The South Island high country is often associated with beauty, but it is rarely associated with fashion. Yet there, in the heart of the Maniototo, glamour found a home with a farmer named Eden Hore.
IN 1975, A NEW ATTRACTION OPENED ON A FARM IN THE TUSSOCKED HILLS NEAR NASEBY, IN THE MANIOTOTO REGION OF CENTRAL OTAGO. IT WAS A MAKESHIFT MUSEUM FILLED WITH EPHEMERA: KEY RINGS FROM 55 COUNTRIES, 280 JIM BEAM DECANTERS AND 31 TAXIDERMIED ANIMALS, INCLUDING A COYOTE, DINGO AND A TIBETAN YAK.
The most striking feature, though, was the more than 220 high-end fashion garments displayed in a set of wardrobes that took up 53 metres of space. It has been called one of the most significant collections of vintage couture in Australasia. And it was housed in a farm shed.
Born James Eden Hore in 1919, Eden Hore was raised in Kyeburn, a short distance from his eventual home near Naseby. Eden worked as a shepherd and musterer before serving in the Second World War, service that left scars both physical – he was twice hospitalised for pneumonia – and mental, leading to trouble with alcohol. “When he came home from the war he was in a pretty bad way. He struggled for years, but he did get on top of it,” his nephew, John Steele, recalls.
After several years back on the family farm, Eden purchased nearby Glenshee Station, the property he would call home for the rest of his life, and the staging ground for a string of eccentric and memorable obsessions. The first and most enduring of these was clothing.
In places like the Maniototo, dress is dictated by function. Regional uniforms tend to be utilitarian, stubbies or moleskins below, singlets or polo shirts up top, a Swanndri to cut the worst of the winter chill. But following the end of his marriage, Eden hired a housekeeper, Alma Mackelwain, who remained with him at Glenshee for the next 12 years. As well as working on the farm, Alma modelled part time and, according to a 1996 piece in New Zealand Geographic published shortly before his death, she ignited in Eden an interest in fashion.
It was two country blokes, John Grenell and Joe Brown, who then connected Eden with the industry. John Grenell was a fellow Maniototo man who became a New Zealand country music powerhouse in the sixties and seventies. He recorded more than a dozen albums during his career, and toured widely in England, Canada, the United States and South Africa. Joe Brown was a Naseby-born, Dunedin based businessman who owned the Miss New Zealand Pageant.
Joe had discovered John at a talent quest in Naseby, and offered him a spot performing on a nationwide tour of the pageant. Not yet 20 years old, and still new to performing, John asked his friend Eden to come along for support. Eden ended up helping with the pageant backstage; he did so well, Joe and the other organisers asked him back.
Through this work with the pageant, Eden was exposed to the world of fashion – not just the gowns and eveningwear worn by the contestants, but their everyday clothing and “off-duty” looks too. His appreciation deepened, his network of industry connections grew, and he made his first purchases in 1970. They were, fittingly for a farmer, woollen and leather garments. Eden was fascinated by the processes that saw raw materials turned into refined looks, and how the familiar, for him, was transformed into the alien.
Years passed and the collection grew as Eden started not only to buy directly from the designers, but to be given first option on their creations. This was the case with Rosalie Gwilliam, who has 18 pieces, including her wedding dress, among his garments. Others, such as Pat Hewitt, had designs specifically commissioned for Eden. More high- profile names of the day, such as Kevin Berkahn and Vinka Lucas, entered Eden’s archive, which became increasingly extravagant and eccentric as he explored the concept of “high and exotic fashion”.
In the same New Zealand Geographic piece, the author Richard Worrall writes at length of the eclectic contents of Eden’s shed. In addition to the garments, keyrings and decanters, there were unique inclusions in the form of “a handmade banjo given to him in the United States, a gold-plated cutlery set from Thailand, and a cigarette case and purse belonging to the wife of vodka baron Marquess Smirnoff.”
As for the taxidermy, the animals had all been acquired by Eden while they were still living, and had spent their final days on the farm as part of a menagerie that included peacocks, cockatoos, bison and Himalayan thar. According to his nephew, “lions and tigers were on his list, but I think he got talked out of that.”
Studying Eden Hore is like reading about an archetypal Victorian gentleman: difficult, mysterious, eccentric and obsessed with the exotic. Dr Chelsea Nichols, senior curator at The Dowse Art Museum and co-curator of the current exhibition ‘Eden Hore: High Country/High Fashion’, offers this take on Eden’s life: “These kinds of individuals have existed throughout history, and especially in Victorian Britain, the golden age of these eccentric, curious collectors who just had an appetite for the curious and the unexpected.”
