Who is Vinka Lucas?
Queen of Hearts … and Style!
By Gayle Dickson
“I don’t care if it’s the grand palace or your back garden, this is your special day and you will look your best” – Vinka Lucas
On a bleak Auckland day, I headed into Vinka Bridal in the CBD for my first meeting with Anita Turner-Williams. What was I expecting? I’m really not sure, but it certainly wasn’t the down-to-earth yet vivaciously vibrant and forthrightly honest person that I spent the next two hours chatting to. Within minutes, I felt as though I’d known Anita much longer.
Before long, we were digging up old bridal magazines that her dad used to print, photos of her parents, clippings of garments that her mother created, and wading through a veritable treasure trove. It was a walk down a memory lane I’d never known existed, and which I felt simply had to be shared.
Vinka Ravlich was born in Yugoslavia, learned the art of traditional embroidery skills from her mother, and trained at the Academy of Dress & Design in Zagreb. In 1951 she visited her sister who was living in Northland, and decided to stay – she was 15 at the time. When she met David Lucas, they were both working for a trading emporium in Queen Street, Auckland.
From sewing her own clothes and making outfits for friends, to setting up one of New Zealand’s earliest designer boutiques, Marée de Maru in Hamilton, the Vinka name soon became entrenched in Kiwi fashion history. Yes, wedding dresses played a large role, but they certainly weren’t the sole focus for this busy couple.
While Vinka designed and sewed, the entrepreneur in David saw the couple setting up distribution channels, editing and producing magazines, launching the Vinka Lucas After Five Salon.
Not satisfied with just being a pioneering designer, Vinka and David’s wedding publications were, in reality, the birth of bridal mags in New Zealand. A booklet produced in 1963 soon turned into NZ Bride magazine. David’s roles were managing editor and art director, while Vinka organised shoots in her role as fashion director. A young Paula Ryan featured in her very first fashion editorials for NZ Bride.
“My parents were very much ahead of their time with regards to marketing, and these magazines were an extension of the Vinka Lucas brand name,” says Anita.
Even in an era when many women sewed their own garments, Vinka succeeded. She developed a comprehensive range of patterns, available through mail order. Ladies were given details on the fabrics and trims needed to make the gown, and these, too, were available for purchase through a growing network of fabric stores developed by David and Vinka – United Bridal Salons. It honestly was a case of “no stone left unturned”.
Auckland’s textile hub in those days was the central CBD area, so it’s no surprise that Vinka and David chose Custom Street as their initial Auckland home before shifting to Queen Street. Maree de Maru which was launched in Hamilton, soon had a presence at 201 Queen Street, described by some as a wonderland and treasure trove. They also opened at 246 Queen Street with Modern Bride, which stocked simpler, less elaborate, yet still remarkably beautiful wedding gowns, was opened, as well as Buttons Galore where you could find just about any trimming or jewellery your outfit demanded. 246 Queen Street soon turned into a latter day version of the modern mall, also housing the likes of Stanton Silks and Vinka Lucas After Five, where society shopped for their cocktail and evening attire.
Anita, who grew up in the workroom, tells of her mother’s focus and determination. “My mother’s business was everything to her. Every one of her clients went away with the memory of investing in a dress that meant a lot to them.”
Looking through the old photos, it became evident that Vinka lived and breathed clothes. In not one photo was she underdressed or snapped wearing anything but fabulous outfits.
Her own wedding gown was a creation of some note, using curtain wire to support the 500m of hand-pleated tulle and Chantilly lace that she’d used in its creation!
In 2009, the family decided it was time to shed some cobwebs. The Vinka Collection was put up for auction at Webbs, creating a stir amongst fashionistas and collectors. The Collection contained the most incredible array of garments ever seen under one roof … everything from wedding gowns and flamboyant evening dresses, to glamourous cocktail wear, kaftans, hats and fascinators. There were even pieces designed for Miss New Zealand contestants.
Annie Webb, director of Webb’s Gallery said at the time of the auction: “New Zealand fashion tends to be sort of dark and moody and Vinka is about colour. Our sale room has just been ringing with laughter all the way through the viewing because the clothes are joyous.”
Writing for thread.co.nz, Michelle Romaine noted: “Walking through the racks of garments, there was a distinct international influence. From the Spanish inspired flamenco-style gowns to the brightly coloured kaftan designs, Vinka has managed to combine global inspiration with her own design and detail sensibilities … garments that each tell a story- where they originated from, what inspired them and what inspiration comes from them. What Vinka’s collection inspires is a much needed return to boldness in our clothing choices and an appreciation of what fashion, thought-provokingly detailed and designed fashion, can inspire.”
The fabrics used by Vinka in this astounding collection included the finest silks and laces, tulle and velvet, embellished with sequins, crystals and feathers, some costing thousands of dollars a metre. I’m told that Vinka loved the exclusive fabrics from the Swiss house of Jakob Schlaepfer, making many gowns in her Collection from his limited editions.
Vinka was known to go above and beyond when it came to fabrics. As Lucy Hammond, curator of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust noted: “When Vinka required extra special fabric for a key showpiece gown, she often went beyond the existing supply chain and commissioned customised fabrics. It was these unique gowns that were on display in the Maree de Maru salon, and appeared in private showings and bridal parades, inspiring brides across New Zealand.”
With her own fabric importing business she secured exclusive access to overseas manufacturers.
Vinka was most certainly New Zealand’s first true fashion couturier, designing for the likes of Miss New Zealand, opera and stage stars, the wives of parliamentarians and most of New Zealand’s high society. She was very much a hands-on designer.
“The fabric dictates what needs to be done. When I am alone, with the fabric draped over my hand, that’s when I always know just how it should be made,” she explained in an archived interview for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly.
Vinka is today a more frail version of herself, having suffered a few minor strokes. Her 50-year love affair with New Zealand brides and fashionistas is over. Her legacy, however, lives on in daughter Anita who has taken over the helm of Vinka Bridal, operating the business with the same verve and passion as her mother. Anita is a majestic blend of both her parents – a smart and savvy businesswoman, and a highly talented designer.
The much-loved Vinka brand is in good hands; the Queen Street studio a haven for brides who want a gown that’s tailored to suit. The racks are filled with Anita’s heavenly creations while the workroom out back still carries traces of Vinka everywhere. Have a scratch around and you’re bound to discover incredible laces that Vinka imported.
“Although the market has changed, our policy has remained the same after all these years,” says Anita. “We’ve always been about the gown. It has never been about being rich or famous, but about being extremely passionate for the way women dress and our attention to detail with each and every garment that we make.”
The lady known as the queen of the fashion world of haute couture bridal and evening wear in New Zealand may have abdicated, but her heir to the throne is a very viable contender! ♥