For a brief moment in the late 20th century, New Zealand produced some of the dopest hand-painted clothing on Earth. Don Rowe talks to the founders of Kozmik Klothing.
Most everyone in the 1980s dressed like shit. That’s just a fact. But for a brief moment in the late 80s, on Auckland’s North Shore, there was a hardcore nucleus of cool, a range of one-of-a-kind items that set the tone for a decade of rambunctious gear – rare examples of which can still be found today.
Kosmik Klothing sold hand-painted, hyper colourful, downright radical clothing from their workshop in Devonport. Nineties kids will remember.
Their aesthetic sat perfectly in the centre of a Venn diagram of road workers, toddlers and ravers: a psychedelic world of swirls, peace signs and fluorescent yin and yang symbols. You might recognise them as the preferred attire of two-time World Cup Aerobic Champion Brett Fairweather, aka the inventor of bloody Jump Jam. Or perhaps you’ve seen them embracing the bod of one SUZY CATO.
The clothing almost defies description, as if painted by the human incarnation of magic mushrooms themselves. And it’s still very, very valuable: five hippies, all possibly the same person, stand before a graffitied wall. A woman wears flowers for pants. “Kozmik Clothing: designed and made for peace love and happiness” – sells on Etsy for $280 plus tax. A group of students collectively dream of dancing in coconut bikinis beneath palm trees. “Kozmik: born to boogie”. $98 in Unisex, Large.
Founder Paula Wallace says they’re bullshit fakes. Wallace and her business partner Chalice Malcolm started Kozmik after meeting at Mark’s Fruit Safari, a “groovy fruit shop” on the North Shore in the early 80s.
“I used to paint a lot of textiles as a teen and sell stuff down at Victoria Park Markets,” says Wallace. “When we went into business it developed into a surfwear brand pretty quickly. We used to go to surf carnivals and sell them out of our car as we painted them. It was very organic and simple.”
The pair made the designs up on the spot, drawing whatever they liked, often with a personalised touch, probably under the influence of something. As the 80s drew to a close and the world got progressively worse, the Kozmik aesthetic started to change, gravitating away from juvenile hippie themes into more rave-appropriate sports gear.
“It kind of became psychedelic because the trend went that way,” says Wallace. ”It started off rainbow hippy really then in the mid 80s ski and surfwear went fluorescent. That’s when Kozmik became more well-known. The first thing that really got us visible were a couple of ski shirts that we did.“
Soon corporates were lining up, attracted to the unmissable loud palettes, certain they would get their staff absolutely jazzed up. Companies like Air New Zealand, Villa Maria, More FM, even the New Zealand bobsled team bought gear from Kozmik. Chalice Malcolm says they quickly branched out from clothing, taking on one-off commissions for anyone who would pay.
“I painted a racing car, I painted a parachute, we even did boats,” says Malcolm. “We did surf life saving gear, and we sponsored touch teams. We got the touch girls in and they painted their own, actually.
“It was about contrast and vibrancy. It was the end of the 80s and there were no worries about anything, really. We were in love with what we were doing, we were really happy, we would put crazy little quotes on the sleeves, we were anti-nuclear, it was just a lot of fun.”
Kozmik signed a series of distribution deals, getting their clothes into 25 stores around New Zealand. At their height they employed 15 staff, churning out a quota of 10 items each per day. Wallace, who took a brief hiatus to travel, says Kozmik shirts were showing up in airports all over the world on the back of a deal with a screen printer in America.
“The weird thing is that people really wanted to wear them,” says Wallace. “They were so loud. Back in those days you didn’t have Instagram, you barely had internet or mobile phones. You could only really get exposure through advertising, so it was all word of mouth. But there was nothing else like it.”
But following a trademark dispute Wallace and Malcolm spent two years registering their brand around the world, chasing down copyright breaches and aggressively protecting their intellectual property. About $500,000USD of goods were sold in Hawaii, of which they received nothing.
“We spent way too much time and energy on copyright and not enough energy on growing the business or making it more efficient or anything,” says Wallace. “It could only ever be as big as how many people we had painting.”
Wallace decided to leave the business, and Malcolm bought her out before moving the operation to Browns Bay. It was a traumatic process, Malcolm says, as the business clearly had potential. But a true valuation proved near impossible, and there were sore feelings on both sides.
“We laugh about it now but it was quite a big divorce,” she says. “We were both so invested and it was a really tough decision for her and I was really grieving also. There was potential but it hadn’t actually materialised and so to find value in the business and buy her out and all that got really complicated. But that’s just normal business stuff.”
As the haberdasheries in Parnell closed and consumers moved towards faster, cheaper fashion, Kozmik became less and less viable, hand-painted and custom-made as it was. In the mid 90s the trademark lapsed, and now belongs to someone else entirely. But the clothing remains unavoidable, surfacing at 80s parties and in the occasional hospice shop. Both Wallace and Malcolm have considered a rebirth, and with fakes selling for upwards of $250, there’s money to be made in nostalgia.
“I’ve still got a bit of a wardrobe,” says Wallace. “A few bits I made for my husband, my kids still wear original t-shirts. And I’ve got y-front underwear I made for my father-in-law.”
Malcolm says her kids have pestered her for years to get back in the game, finding Kozmik branded gear in op-shops around the country. And despite the stress and eventual demise of Kozmik, Malcolm remembers that period fondly.
“It was amazing how the business just flew, it was such a great business to be involved in. Now my kids are going ‘Mum, please start it again, show us how to do it’. It might be time to give Paula a call.”