Recently Crane Brothers had the honour of creating some very special garments for a very special man. (Sir) Robert Gillies or Bom, as he is known to his mates, is 97 years young and is the last remaining member of the Maori Battalion. He has (reluctantly) been made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit having already turned it down once but says; "There are many soldiers who did more and who have never been recognised” so he accepted “on behalf of all the boys, all my mates who served in the Māori Battalion”.
I spent a few hours with Bom in the store and at his home sharing a cup of tea and hearing his story. He's a private man, so I honour that, he would say that his story is unremarkable. There are stories of so many young men enlisting at that time and leaving their homes to do their duty. He was just another boy who lied about his age and enlisted at the age of 17 but as a member of the infamous Expeditionary Force he fought from North Africa through Italy including Monte Cassino; he also has an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and was appointed a Cavaliere (Knight).
It’s an amazing tale told by a very humble man. Born and raised on the East Coast he returned to New Zealand at the end of the war, moved around a bit, eventually married and settled in Rotorua where he built his own house in the 1960’s. He still lives in it today. It’s a story that sums up the ANZAC spirit for me - a tale of tough young men doing their duty and never forgetting their mates, of always honouring the past and reminding current generations of what a senseless waste war is.
Our brief was to remake Bom’s thrift shop blazer that had carried his medals and badge for many years to countless marae visits, tangi and memorials. It needed a bit of a joosh ahead of his visit to Parliament next month to be knighted. We also made him a new shirt, trousers as well as an overcoat.
One of the challenges was recreating his Bullion blazer badge. Particularly prized for the way light plays and reflects on it, goldwork is the ancient art of embroidery using metal bullions. Each piece of bullion is placed and stitched individually by master embroiderers with details added using coloured thread. Goldwork was especially popular throughout mediaeval Europe on religious vestments to inspire devotion and awe, as part of an embellishment style called Opus Anglicanum.
Finding people who could do such intricate hand work became a global search with me digging deep into my contact book. In the end I worked directly with London based embroiderers Hand & Lock. They are the pre-eminent goldwork specialists having used the technique since 1767. The company uses many of the same techniques today that they did in the 18th century; using the fine bullion wires to bring life to emblems, logos, cyphers and more. In recent years their expertise has been called upon by the British Royal Family, the British military and the likes of Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. Bom’s met the Queen so I knew we had found the right guys for the job.
The entire badge was expertly recreated and we also added a couple of small secret embellishments including embroidering his Regiment number 809134 into the collar melton on the coat. Everything was completed by our talented team here in our Auckland workroom.
Bom was really happy, he reckoned “I’m on to it”. I was happy too as we sat and chatted about everything and nothing. I look forward to seeing him accept his award and uncomfortably deal with the media and all that attention. He’ll be glad to get home and put his medals back in the drawer, get back into his shorts, chop some firewood and get on with it.
See the coverage on 1News where Bom receives his knighthood.