Creativity runs thick through Kharl WiRepa Jr’s veins and can be traced back at least four generations, with a slew of artists preceding his earthly arrival 31 years ago.
Kharl (Whānau Apanui, Te Arawa, Tainui) is well known in the fashion scene and a remarkable blend of talent, determination and charisma.
The plucky young man’s journey began as the first male manager of Rotorua’s Supre, a popular international women’s clothing store. From there, he studied fashion and textiles then began a career in fashion design, leaning toward the dramatic, classical and glamorous.
Kharl says, “Our focus is on haute couture, crafting special, one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure creations. We pride ourselves on using time-honoured tailoring techniques. We import the finest fabrics from around the world, and ensure that every aspect of our work, whether it’s the materials, tailoring, or manufacturing, meets the highest global standards.”
Kharl’s career has flourished to meet international standards, including at 24 years old being ranked 17th on the list of 25 most influential young New Zealanders.
“When conceptualising a collection or individual pieces, my primary objective is to maintain clean lines and exceptional tailoring. We are not chasing the fast fashion trends; we embrace the principles of slow fashion. I want those who wear my creations to look back at photos in the future and see timeless beauty.”
This commitment to excellence began early in his career, when in 2016 he was the Supreme Award winner of MIROMODA Māori fashion design competition. MIROMODA culminates in the coveted MIROMODA Showcase at New Zealand Fashion Week and is one of New Zealand’s most prestigious awards.
Kharl’s passion for fashion runs deep within his whakapapa, with connections to the art world, including his great-grandmother, Mary Gundry Wirepa, a renowned painter.
“Her uncle was a painter for Queen Victoria, and our family ran Gundry and Sons, a shoemaker's company that crafted shoes for the Queen. When I create, I draw inspiration from her spirit, ensuring that my work resonates with authenticity, importance, and celebrates the beauty of my soul and ancestral roots."
Under his brand Kharl WiRepa Fashion, he frequently graces the stages of New Zealand Fashion Week, and is one of the few New Zealand-based designers to venture abroad, having showcased his talents at the prestigious Paris Fashion Week last year, as well as London and throughout Australia and Europe.
This year, Kharl has left little room for respite, presenting twice at New Zealand Fashion Week. He hosted a show under his personal brand and another in collaboration with his iwi, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui. The latter, titled “Tangaroa Te Ihi Moana – The Sea is Rising,” featured his cousins Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, Rawiri Waititi, and Ria Hall, as well as the iwi's Te Matatini-winning kapa haka team. Kharl had designed their kākahu earlier in the year. The show also involved a collective of East Coast designers.
“It's a convergence of fashion and kapa haka, where storytelling takes centre stage. The storyline is distinct from what I present in the couture show. The second show must surpass the first, as the expectations at Fashion Week always rise.”
The theme of “Tangaroa Te Ihi Moana” centres on ocean pollution.
“Being from the East Coast, we share a deep ancestral connection with the ocean. The music, lighting and fashion collection align with the narrative of global warming and the imperative to care for our oceans.”
The show is a collaboration with a company specialising in biodegradable plastics made from recycled materials from the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Preparing for the show has been an enriching and creative challenge for Kharl, who believes that creative growth and craftsmanship improvement arise when one pushes their creative boundaries.
In addition to his career as a fashion designer, Kharl serves as the director of the Miss Rotorua Pageant and the Miss Rotorua Foundation, both of which have made substantial contributions to the social well-being of the Rotorua community. Kharl founded the Miss Rotorua Pageant with a vision to empower the women of Rotorua.
“Today we see the dominance of social media and American beauty standards impacting self-esteem globally. As a Māori-led organisation, we find it imperative to celebrate beauty in all its dimensions, including the measure of mana, wisdom and spirituality.”
The Miss Rotorua Foundation has not only provided more than $135,000 to charitable organisations in Rotorua but has also launched Miss Rotorua Mana Wāhine. This eight-week course is designed to assist women who have been unemployed for more than 12 months in finding work. Kharl speaks proudly of the programme, highlighting its 90 percent success rate and partnership with the Ministry of Social Development. The programme focuses on building confidence and capability, and creating opportunities for its participants.
Beyond his roles as a globetrotting fashion designer, pageant director, and charitable foundation executive, Kharl has ventured into the world of media. Alongside partners, he created the successful “Gowns and Geysers” documentary, which airs on TVNZ and Māori TV. The show, now renewed for its second season, offers a behind-the-scenes look at Kharl and the Miss Rotorua Pageant contestants as they prepare for the grand finale.
This ingenious brand marketing initiative has not only enhanced Kharl’s businesses’ brand equity among the broader New Zealand public but also expanded the reach and awareness of his unique products and services. It has allowed him to leverage his most significant asset – his larger-than-life personality – to great effect.
Next up for Kharl is to continue travelling the globe, presenting his stunning work to the world. Rotorua can be very proud of Kharl and the work he does for the local community and for the brand of Rotorua internationally.
The Miss Rotorua Pageant is on this weekend, Saturday, 16 September, at Sir Howard Morrison Centre. Tickets are available through the ARONUI Indigenous Arts Festival.