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An incredible story behind award winning fashion design

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Storytelling is a fundamental function of cultural institutions such as museums. MTG Hawke’s Bay’s latest exhibition, Finding Refuge in Fashion: Minh Ta, reveals the incredible story of the Vietnamese-born designer and her family who settled in Heretaunga/Hastings in 1977.


Minh Ta grew up in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) during the Viet Nam War, and when the city fell to communists in 1975, she, husband Au and their baby daughter Lily, were forced to flee their homeland. A harrowing ocean journey aboard a rusty cargo boat took the family to Thailand where they spent nine months in a refugee camp. Located next to the city crematorium, the constant smell of dead bodies compounded the horror of frequent encounters with spiders and snakes. The camp had no electricity or running water, and refugees survived on a small daily ration of rice. Eventually, Minh and Au’s application for resettlement in Aotearoa/New Zealand was approved, and Heretaunga/Hastings became their adopted home.


In Saigon, Minh had studied art and design for seven years, and had successfully exhibited original paintings. Her skill and talent helped to secure employment with Roachs department store in Heretaunga/Hastings, illustrating newspaper advertisements and clothing catalogues promoting New Zealand fashion labels. (Hastings-born painter Rita Angus also supported herself as a fashion illustrator - for Ballantynes department store - after her divorce in 1934). 


Minh’s career as a clothing designer was launched when she joined Mary Hunt Designs in 1986. Mary encouraged Minh to enter the prestigious Benson & Hedges Fashion Awards (B&H Awards), New Zealand’s premier fashion competition at the time. Minh’s entry, a striking design that cleverly paired black Lycra and floral chiffon - was not only nominated as a finalist; Mary Hunt purchased the dress and arranged to have it gifted to Princess Diana. 


Minh bought Mary Hunt’s business in 1987, renaming it Minh Ta Designs. Many Hawke’s Bay locals will remember the premises in Hastings,upstairs on the corner of Russell and Eastbourne Streets, where garments were constructed and fashion shows were held for invited guests. 


Minh worked 18 hour days, designing and making clothes for clients as well as inventing innovative ensembles for the B&H Awards. She reached the finals no less than eight times, coming first in the Leisure Lifestyle section in 1988. Visitors to the exhibition will see Minh’s exuberant competition entries that approach the concept of wearable art and exemplify the bold-shouldered style of the 1980s. In contrast are the more commercial made-to-measure outfits developed in consultation with clientele, and refined racewear that Minh designed in the late 1990s and 2000s, reflecting the trend for a slimmer silhouette.


Among the garments on display are several donated on behalf of Jean Garrick, a fashion buyer for Westerman’s department store in Hastings, whose professional relationship with Minh turned into a personal friendship. She accompanied Minh and Au to the B&H Awards in Wellington, wearing a Minh Ta-designed gown of course.


June Clifford NZCM wore outfits designed by Minh Ta when she appeared on stage in her capacity as (the first woman) president of Chamber Music New Zealand, and talks about how confident and assured they made her feel. June also wore Minh Ta designs at her two investitures. We look forward to hearing your stories relating to Minh Ta’s time in Te Matau ā Māui/ Hawke’s Bay.


Minh and Au’s daughter, Lily, also established herself as an award winning designer, becoming the youngest ever finalist in the B&H Awards (later renamed the NZ Smokefree Awards). In 1996 she won first place in the Avant Garde category. 


In 1994 the Ta family relocated to Auckland where Minh’s clientele grew along with her list of awards. Her designs regularly featured in race-day Fashion in the Field events, and Minh won so many times she was banned from entering! 


It’s fitting that Minh (and Lily) Ta’s garments and archival material have found a permanent home in our regional museum. We are very grateful to Minh and Lily for their generous donations and for their time spent telling stories, without which the exhibition would be less rich. Thanks are also due to other donors who have kindly gifted pieces designed by Minh Ta. This collection is an important addition to the fashion history, both locally in Hawke’s Bay, and nationally in Aotearoa/New Zealand - the place where Minh and her family found refuge. 


The exhibition Finding Refuge in Fashion: Minh Ta opened on Saturday 29 April – we hope you enjoy it. 


Written by Cathy Dunn, MTG Contract Curator; 29 April 2023.


Image: Rust coloured wool dress, coat and winged hat, “Desert Phoenix” 1989, designer, Minh Ta, gifted by Minh Ta. Collection of Hawke's Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi [98996].

1 May 2023

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