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New Zealand’s art deco time warp
The Napier, New Zealand beach and townsite.
Not long after I arrived in Napier, New Zealand, for the city’s annual Art Deco Weekend, I traded in my modern rental car for a chauffeured retro ride: a shiny black 1939 Packard with a roomy spring-loaded back seat. My driver, local Teri Morales Probert, dressed all gangster cool in a black button-down, suspenders, striped slacks, wingtips and a fedora, gave me my first spin around town — and back in time.
“Napier was the first place in New Zealand to get neon lights,” she explained as we drove past pastel-coloured theatres, buildings and houses decorated with iconic art deco and art nouveau ziggurat, sunburst and Egyptian column designs. The motifs here often incorporate delicate swirling Maori symbols — something you won’t see in Miami’s Art Deco District.
Most of the seaside town, which is tucked in Hawke’s Bay on the eastern shore of the country’s North Island, was rebuilt in the aftermath of a 1931 earthquake and subsequent fire that decimated the area. Almost all the reconstruction happened during the height of art deco’s popularity, and many of the buildings have been preserved and restored, making this one of the world’s most authentic 1930s-era destinations.
This is why, for one summer weekend each February, the area’s population swells by 40,000 as visitors from around the world come — with suitcases packed full of vintage fashions and picnic gear — to immerse themselves in the past.
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By Friday night, retro-clad revellers of all ages have overtaken the usually sleepy town, all set to enjoy themed picnics, dinners and dances and take in a vintage-car parade and an air show. While the predominant era of dress seen on the streets is from the ’20s and ’30s, the beauty of the weekend is that pretty much anything retro goes.
I spotted men and women wearing everything from 1890s golf attire, complete with knickerbockers (and carrying vintage clubs), to immaculately styled ’50s dresses and updos. Some people go full out, while others, like me, sport just enough accessories (a straw cloche by day and a feathered headband and pearls by night) to feel part of the action.
All the dressing up fosters a unique camaraderie and makes for an easy entry point to talk to almost anyone. One evening, as I was hanging out at the Masonic Hotel bar — its restored art deco details and location along the seaside boardwalk make it the unofficial centre of the festivities — I struck up a conversation with John Hawkins, who came from Canterbury, on the South Island, with a group of family and friends. He invited me across the street to check out the giant antique Burrell “showman’s” steam engine that he had shipped here for the event (along with one tonne of coal needed to run it for the weekend).
In its day, the engine propelled carnival rides and was decorated accordingly, with brightly painted insets and raised details. It was just one of several vintage engines on display — along with more than 400 antique automobiles parked around town (an event record). Only pre-1946 vehicles deemed appropriate by the local Art Deco Trust receive permission to enter the downtown zone during the weekend. But the restrictions add to the atmosphere; there are no hybrid-electric vehicles in sight as people spontaneously begin to dance the Charleston in the streets.
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The weekend’s height of planning and personal effort has to be the Gatsby picnic. The most ambitious picnickers set up movie-set-worthy displays (complete with period costumes) — and they don’t touch their tea sandwiches and Lamington cakes until the judging is complete.
The set-ups at the top sites are extravagant and eclectic — from a full Titanic theme with a decked-out ship’s captain drinking from a silver tea service to a First World War Red Cross tent where uniformed nurses and doctors “diagnose” onlookers and offer candy “prescriptions.”
The most fashionable display I spotted had to be one called “1002nd Night.” It was an homage to a 1911 Persian-inspired party hosted by Paul Poiret — who, according to the handwritten signage, was “a fabulous fashion designer from the early 1900s [who] launched his own ranges with outrageous parties.” A male picnicker here was dressed as Poiret as the shah of Persia, while the women wore Poiret-inspired dresses, and everyone sat at a table staged with hookahs and tea sets.
Not having arrived with my very own anchor and all the other makings of a Titanic-themed picnic spread, my own “aha” moment of personal commitment to the weekend was subtler.
At dinner one night, where everyone was dressed up in their flapper finest, I started chatting with Nerida Cortese, a dancer who’d been on New Zealand’s Dancing With the Stars, who would be leading a Charleston dance-off the following day. She explained how she mixed the soundtrack (original Charleston tunes paired with will.i.am’s “Bang Bang” from The Great Gatsby movie) and set the music to loop with increasing speed to match the (theoretically) improving skill levels of the crowd.
“Let me show you,” she said, as she turned the music on and encouraged everyone at the table to get up and join her. I was a bit hesitant at first, but as she taught us the series of stop kicks, foot lifts, jazz hands and knee crosses (my favourite move) — and as the routine got faster and faster and we all laughed harder and harder — I completely lost myself in the moment. With a few quickstep moves, I discovered my own retro rhythm.