Theatre Company and the Touch Compass Dance Company.

Luckily, Sophie has the credentials to support this mammoth task, having worked with top theatre and dance companies for years. She reminds me that of course it is “very much a team effort”, with four other talented women working full time on six machines alongside her to get the mahi done. Just how they do that is really quite incredible.

The costume department has six machines, each of which handle different tasks.

The costume department has six machines, each of which handle different tasks.

Sophie describes her role modestly, “it’s my job to put the designs on the people”, but we dug a little deeper to explore the effort that goes into maximising sustainability and reducing waste as much as possible in the process. This is something that has always been considered throughout the years but is now at the forefront of everything she does; by reusing and recycling finds from op shops and previous year’s shows they can minimise their impact on the environment.

A master opshopper, Sophie has had time to hone her skill. She’s not looking for clothes that ‘fit’ or match a certain style – everything she chooses will end up being completely restructured – the search is on for colours and textures as well as the volume of fabric in an item. Perusing mostly the local op shops (though she reckons that Blenheim has some of the best in the country), her search is supplemented by the extensive WOW back catalogue housed in a massive storage unit in Upper Hutt. It contains countless props, bags full of old zips, buttons and other reusable elements from previous year's costumes, plus “the old costumes are of a much better quality, we never throw anything out”.

The collection of used buttons, zips and clips on hand is extensive.

The collection of used buttons, zips and clips on hand is extensive.

Objects are organised by type, colour and size to keep everything neat.

Objects are organised by type, colour and size to keep everything neat.

She’s talking about build quality and durability; a classic example being shank buttons which are these days manufactured in a hurry and with such little care that the inside of the ‘shank’ is often left rough enough to literally cut through the thread securing it.

When it comes to the creation of the outfits themselves there are plenty of criteria to meet aside from what it looks like in a regular setting. Remember that these are being worn by performers constantly moving around a large stage under hot lights – in some cases while suspended from wires or doing gymnastics – and the clothes need to be safe not just for the wearer but for those around them too. Movement limitations must also be taken into account (imagine trying to run 10km in jeans), not to mention the breathability and flexibility of the fabric used.

Sophie’s job doesn’t end here, once the full dress rehearsals begin and the outfits come together under lights for the first time she tells me there are a lot of last minute changes. Then it’s on to the pre- and post-show mending, setting up changes for the cast between acts, and the huge task of washing everything after every show. I hadn’t even considered that doing the laundry would be an essential part of keeping things running smoothly, but of course it makes complete sense; despite each performer wearing the same clothes across shows, noone wants to be climbing into an outfit damp with last night’s sweat.

“When it comes to the creation of the outfits themselves there are plenty of criteria to meet aside from what it looks like in a regular setting”.

“When it comes to the creation of the outfits themselves there are plenty of criteria to meet aside from what it looks like in a regular setting”.

Outside of the performance that all viewers in attendance witness, there is another behind-the-scenes show that takes place every night—one which the audience never sees. Backstage, every single aspect of the production is choreographed to the same exacting standards as the main event. Cast and crew follow carefully planned steps and movements, dodging enormous set pieces and elaborate costumes to ensure things stick to schedule, “It can be quite a shock for the first years” as Sophie puts it.

And in all of this, Sophie never gets a chance to watch the show (she does get to see some of the final technical rehearsals). For such a large production it is inevitable that the work never stops; there are over 400 people involved comprised of performers, crew, staff, volunteers, dressers and technicians. What the audience experience with each incredible show is the result of thousands of hours of work, months of preparation and rehearsal and endless fine tuning. It’s reassuring that Sophie and her team have worked hard to keep sustainability a core focus throughout all of this, and it is something the expected 60,000 attendees are sure to appreciate.


The 2019 WOW Awards Season showcases six worlds of the stage show. Three of these worlds are recurring: Aotearoa, Avant-garde and Open; and three are new for this season: Mythology, Transform and White. Anything that is wearable art can find a place on the stage as long as it is original, innovative and well executed.

This year’s judges include WOW Founder and resident judge, Dame Suzie Moncrieff, designer James Dobson of Jimmy D, and artist Gregor Kregar. The judging panel will also be joined by fashion activist and celebrity stylist, B. Akerlund, Sir Richard Taylor, CEO and Creative Director of Weta Workshop and Cirque du Soleil’s Creative Intelligence Team Lead + Conceptrice, Melissa Thompson.