Fashion Editor Canvas Magazine, and Viva Magazine
Interview: Ben St George
Photo: Guy Coombes
It’s basically a given. If you’ve opened the fashion pages in the last few years, then you’ve seen his work. Dan Ahwa is one of the most recognisable names in New Zealand’s fashion media. A prolific stylist, Ahwa is also fashion editor for both Viva and Canvas magazines, and has been involved in many other current and former publications throughout his ten year-plus career. Friendly, humble and soft-spoken, Ahwa is in many ways the antithesis of the stereotypical industry insider, but his voice and his visual style have become synonymous with the New Zealand fashion press.
Fashion or even journalism wasn’t initially Ahwa’s chosen path. A graduate in Law and Art History, Ahwa instead found his niche along the way. “My grandparents and my parents have a great sense of style and came from generations where personal presentation was a barometer of your upbringing and your values. This has stayed with me ever since, but my first introduction to professional styling was around 2002 when I was studying in Nottingham in the U.K. To pass the time in between studies and travel, I assisted a commercial stylist there who’d worked on campaigns for department stores such as Marks & Spencer and Debenhams.” After returning home in 2004, Ahwa picked up work contributing to Pulp magazine, before being asked if he’d like to take over as their fashion editor. “They tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I’d give it a go. I quickly became interested in how these pages were art directed; how fashion was being used to create a conversation around different ideas and topics.”
Pulp was followed by a stint with industry trade magazine Apparel, which Ahwa describes as an eye-opener. “[Apparel] gave me a really good understanding of the manufacturing of fashion, the supply chain, the retail network, merchandising, legalese... all riveting stuff”. His work with both publications, as well as his ongoing freelance work eventually caught the eye of Canvas and Viva in turn, leading to editorial roles at first one and then both publications. Ahwa’s steady hand across both publications is no small feat, given the changing landscape of the fashion industry. With fashion’s online marketplace giving consumers - and journalists - a heretofore unprecedented level of choice, parsing that information for both parties is a much more involved process than ever. It’s a shift that’s fundamentally changed the nature of Ahwa’s role to something of a many-headed hydra. He’s not not just a writer or a stylist, he’s both - plus an educator, an agony aunt, a social-media shepherd. “Unless you're being digitally savvy”, says Ahwa “and knowing how you can create strong editorial content that pulls in equally strong revenue, then you're going to get left behind - particularly if you’re working at a commercial publication”.
Keeping audiences engaged has changed as well; with so much choice, consumers are turning to publications not just for inspiration but for direction. “The immediacy [of the industry] has created such a major fatigue that it was bound to change the way people create and consume fashion, and ultimately the way fashion media cover it. The information needn’t be so abstract; people like it when you’re being black and white about fashion now more than ever; it helps them make quicker decisions about clothes because the world is moving much faster”.
Today’s connected, global marketplace has had another effect on the fashion industry and the press beyond convenience in fostering constructive conversation, such as the provenance of what we consume. It’s a line of questioning that Ahwa has been able to pursue through Viva. “For the press to talk about these things we really need to be aware of what each company is putting out there and how we convey that message to our readers. Sustainability and being transparent about the supply chain is important across the board, and for fashion it’s important to continue to be as open with your customers as much as you can”. As the conversation around social responsibility has grown, so too has the corporate response. Ahwa notes that some of it is “definitely greenwashing… but at least that’s better than doing nothing right? However, brands still have a long way to go about getting to the root of the problems the fashion industry faces around ethical practices and a more environmentally friendly approach to managing a fashion business”.
Ahwa’s strength in the industry comes from his ability to engage critically with what he celebrates, and it’s clear he’s proud of what he sees coming out of New Zealand. “We're very practical and have an incredible capacity to work and get on with things. Our successful designers have all got really strong voices and we have some brilliant creative people who really embrace being from New Zealand while at the same time speaking to an audience that’s much savvier about fashion than they used to be”.