Fashion designer Kate Sylvester on marriage and motherhood

Kate Sylvester is a fashion designer best known for her namesake label. The 55-year-old opens up about her special relationship with her father, her ‘wild’ teen years, and why she will never get married.

Kate’s father passed away in 2019: “I still have conversations with him,” she says. “I very much feel his presence.”

I grew up in Auckland where my father, Ron, was a lecturer at teacher’s college, training teachers. He had incredible patience and interest in everybody around him. He had an amazing way of engaging his children in learning, and I imagine he did the same for his students. He rarely got angry, and if he did his voice got steely and steady and you knew you’d done something bad.

Dad was passionate about tramping and mountain climbing. We did that as a family, and I enjoy doing it to this day. He died just before Christmas in 2019. I recently did a three-day tramp alone with him by my side. We chatted the whole time. I still have conversations with him. I very much feel his presence.

I have a brother and two sisters. Dad taught us to work together as siblings, to listen to one another, and to come to an agreement and move forward if there were arguments. In a way, while his death was tragic for us, it’s been positive as a family because we have become even closer; we talk every day on WhatsApp, checking in on one another. Our mother, Toni, has dementia now and requires care. We divide that responsibility between us.


My brother, Todd, is five years older than me; he is the eldest sibling. Todd was academic and sporty and quite bemused by his crazy sisters. Todd took on the older brother role in a nice way. I remember going through a rebellious stage in my teens and coming home with a mohawk. Mum couldn’t talk to me and Dad was glowering. They waited for Todd to come home and asked him what he thought. He said, “Oh, it’s cool – she looks like one of the Stray Cats.” I was like, “Thank you, Todd, for saving me.”

Dad was supportive of my decision to study fashion, but deep down wished I had gone to university. I was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Massey University [in New Zealand] in 2011. He was very proud that he finally got a photo of me in my graduation gown.

I had a few rag-tag boyfriends in my teens, but nothing serious. I moved from Auckland to Wellington to study fashion and had one boyfriend who was intriguing because he was in a gangster family. A friend was having a party and I thought, “There’s no way I can bring him. I have to dump him.” And I did.

That night I met Wayne Conway and fell in love immediately. It was the late ’80s, I was 20, and I spotted him across the room and saw my future in that moment. We spent the night dancing to an album I’d brought to the party. It was by Trini Lopez and it belonged to my maternal pop, who died young. I never met him, but I inherited this record.

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