Waimumu artist’s heartfelt creation triumphs

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Waimumu artist Debbie Smith won the Apparel Magazine open recycled award at the MLT Hokonui Fashion and Design Awards. Her outfit, called You Were Our Hardest Goodbye, was dedicated to 13-year-old Jonty Carran, a member of the Southland under 48kg rugby team, who died in his sleep in 2016. Sandy Eggleston reports.

She started out to create a garment to celebrate the short life of a young rugby player, but ended up finding peace about her own mother’s premature death.

Waimumu artist Debbie Smith won the Apparel Magazine open recycled award at the MLT Hokonui Fashion and Design Awards.

Her design, You Were Our Hardest Goodbye, was dedicated to Southland under 48kg rugby team player Jonty Carran (13), who died in his sleep in 2016.

Mrs Smith said when her husband, Jason, coached the Southland under 48kg team, the two families became good friends.

“When we found out about Jonty it was just devastating,” Mrs Smith said.

She was always very impressed with the way Jonty’s mother, Sue, and father, Graeme, of Otautau, wanted to keep their son’s memory alive.

Mrs Carran had a social networking site where she shared memories about Jonty and tips for working through grief.

The site proved inspiring to Mrs Smith and she asked for permission to make a garment for the awards as a memorial.

“It’s not about the judging – it was about telling the story for the family and keeping a memory alive.”

Various posts on the site were incorporated into the design of the garment including a picture of a broken heart that had been stitched up.

“It said “I’ve tried to stitch it back together but it still feels broken” and that is what I used on the front of the outfit.”

On the back of the train Mrs Smith hand-wrote a mother-and-son poem.

She used parts of two wedding dresses and a ball gown in the construction of the dress.

A headpiece was made of bamboo sticks, chopsticks and jewellery.

It had taken her a year to make the garment and she had regularly run her ideas past her friends.

“I surround myself with artistic people [which] in turn helps feed and drive my passion.”

Jonty’s cousin Hope Imlach (17) modelled the outfit during the awards.

Working on the garment had helped Mrs Smith deal with the grief of her own mother dying.

She was aged 8 at the time and no-one talked about the death.

“You get told she’s gone and then you don’t speak her name anymore.

“You go to your room and cry – grief was something that you hid.”

Hearing Mrs Carran talk about Jonty was very freeing for Mrs Smith.

“It was so emotional for me to work with the grief with Sue.

“It was a healing thing for me.

“I was thinking I was helping the Carran family but it helped me as much.”

Nearing the time when the outfit needed to be submitted for judging, Mrs Smith’s grandmother, Ruth Waddell, became ill.

“I dropped the outfit off on the Wednesday and then I sat with her.

“Granny passed away early hours on the Saturday morning.”

It was an emotional moment when the garment was announced the winner.

“To have it win was pretty special.”