Exhibition Review: Looking Terrific: The story of El Jay

This month’s post is on one of my favourite fashion designers from New Zealand, Gus Fisher, whose beautiful garments I have come across many times during my work in various museums around the country. Gus Fisher, the man behind the label El Jay, was a leading figure in New Zealand’s fashion for over 50 years. Over his long career, along with his wife Irene,  they both became well-known philanthropists for the arts sector in New Zealand. I have always been intrigued into the story behind the El Jay label  and it appears so have many others.

It’s no wonder then that when the New Zealand Fashion Museum was established in 2010, their first ‘pop-up’ exhibition Looking Terrific: The Story of El Jay focused on the life and legacy of Gus Fisher and his fashion label El Jay. Curated by Doris de Pont and held in 2010 at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland, the exhibition paid homage to his contribution to New Zealand’s fashion industry. The venue of Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland University’s dedicated art gallery,  was significant as it was named after Gus in recognition of his contribution to the gallery. The exhibition was purposely decorated to evoke the original décor of the El Jay showroom, complete with the original ornate salon chairs. Sadly,  three days after the exhibition closed, Gus Fisher passed away at the age of 89. An online version of the exhibition exists and offers a deeper insight into the life of Gus Fisher and the magic he created through his designs.

Cocktail dress with beaded tags. El Jay, Auckland War Memorial Museum, 1995-133-1.

Cocktail dress with beaded tags. El Jay, Auckland War Memorial Museum, 1995-133-1.

Gus Fisher was born in 1920 in Paraparaumu, New Zealand and was the youngest of six children. At the age of 15 he left school to work for his brother, Louis Jacob, who founded the El Jay label as a whiteware importing business. Early into this venture importing restrictions were introduced to New Zealand and the direction of the business was changed to manufacture women’s clothing instead. The El Jay label was immensely popular and spanned for 50 years, from 1938 to 1988. Every year Fisher travelled to Paris to source new designs and fabrics for the New Zealand market. From his travels he was well connected and was in an unprecedented move was invited to become a licensee for Christian Dior. His relationship with Dior was a long one and every season he travelled to Paris to collect the paper patterns and notes required to faithfully reproduce the latest  Christian Dior originals and Dior Prêt-à-Porter designs from his Auckland showroom in Kingston Street. Fisher meticulously reproduced the Dior designs to such a high quality that he became the longest serving licence holder in the world, for 33 years, from 1955 until his retirement in 1988.

Buttercup cocktail dress, El Jay. Sandie and Davina Alexander. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 New Zealand License.

Buttercup cocktail dress, El Jay. Sandie and Davina Alexander. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 New Zealand License.

The content on the New Zealand Fashion Museum website includes video interviews with Fisher that explore his relationship with Dior in more detail and an online collection of garments that show the high level of craftsmanship and elegance the El Jay label offered to women of the time. Reflecting on his success as a high-end fashion manufacturer while being interviewed he remarks “the responsibility of the designer or the manufacturer was make a women look as beautiful as possible…that’s the end result.” The online exhibition also offers a video tour of the exhibition, media interviews and personal insights from the women who bought and wore his clothing with style. The image below is a lovely slub silk going away dress, a Christian Dior by El Jay piece, owned by Mrs Helen Newfield who remarks, “This was my going-away dress when I married in January 1966. 
I paid £33/1/6. The staff at the
 El Jay Boutique kindly gave me an extra piece of the dress fabric to use to have a matching hat made. At that time I was earning £36 a fortnight as a teacher in Hamilton so this dress was quite an investment.”

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Slub silk going away dress. Christian Dior by El Jay. Mrs Helen Newfield. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 New Zealand License.

Cultural institutions across New Zealand hold El Jay and Christian Dior clothing created by Gus Fisher within their collections, including;  MTG Hawke’s Bay, Auckland Museum and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a testament to the significance of Gus Fisher’s contribution to New Zealand’s fashion heritage. Looking Terrific: The Story of El Jay is a beautifully presented online exhibition and I recommend having a browse on a quiet afternoon and gaining a glimpse into the sophisticated world of El Jay and more importantly the incredible man who was Gus Fisher.

 

 

 

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