WELLINGTON - Fashionistas first scoffed at Suzie Moncrieff's displays of bizarre bras and out-there attire, but 25 years on international designers are clamouring to be part of Wellington's annual World of WearableArt show.
The event Moncrieff founded in the late 1980s features mind-bending costumes that use materials from finest silk chiffon to rusty kitchen utensils.
Models clad in spiked armour made of stainless steel mesh vie for attention with rainbow-hued paper jellyfish as bungee-jumping acrobats bounce from the roof, in an experience more Cirque du Soleil than fashion show.
"It's art-based, not your average catwalk walk-up-and-down scenario," Moncrieff tells AFP. "We create an amazing sense of theatre to show off these incredible works of art that the designers have submitted."
Already an institution in her native New Zealand, with close links to the country's burgeoning film industry, Moncrieff plans to take her World of WearableArt (WOW) vision onto the global stage, with Asia the first target market.
But first, the 60-something artist says, she wants to dispel the notion that WOW is simply a fashion gala with a few more brightly painted frocks than the average shopping centre collection.
Moncrieff says WOW's mission is to "take the art off the wall and put it on the human body".
The designs - "these are not dresses," she insists - are treated as mobile sculptures and compete in seven categories.
Around the costumes - 158 this year - Moncrieff's team creates a two-hour stage show featuring elaborate sets, custom-made animation and about 2,000 performers.
The extravaganza runs for two weeks at an arena on the Wellington waterfront before the costumes are packed away at WOW's museum in the South Island.
"Wearable art's a really hard thing to explain, you take it off the wall, you put it on your body," she says.
"People often don't realise that it's this huge theatrical performance.
Even in this country, they sometimes still think that it's walking down the catwalk, and that's not something the average male is going to be interested in going to see.
"But they come along and they're just blown away by what they see and end up telling their friends to go."