But Dr Nichols argues that Eden was all the more remarkable because of his contemporary setting. “He wasn’t responding to a culture of curious gentlemen scholars, he was like a transplant from another time and place,” she says. “Someone pointed out that had he been born today, this was his time, right now, with Ru Paul’s Drag Race and the love of the different and the offbeat.”
By the time he died, in 1997, Eden’s collection of clothing and accessories from the 1970s and 1980s included close to 300 items, many of them the only ones of their kind. You could visit a hundred different op-shops and antique stores across the country, but none of their inventories would warrant the commissioning of special council reports and the appointment of a team of industry experts dedicated to their preservation and exhibition. Eden’s did.
That the Central Otago District Council paid $40,000 to acquire his collection from family members in 2013 confirms it is more than just an assortment of expensive clothes. It’s an artefact, a slice of life from a particular time that, speaks to a particular corner of our identity and culture.
For one, his garments offer an alternate lens through which to consider the idea of Aotearoa as a “Number 8 wire nation”. At a time when global fashion still dismissed New Zealand as a backwater at the bottom of the world, Eden was preserving the work of homegrown designers like Kevin Berkahn and Vinka Lucas, who did, in fact, compete with the biggest names in Europe. By the eighties, Lucas had taken her brand to Saudi Arabia and opened a store in Jeddah, selling opulent, couture-level gowns to the Saudi elite.
Eden’s collection is also a record of a thriving and sophisticated cottage industry that lurked in remote corners of the country. Maritza Schepp and Eleanor Joel, who won the Benson & Hedges Gown of the Year Award in 1977 and 1978 respectively, hailed from Oamaru and Winton. Pat Hewitt, a designer who Eden commissioned frequently, was completely self-taught, and produced her dazzling one-off pieces in Alexandra.
Dr Jane Malthus, a dress historian and honorary curator at the Otago Museum, first met Eden Hore in 1985 while working on an exhibition of his pieces. Dr Malthus, who is now a trustee and a member of the steering group that manages the collection, spoke of the importance of this record: “If he didn’t collect these clothes, they probably would not still exist, because seventies fashion, even high and exotic evening wear, went so out of fashion that I think people would have just ditched them.”
The collection is also, she notes, an archive of workmanship that has, by and large, disappeared from the world. “Even internationally, you don’t see those fabrics. Some of those companies that made those fabrics in Switzerland and Italy and France don’t exist anymore… the design quality and the technical quality is fantastic and inspirational.”
Derek Henderson, a renowned Kiwi photographer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, WSJ. Magazine and Vogue (for which he took Jacinda Ardern’s cover shot) photographed some of Eden’s dresses on location in Central Otago for the ‘High Country/High Fashion’ exhibition. He recalls the first time he saw the pieces: “I was flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe what they had. It was amazing.
“To see it in Alexandra and to realise that it was a high- country farmer who had collected this off his own back was incredible. You might have expected something like this coming out of Paris and New York, but not Central Otago.
No-one I spoke to can pin down exactly who Eden Hore was and what it was that drove him. Jane Malthus does not view his collection as evidence of an overwhelming interest in fashion, but merely as the most notable of many interests in his life, all of which he pursued with equal measure. She also suggests that, “partly the garment collecting was a way for him to stop thinking about drinking. Diversions into these other things were good for him to take his mind off it.”
Dr Nichols thinks there was more to it. “He loved the glamorous and the unexpected and the eccentric, and I think all of those things he craved in his life were qualities in him as well. Everything he collected was a projected characteristic of who he was on the inside.”
Whatever his motivation, like the designers he collected, Eden Hore was an individual who refused to be bound by stereotypes and the limitations of his background. Perhaps this is the ultimate through-line connecting the man and the clothes he loved so much. Like Kevin Berkahn, Pat Hewitt, Vinka Lucas or Eleanor Joel, Eden possessed a quality that enabled him to imagine something beyond what surrounded him and to bring it to life. Perhaps, in the words of Dr. Nichols, “it’s a desire to build a world around you that is more magical and more glamorous and more colourful than the one that you were born into.”
WORDS: NICK AINGE-ROY
PHOTOS (EXCEPT HEADER IMAGE OF EDEN HORE): DEREK HENDERSON
The author would like to thank Dr Jane Malthus, Dr Chelsea Nichols, Claire Regnault, and Derek Henderson for their contributions to this piece, and wishes to acknowledge Shane Gilchrist, Richard Worrall and Jack Yan for their previous work on this topic.