Girl you need to know: Dunedin based fashion designer Lillian Cotter

17 April 2018
By Fashion Quarterly

Lillian Cotter is a recent fashion design graduate who has been setting up a series of pop-up stores around Dunedin.

Teaming up with friends to showcase their own fashion designs, along with some art by local designers, the pop-ups are the first step for this budding young designer.

Miss FQ intern Molly Codyre caught up with her to ask a few questions about her designs, why she chose a pop-up shop, and find out more about the fashion industry in Dunedin.

Miss FQ: Tell us about yourself. What’s your story? What inspired you to study fashion?
Well, I am from the little town of Wanaka. I spent the majority of my young years there, occasionally moving all over the show as my Dad’s work had a lot of travel involved. I had a very outdoorsy upbringing being from Wanaka so my early years were never very design let alone fashion-related. Although my mother being an artist would have probably triggered some creative flow from a young age.

I ended up coming to Dunedin for school when my Mum moved up, but after a few years of it found myself often heading back to Wanaka at any given opportunity, which resulted in me returning back home for my final last two years of school. At this stage I didn’t really enjoy school at all; I found it pretty boring and the idea of studying was at the bottom of my priority list. I don’t know if this was just a sassy teenage phase but I remember feeling very strongly about this. With only about a month or two before tertiary study was starting I remember being at a friend’s…  it was about 1am and we were starting to get rather carried away, when I somehow ended up having a very earnest conversation with her father about life direction. I remember him pulling out some garments that she had made and being rather impressed and it was that evening that put the idea in my head.

With a month or less until tertiary started I found myself somehow pulling a portfolio together and driving myself down to Dunedin for an interview with Margo, the head of the fashion school. Next thing I was packing up my car and moving to Dunedin with the next three years lined up. I can’t really answer why I decided to; I think the idea of physically being involved in something and the practical side of it made me very curious – it was never really the trend or social media or brand side that I had any interest in. It was just after that conversation with my friend’s dad, I had this huge curiosity about making and designing and doing it all yourself that I needed some closure on.

Tell us a bit about the coact pop-up stores, what’s the story there? What inspired you to set up the pop-up shops?
The idea of the coact came into the picture during my second  year of study. A good friend was down from Wellington on her uni holidays and whenever we get together we seem to get a bit carried away on these big extravagant ideas about design and collaboration and business and sustainability and what not. We were on one of these tangents and I think we had been to some gallery openings around town and were trying to think of a way we could expose more of this, while also exposing what we had been producing through our own study, and do this in an interactive way. I had also just been accepted to study in Milan for 6 months and my student overdraft wasn’t looking too flash so we came up with the idea of a collaborative store space, that allowed us to sell garments and also hang, sell and expose local work. To be honest, the first shop was an absolute nightmare. We found a store space about ten days before Grace was heading back to Wellington so had to put everything together in about a week. We ordered fabric, a bunch of tees and started putting out the feelers to gather local art. With minimal sleep and an excessive amount of trial and error, I have no idea how, but we managed to open the first coact in July of 2016. Grace and I often get into hysterics about how ridiculous that week was. The store ended up turning out pretty beautifully, although our lack of stock left us almost sold out after the first day. We found ourselves having another sleepless night trying to restock over the 12 hours we were closed overnight.

What inspired you to take coact from its initial year and continue setting it up annually?
I think the first year was my favourite, we learnt a lot but we also really communicated exactly what we wanted and were able to be very interactive with people passing through the store. Which is exactly what we wanted – firsthand exposure. I think we often felt that we don’t get the opportunity to showcase what we’re studying or the hours that go into it, so we found the stores were a great and honest outlet to do this.

From there, we have done the coact yearly. Balancing it on top of study can be challenging, especially when time management is poor, and prioritising afternoon bike rides to the supermarket over making the 80 garments we need to make in a week isn’t our strongest attribute. But for the more recent stores we have had more designers on board which is been great. Paige Jansen, who I studied with, has been involved since the second year and has brought a great diversity and work ethic to the shop! As well as Dylan Mutchon-Peat, Phoebe Ryder and Eden Sloss.

What do you find the most challenging part of running your own store?
It’s always going to have its challenges working in a collaborative situation. I think we are still at the fun stage of it all, nothing has become too serious, although in saying that, when I get stressed I get pretty serious haha. We all work very closely when we do it, so this leaves minimal room for miscommunication. I do find it very uncomfortable to be involved in all aspects of the process, mainly relating to creating some of the clothing and then being in the store and interacting with people who potentially might like something I’ve created – it’s hard not to take it personally, although this is something I think I need to get over!

Do you guys eventually want to make coact a permanent store?
I think the beauty of the coact is the spontaneity and inconsistency of it, so I don’t think it will ever become permanent. It has lead onto some other ideas and potentially some permanent platforms, that may coincide with some travel I have coming up which is exciting.

Where do you draw your main inspiration for your designs from?
One thing I have realised, reflecting on my studies, my graduate project, and also my process of why I decided to study and what I enjoyed about it, is that the majority of my inspiration comes from the process of making. Being a kinaesthetic learner, it isn’t until I am physically involved in what I am making, that I start to get inspired. It took me my whole degree to figure this out, spending hours reading and researching and just being bored to be honest. It isn’t until I start drawing, or sewing or painting or even just physically doing anything, seeing how something might move or interact, I find more inspiring than anything I have ever found online or in a book.  Nothing is that inspiring or exciting until it’s actually happening… it’s one thing writing about something happening, but it’s another when you’re actually doing it.

Do you have a favourite item you’ve ever made?
I did really enjoy getting into knitwear in my final year of study. I had a bunch of panels knitted up for me at a factory, which I was planning to put together as an amazing oversized cardigan style coat. What I envisioned was rather different to reality but ended up being a pretty neat big jersey.

Do you have any muses/favourite designers? If so, who are they?
Oh, Yohji Yamamoto – if you haven’t heard of him you should definitely look him up. An incredible Japanese designer. I don’t think there is a single aspect to him I don’t find intriguing. His philosophy behind his designs are very inspiring and I have a huge respect for his work. Generally, many aspects of the Japanese culture has been some form of muse for me, philosophies such as Wabi-Sabi have been a huge influence on my process and outlook on design and everything really.

What is your favourite part of the fashion scene in Dunedin?
Dunedin has a very unique scene, although I am a relative freshie to this. But I like the realness of it, there are so many talented people that create because they just purely want to, not to impress, or to make money, or for social media. There doesn’t feel as though there is a huge hierarchy. I also think for me personally, the community around the Otago Polytechnic has been above and beyond; the support and personal interest from our lecturers has been amazing and opened us up to see that people and getting involved in the industry is achievable.

Do you have a five year plan?
I struggle to plan my life a week in advance to be honest. But I am heading overseas in less than a week, for work that is rather unrelated to fashion. I am working on something that will hopefully allow me to continue to design, create and sell while traveling. Right now, the biggest thing for me is trying to keep innovative and open to different ideas and ways of working. The more I see of the industry the more strongly I see the need for sustainable practices and ethical production methods. I intend to continue working in design and fashion projects with a focus on these beliefs.

What’s your favourite part about what you do?
I have loved the freedom of creativity we have had with the coact. I find it very natural to design with no restrictions. So working with natural pace and process makes the outcomes far more real and resolved. Next, I am hoping to be able to spend more time into the research side or fabric development, outsourcing to more ethical and sustainable resources.

Interview: Molly Codyre
Photos: Instagram

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