New Zealand / In Case You Missed It

NZ Fashion Week’s secret plan to bring big tobacco to the catwalk

12:50 pm on 14 August 2019

By Maria Slade for The Spinoff

Several labels turned down a proposal that would have seen a multinational cigarette manufacturer pay their fees and venue costs.

Models pose at New Zealand Fashion Week. Photo: New Zealand Fashion Week

Fashion designers were offered the opportunity to stage a show at this year's New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) virtually for free - if they accepted help from tobacco company Philip Morris.

Several designers were told that a commercial partner associated with vaping was prepared to pay their NZFW fees and venue costs at Auckland's Basement Theatre, but they would not need to be overtly connected with the brand.

The designers were contacted about the offer by Myken Stewart, NZFW brand manager and daughter of founder Pieter Stewart. In emails seen by The Spinoff Ms Stewart poses a series of cryptic questions. "Are you adverse [sic] to vaping?" she asks."Do you or any of your team vape or smoke already? Do you like the Basement Theatre?

"Would you be interested in showing on both floors of the Basement during NZFW if your off-site fee and venue was paid and you only had to do collection and models?

"I'm doing research for a brand that we are keen to introduce and I'd like to use them to help a could [sic] of super cool designers show at f week.

"You would NOT have to say you have association with them or promote them, but it would be good if you liked them... hence questions above."

One of the designers who was approached says the brand turned out to be multinational cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris International, the company behind Marlboro and Virginia Slims. "They told me who it was in the end. I did some research and went 'oh no I don't want to be associated with that, thank you very much'. Basically it's just a tobacco product."

The designer says several other labels also rejected the proposal.

"Most of the people I know who were approached about it, it's against their general beliefs of we're trying to push a cleaner image of fashion these days, and tainting it with a tobacco sponsor isn't the best thing to do."

As cigarette smoking declines the tobacco industry is in a race to convert smokers to a new generation of products. Philip Morris International announced last month that it was ramping up its investment in developing alternatives with an additional $155 million spend this year alone.

Locally the company has hit the headlines for visiting marae and sports clubs to target Māori with free trials and discounts on its new e-cigarette product. The IQOS is a hybrid between an e-cigarette and a traditional cigarette, which heats the tobacco rather than burns it, and Philip Morris claims the process reduces the harm of smoking by about 90 percent. Māori have the highest smoking rates in New Zealand, particularly Māori women, who smoke at close to three times the rate of the general population.

The multinational says it is committed to replacing cigarettes with less harmful alternatives in New Zealand as soon as possible. "While the best thing a smoker can do for their health is to quit smoking altogether, the reality is that many of New Zealand's 600,000 smokers will continue to smoke cigarettes - whether they are sold by us or others. We believe the best way to achieve a Smokefree 2025 is to encourage all those who would otherwise continue smoking to switch to smoke-free products," says Philip Morris New Zealand general manager James Williams.

But experts are far from convinced. The World Health Organization has urged smokers and governments not to trust claims from cigarette firms about their latest products, saying there's no difference between cigarettes and heated tobacco products except that the exposure is less and the smoke is not visible.

The designer who rejected the Philip Morris Fashion Week proposal says the offer was tempting. "They were going to set up an offsite show for us and for anyone who would be a part of it, I think. So free venue, setup, production, all of that expensive stuff. You'd be spending 30, 40 grand on doing something like that yourself, easily."

But most people weren't into it, the designer says. "They thought it was a really weird move for a sponsor. It's just that old school, if you've got enough money you can pay to get your way into anything and you can market your way around whatever product you have.

"That's not what we're about. We're about local community, supporting our industry, and not exploiting it."

The designer has shown at NZFW in the past but has decided not to this year.

Until relatively recently tobacco was strongly associated with the cool of fashion. The Benson & Hedges brand (which is owned by Philip Morris in some markets) sponsored the annual televised Fashion Design Awards from the 1960s until tobacco sponsorship was banned in New Zealand in the 1990s.

It would appear the Philip Morris-supported NZFW shows did not go ahead. "I''ve spoken with my colleagues and looked into it for you, and Philip Morris are not sponsors of NZ Fashion Week 2019," Philip Morris manager of communications Peata Melbourne said in a statement.

Myken Stewart did not respond to The Spinoff's enquiries. New Zealand Fashion Week runs from August 26 to September 1.

- This article was first published on Spinoff