Lyall Hakaraia is a London nightclub owner, event director and fashion designer whose couture has been worn by Beyonce and Lady Gaga and regularly appears in Vogue. He left New Zealand 23 years ago but is back this month for Auckland’s Pride festival.
1. Did you have your own aesthetic growing up in New Zealand?
Oh yes. I was my own person from a very early age. I did things on my own terms. I was very caught up in books and had a really good inner fantasy life that was going on all the time and the parents around us really encouraged that. I grew up in Russell and there were a lot of artistic people – potters, painters. (Artist) Seraphine Pick was one of my best friends and we would hang out at her house. Her father had gone to Slade (art school) and her mum was painting too. All the wallpaper in her house had been made by her parents. All the fabric I wore was screen printed by my mum. It was an amazingly creative place.
2. So you went to art school too: was that productive?
Elam was useful in that it made me decide I didn’t want to be in art school any more. I was there for a year but I realised my vision of how I wanted to do things was completely different to everyone else. The way I worked was different. I’d go out and buy second-hand clothes, 1980s gear then, and paint in them and no one could believe I’d never get a drop of paint on my outfit.
The meticulous way I worked in painting actually meant I was great at sewing, though I didn’t realise it then.
3. Did you just happen into fashion?
People had told me they liked my style so when I moved to Wellington I did some work as a stylist with Lorraine Downes at her model agency. Making clothes just happened in London as a way to be able to afford to stay there. I was living in a squat so didn’t need much money but I was making my own clothes then started doing market stalls, then got a permanent market stall and then a shop. The markets were the thing though – the Japanese would fly in and buy up all your clothes then take them back to sell. I taught myself how to do sew and pattern cut and I started to work with amazing skilled people who were doing high-end embroidery or corsetry for La Croix and Dior and Mugler. We’d be working all day on a piece then at night get dressed up together and go partying at clubs with the hot celebrities and amazing performers and endless Champagne.
4. Was that all a bit overwhelming for a boy from Russell?
The boy from Russell never felt he was a boy from Russell anyway.
5. Was your sexuality ever an issue for you?
I’ve always believed that you are what you are whether straight or gay or bi. When I met my (13-year-old) daughter’s mother we fell in love and had a child and got married – the whole thing, then we broke up and now I see men but it might change again. The whole idea of a pre-packaged gay lifestyle is offensive to me and has been since I was quite small. I would classify myself as having a queer sensibility rather than a gay lifestyle.
6. How is that different?
Being queer means I’m much more open to lots of different genders. I’ve got lots of very good friends who are transsexual – women to men and men to women – and I don’t think there’s such a thing as just being gay or lesbian. There are so many variations. You find a lot of gay men who don’t like lesbians and don’t like people in the transgender community.
7. What, to you, is the greatest form of intolerance?
To not educate yourself when you come across a point of view that you do not understand. Ignorance breeds fear and hate.
8. Do you try to teach openness to your daughter?
She’s always been surrounded by it really. One of her aunts is a transsexual dominatrix. She comes with me when we’re putting on an event at Glastonbury or whatever. For her it’s a natural thing. She asks questions, of course, and I just give her straightforward answers. The funny thing is, when she was little, she didn’t even ask questions. Children are very accepting.
9. Do you work directly with the celebrities you dress, or is it through their people?
It’s both: with Lady Gaga it was through her stylists who are friends of mine. Celebrity is an interesting life to choose. I’ve seen how people become slaves to it. With the 24-hour media attention they get these days, life becomes disjointed from any kind of reality because everything you do is examined. The only way to survive it is to not look at TV or newspapers or magazines and isolate yourself from the world, which in turn makes you nutty.
10. You worked on a recent party with Joan Collins: was that nutty?
She was throwing a party for her daughter Tara who is a friend of mine but Joan hijacked it to be a party about her. It can be quite a disastrous thing for you to pander to a celebrity’s whims because then they run with it. You realise that you are feeding a dragon, who is only going to breathe fire at you. I basically spent the night running up and down stairs in heels organising two floors of dancing and DJs.
11. You run a nightclub in the basement of your workroom and home: have drugs ever been an issue for you?
Not really. I’m too busy and drugs will slow you down. Being responsible for a whole room of people who are drinking and on drugs sobers you up. Here you get regular visits from police and fire people and it doesn’t pay to be off your trolley.
12. What are your fondest memories of New Zealand?
The birdsong of a New Zealand morning. There is not much of a dawn chorus in London.
Lyall Hakaraia, as DJ Tranny Dad, plays at the official closing party PROUD at Victoria Park after the 2nd Auckland Pride Parade on February 22.